You are at a conference with ~150 experts in your sub-discipline from all around the world. The purpose of the conference is to advance our understanding by fostering in depth group discussions after provocative talks. This is the kind of conference where careers are made through well-delivered talks and insightful contributions to the discussion. While hearing academics may relish the opportunity to participate in such a conference, for us deaf/HoH academic these conferences are obstacles to our success.
For these small conferences you are likely the only person who needs accommodation for deafness and because the conference is small they are likely not prepared to accommodate your needs. This means that you may spend a lot of time and effort figuring out accommodations that will work for you. If you have a personal FM system, you can put it at the podium, but you will miss the questions. If you sit up front to hear the speaker, you will need to turn around to speech-read the discussion contributors. If you are able to have CART (real time captioning) or interpreters, they might quickly become lost in the technical language and variety of accents at an international conference of specialists. If you bring your own sign languages interpreters who are familiar with your expertise, you can reduce this problem; but interpreter lag can impede participating in fast-paced discussions. No matter what strategies you use, let’s face it, you are working twice as hard just to understand the material as your hearing neighbor and you aren’t going to get 100% of the information.
A high stakes conference with non-ideal lecture and discussion format can be a major career challenge for deaf/HoH academics!
You want people at specialty conferences to know that you know your stuff and have good ideas. If you can’t do this by contributing to the group discussion at these high stakes conferences, can you be successful in your field? I think so and I will share some the approaches that have worked for me (full professor, moderate-profound loss, good speech reading skills).
I almost never speak up in the discussions. The high probability of me asking a question that everyone knows the answer to because they heard the issue discussed seems too risky. While I admire folks who can say “Maybe this was explained and I didn’t catch it, but (insert question)” I haven’t been able to do this at high-stakes conferences. My fear is that my colleagues will think that I wasn’t paying attention and dozed off when the topic was discussed. The truth is that even using 120% of my ‘attention’, I’m going to miss a lot of the discussion – but hearing people don’t often understand that so they may presume I was lazily dozing off.
The good news is that a lot of the networking at these conferences happens outside of the auditorium. We deaf/HoH can get our networking game going during meals, poster sessions, the food/beverage line, walking around the venue etc. Sometimes, I seek people out for research conversations with pre-planned questions to help launch the discussion. These informal settings are not without challenges (subjects of other blog posts!) but you have more control over these settings. For example, you can suggest moving a small group discussion outside of the noisy poster hall, your requests for clarification are more acceptable in small groups and you may have an opportunity to educate folks on the challenges of your deafness. While, your hearing peers will make clever comments in the formal group discussion and immediately earn the admiration of the big-shots, you can capture their attention through multiple small or one-on-one thoughtful discussions. It takes a bit longer this way, for sure. What I’ve found is that those one-on-one discussions provide rich foundation for long-standing collaborations and friendships. For me, this has been the most rewarding aspect of high-stakes conferences.
Note: This blog was drafted at a high-stakes Gordon conference on Rock Deformation during a talk that was utterly indecipherable to me. Writing this, instead of struggling with the talk, was my way of saving my energy for coffee break discussions where my game will be on. I got this!