deaf/HoH experiences

Can everybody hear me? Experiences as an hearing impaired faculty member

AI image of a microphone in the foreground with blurry audience in the background.

Reprinted from Disabled Faculty and Staff: Intersecting Identities Volume 2 (2023) with permission from the Association on Higher Education And Disability, AHEAD, Huntersville, NC, USA.

One day, a student came up to me after class. “Dr. Hoffman,” she began, “Excuse me for asking, but I am wondering if you have trouble hearing us in class? I am studying audiology and I’ve been noticing things. …

You’re right, “I said, “I do have difficulty sometimes. ...”

It was the first time I had ever admitted to anyone, in my role as a professor, that I couldn’t hear well. Since graduate school I’d known I had a moderately severe midfrequency hearing loss— meaning that my difficulty is primarily with understanding speech. Because hearing loss is one of those invisible disabilities that shapes everyday communica-tion and interaction most profoundly yet without being immediately recognized, people can equate it with cognitive impairment. To me, it was a threat, something that didn’t mesh well with my image of being a smart professor. I’d convinced myself I was managing OK, but there was mounting evidence I was not. 

Not hearing well, I came to realize, not only affected my classroom teaching but also my ability to engage with others. I’d always felt like the outsider in many social and professional encounters, where it was a struggle to keep up with the conversation. My anxieties were high: I always wondered, do my colleagues think I’m arrogant because I don’t participate? Does failing to join in the small talk before meetings make me come across as unfriendly—or weird? When you’re the only one in the room who hasn’t said a word during the whole meeting, people notice. I was suffering in silence. 

The other option, of course, and the one I finally pursued, was that of “coming out” as a person with hearing loss. I finally admitted I needed help and went to get fitted with hearing aids. Despite the high cost and years of adjustments, though, they have never quite been adequate enough to allow me to hear normally. Over time, I also realized that “coming out” as a hearing-impaired person is socially complex. While one can admit to oneself that one has a hearing loss, when and where that disability is revealed or brought out into the open with others demands constant attention and negotiation. When someone’s speech is less than adequate for me, should I tell them to speak up? And even after I tell them, when they lapse back into their normal mode, should I keep interrupting the flow of conversation to remind them? Or should I always announce at the very beginning of any interaction that I have trouble hearing? Or should I wait, hoping that I don’t need to interrupt and, if so, how long should I wait? How can I do so gracefully? How much misunderstanding will I be able to get by with, without look-ing truly stupid? Each situation has its own social complexity, its own rules—or lack thereof. 

In professional meetings, these problems are exacerbated. Do I an-nounce to everyone at the beginning that I can’t hear well, or do I just interrupt others or ask them to repeat? How many requests to repeat are too many? Then there are the other interferences of which people are often unaware: they hold paper or hands in front of their faces, or they turn away while talking. Their articulation is poor or they drop their final words. But sometimes, with a clear speaker, I am fine. My disability emerges based on the situation. And because it’s contextual, “owning” it as an integral part of my social identity is not a once-and-done thing. 

Further, owning an identity is also dependent on having an identity community to belong to. This is problematic for those of us with mod-erately severe hearing loss, because there is no community for those who are not Deaf/deaf. Not signing excludes us. Despite moving toward open acknowledgement of my difficulties, when necessary (that is, when they are likely to be noticed or have a severe impact on commu-nication—such as in the classroom), I still don’t define my identity in terms of this disability because it emerges relative to the settings and persons with whom I interact and because I don’t have a community with which I identify.

An invisible disability such as hearing loss that affects how someone interacts with others can lead to attributions of racism in cross-cultural and cross-racial interactions. This is because racism is an available lens for interpreting behavior and interactions in our contemporary society—it is available to all of us as a frame for understanding our daily experiences in unequal and privileged social spaces. Thus, any kind of interaction that does not follow normative scripts—due to unseen or unrecognized disability, for example—can be interpreted through that lens. When my son was young, I enrolled him in a number of different day cares and preschools. Due to my hearing loss, whenever I dropped him off in the mornings, I would leave immediately, unlike all the other mothers who would enter the classroom and spend time chatting with the teachers. At one of the schools, there were both Black and white teachers. One day I received a phone call asking me to come in to meet with the staff. All of the teachers interpreted my failure to talk with them before class as racism against the Black teachers. I apologized and explained that I had hearing loss, and that it was because of this disability that I didn’t enter the classroom and spend time chatting. As a result of this experience and many others, I am always aware that not hearing can, in the supercharged racial atmosphere of our contemporary society, be misinterpreted as racial prejudice.


Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts are widely supported across many universities, but they are largely focused on the experiences of students, not faculty. We are so concerned with creating a climate of in-clusion for students that we’ve neglected to create climates of inclusion for faculty. The conduct of professional meetings is a case in point. Far too often, speakers begin by asking, “Can everybody hear me?” or “Can you hear me in the back of the room?” They don’t want to go to the trouble (or experience the inconvenience) of using the mic. Even when people speak up and say, “No, we can’t hear you,” the speaker will proceed to talk while holding the mic too far away from their mouth, or waving it around like a pointer. Our DEI office had a faculty engagement and education program that included podcasts and other audiovisuals that were not closed-captioned. I had to contact the office to ask if they could be, or, if not, could alternate materials be substituted, but to no avail. Every time there are audiovisual components in meetings, I’ve learned to ask the meeting moderator to please ask speakers to use the mic and to provide closed-captioning for audiovisuals. Unless I am working with close colleagues who are aware of my disability, Zoom meetings nearly always start by my asking if hosts could please turn on captioning. People are not engaging in intentional exclusion, it’s just that they are unaware; hearing is one of those things that is most im-pactful on making people feel included, yet hearing disability is one of those things most likely to be ignored. This is unacceptable, however, in a higher education environment, especially in the context of DEI efforts. 

When I began to seek accommodations for my teaching in the class-room, our university disabilities office was very helpful, but the technol-ogies were less than ideal. I started with a large, ball-shaped machine that fed sound to a remote captioner, who then fed the transcript onto my laptop. Besides demanding way too much technical setup, I found myself constantly staring at my laptop instead of making eye contact with students. Then there was the “bouncing mic”—a large foam ball that students could toss across the room to whomever wanted to speak. When their aim was off, the ball hit people and knocked over water bottles. Then there were the mics hanging from the ceiling in my hearing loop–enabled room, but they only worked in some areas, so students had to crowd uncomfortably together. Then there was the standard mic that could be passed around the room. That worked best—if students held it up close enough (which they often didn’t). I was in luck in faculty meetings if they were held in the limited number of hearing loop–enabled rooms; but then again, the loop didn’t help at all when people didn’t use the mics, which was often the case. 

Higher education DEI efforts need to place greater focus on educating faculty about invisible disabilities such as hearing loss, along with awareness that moderate forms of loss are not always apparent but are still impactful. I am fairly certain my hearing loss has affected my career in profound ways. When I came up for tenure—which, thank-fully, I earned, I clearly remember sitting in the dean’s office to receive committee feedback. I was told that many on the committee didn’t even know who I was. While I am close to a few faculty in my program area who have been very supportive, most faculty don’t know me well. It took years for me to be considered for committee appointments, and this relative marginalization has continued to this day. People do not recognize the struggles involved on a daily basis for those of us with hearing loss, and the extent to which these shape our capacities to participate on equal footing with our colleagues. 

The time has long passed that we should still have presenters who ask, “Can everyone hear me?” Simple technologies such as closed-captioning need to be made standard, not the exception. And finally, the intersection of hearing disability with race, culture, and other forms of difference needs to be considered and addressed carefully. I could never find the venue in which to bring these to the attention of our faculty, because the intricacies of hearing loss are never up for consideration—or, perhaps, are the social impacts of other forms of disability. We have yet to consider the ways our culture shapes the meanings and impacts of disabilities, despite the ways in which DEI supposedly calls for awareness and action. 

White woman wearing glasses and dark plaid shirt smiles with blurred background

Diane M. Hoffman, PhD (she/her/hers) is a tenured associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Education. She is a U.S. national, white, heterosexual woman who is hearing-impaired. She completed her doctorate at Stanford University in education, with a minor in anthropology. She is an anthropologist of education whose research focuses on the cultural foundations of education and its relationship to self and identity under conditions of cultural and social diversity. Hoffman has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the US, Korea, and Japan and has been studying informal learning among marginalized children in Haiti for the past 15 years.

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