All posts by The Mind Hears

About The Mind Hears

A blog by and for deaf and hard of hearing academics

Making an impact at high-stakes conferences

meeting presentation

-Michele

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!

What’s In a Name?

—Ana

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

― William ShakespeareRomeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s quote is overused, but the temptation to use it for today’s blog topic was irresistible. I would like to tackle the topic of labels—specifically the question of what label we, individuals who have varying degrees of hearing loss, use to describe our deafness within our professional academic environment.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that around 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss (this is a bit over 5% of the population).1They define “disabling hearing loss” as hearing loss greater than 40 decibels (dB) in the better-hearing ear in adults, and greater than 30 dB in the better-hearing ear in children. The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), reports approximately 48 million people in the United State (almost 20% of the population) with some degree of hearing loss.2Because the HLAA estimate includes individuals with slight to severe levels of hearing difficulty (16-90 dB) as well as those with profound hearing loss (>90 dB), their percentage estimate for the U.S. is greater than the WHO’s worldwide percentage estimate. Nevertheless, the numbers help with an important point. Hearing loss is a widespread, worldwide condition; however, how different countries address issues concerning deaf/HoH individuals can vary widely. When it comes to labels, I can only speak to my experiences of living in Colombia and the U.S. I’d like to recount this limited experience and how it has shaped my views, but I really hope our international colleagues will chime in with information that can increase our awareness of how deaf/HoH labels are viewed or used worldwide.

In the U.S., the currently prevalent and most accepted terms seem to be deaf, Deaf, and hard of hearing (see, for example, recommendations from the National Association for the Deaf).3Capitalizing the ‘D’ in Deaf holds special meaning in encompassing a group of deaf people that share a language (ASL) and a culture, and advocacy by Deaf people has contributed enormously to a nuanced understanding of how those in the deaf/HoH communities identify themselves.

In Colombia, the word “sordo” (Spanish for deaf) is the only label I know for people with hearing loss. However, “sordo” often conjures the image of a person who communicates exclusively by signed language (note, however, that Colombia did not officially recognize Colombian sign language until 1997).4Moreover, a 1996 law created to define the rights of deaf people in Colombia defines “sordo” as a person who presents a hearing loss of more than 90 dB that impedes acquisition and utilization of spoken language in adequate form.4 As an individual who relies primarily on hearing aids for communication, I have often felt at a loss in Colombia for words to describe myself, since “sordo” seems to have such a narrow definition. As a country, Colombia has not undertaken a comprehensive discussion about the best language to use when characterizing people with disabilities, to the extent that I know of no widespread recognized term for myself. Thus, for me, the abundance of labels to choose from in the U.S., even if each comes with some historical baggage, has always felt like a relief.

Perhaps this partly explains why I often reach for a term to describe myself that has fallen out of favor among many: “hearing impaired.” My comfort with this term may also stem from my scientific background. It feels like a useful description that (most of the time) explains relatively accurately that I have difficulty hearing, but will communicate through oral means (with all its attendant problems). Calling myself hearing impaired seems to me equivalent to saying that I am very nearsighted (and thus the shape of my eye causes images to be focused in front of my retina), or that I have a skin discoloration caused by a vascular anomaly (i.e. a port-wine stain) on my left hand. I’m not bothered by the term’s focus on something about me being “wrong.” Maybe because I’m a biologist I feel very aware that my sensorineural hearing loss is due to damage to my tiny cochlear hair cells, so that they cannot accurately transmit sound vibrations to my auditory nerve for my brain to interpret. “Damaged cells” fits comfortably within my definition of impairment.

Do I worry that the label I use will be taken by others to define me? The thing is, I do feel that my hearing loss contributes to who I am. Being Colombian also contributes to who I am, as does being an evolutionary biologist, being nearsighted, and being an introvert (which is probably due to some aspect of brain chemistry somewhere). The color of my skin, the color of my hair, my physical dexterity (or lack thereof) all contribute to who I am. None of these traits explains everything about me, but I am fairly certain that they, and others I do not list, have all shaped the person I am today. I therefore find it hard to get riled up about being referred to as hearing impaired or a hard of hearing person.

So what label to use? My opinion is that is that your label should be the one that you prefer. A label should feel accurate, non stigmatizing, non belittling, and comfortable. But the flip side to that is that nobody, not even our fellow deaf/HoH academics, can possibly guess what we prefer. The onus is thus on each of us to introduce ourselves, and let our colleagues know how we identify. And the onus is also on each of us to be kind and patient when our colleagues use something other than our label of preference.

What do you think? Is there an optimal way to refer to all deaf/HoH people in our community? An optimal way to introduce ourselves to our academic colleagues and students?

To our academic colleagues outside the United States: we need to hear from you to help us achieve an expanded understanding of the deaf/HoH experience around the world. How do you most often refer to yourself to others? Are certain labels regarded negatively?

 

1http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/deafness-and-hearing-loss

2https://www.healthyhearing.com/report/52814-Hearing-loss-statistics-at-a-glance

3https://www.nad.org/resources/american-sign-language/community-and-culture-frequently-asked-questions/

4Zambrano-Valdivieso, O; Almeida-Salinas, O; Suárez-Uribe, E; Restrepo-Pineda, J. (2017). La enseñanza de la lengua de señas colombiana como estrategia pedagógica para la inclusión educative—Estudio de caso. Revista Inclusión & Desarrollo, 5 (1), 37-48.

How do you introduce your deafness to your class?

– Michele

The first class meeting of every semester includes imparting a vast amount of different kinds of information. Professors endeavor to make their brief introduction to the course content engaging and relevant, while also outlining expectations of the students and establishing course ground rules. Covering all this within 50 minutes is exhausting for everyone. If we are deaf/HoH and our students are hearing, at what point during that first course meeting do we mention our deafness? How do we explain that our deafness might affect students’ experience since we may teach our courses differently than hearing instructors do?

One strategy is not to mention our deafness and hope it doesn’t come up. I’ve tried that. Or you have every intention of telling them, but in the kerfuffle of sorting out all the course logistics on that first day, you forget. I’ve done that, too. Of course, you can always bring up your deafness later in the semester, but I’ve found that the first class is the easiest time to do so. The course instruction seems to go more smoothly when students know early on that I might not always hear them and they understand why I speak and behave the way that I do.

So after I introduce my name and my background that establishes my expertise in the course content, I have a standard spiel that seems to work for both large and small classes. I say:

I’m part deaf, so I wear hearing aids and depend on speech reading. What this means is that I may ask you to repeat your question/comment. That doesn’t at all mean you asked a bad question, it just means I didn’t catch it. This also means that if you say something while I’m facing away from you, I may not respond no matter how brilliant the comment/question. You can help me out by waving your hand to catch my attention before you speak. You should expect that I may walk right up to you when I ask you to repeat a question/comment because I really want to hear what you have to say. You can also expect that I will never talk while writing on the board because for me, effective communication involves facing each other.

Maybe this presents the students with a lot of new ideas early in the class. Maybe they want their money back after learning their professor has broken ears. Maybe, on the other hand, this introduction reminds them that professors are human. Maybe my approach to establishing a deaf-friendly classroom will show them that there is no single or proper way to run a classroom or to learn.

How do you introduce yourself to your class on the first day?

 

Why the world needs another blog

— Ana and Michele

We are two deaf/HoH tenured scientists at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and this summer we decided we needed to create a blog.

For Ana it was the cumulative frustration of feeling that after almost 12 years of teaching, she often still struggled with the same instructional challenges that had bedeviled her at the beginning of her career. For Michele it was a realization that she had shed her fear of having her hearing loss define her professional image as a research scientist. For both of us, it was a wearying sense that for too long we had each been re-inventing the wheel—continuously looking for solutions to problems that we cannot possibly have been the first or only ones to experience. “If only we had other people like us to talk to and exchange ideas with,” we thought. “Faculty who also fret about the best way to introduce their hearing loss to their students; postdocs who also have to worry about how to handle the soft-spoken person in the back row asking a question after their talk; grad students who are also trying to crack the code on how to be full participants in fast-paced journal clubs.” In the past, we had individually (and unsuccessfully) searched for blogs by deaf/HoH people working in academic settings that shared their experiences. This summer it finally dawned on us that we could create our own.

“But wait a moment!” you may ask. “You both work in the same institution—surely you talked to each other and exchanged strategies for success?” We’re somewhat embarrassed to admit that in all of our years of overlap at UMass, we actually didn’t engage that much with each other. The reasons for this are varied and nuanced and may be good sources for future blog posts. When Ana mentioned the idea of a blog to Michele a few months ago, we both instantly realized, this is it. We need to do this! We are on a mission, because people like us need this blog! So, despite all the myriad other demands on our time, we are making a blog.

Our aspiration is to create a forum for discussing the unique challenges shared by deaf/HoH professionals in an academic environment. We have two main objectives: first to build a network of academics with hearing loss from all career stages and from a diversity of fields. Through this network, our second objective is to share experiences, failures, and, most importantly, potential solutions to the professional challenges we encounter.

People with hearing loss make up 15% of the adult U.S. population, with likely similar percentages worldwide, but the proportion undeniably becomes smaller in academia. Because of our small numbers, our best shot at creating a community is online. The community we are gathering runs the gamut of experiences. It encompasses people who are recently deafened to those who were born deaf; those with mild hearing loss to those who cannot hear any sounds; individuals who communicate primarily through sign languages and those who do so verbally; academics in predominantly-hearing institutions and those at Deaf-serving institutions; graduate students initiating their careers, postdocs questioning their next step, and senior faculty who can impact academic culture; deaf/HoH people working in every academic discipline; academics in countries with abundant accommodations for deaf/HoH individuals, and academics in countries with more limited resources. Because the hearing loss experience is so variable and affects each of us in different ways, our best bet at finding solutions and workarounds to the challenges we each face is by including all of our diverse experiences in this shared forum.

We need to come together because being a person with hearing loss in an academic environment is hard. The daily exhaustion of communicating in non-ideal settings, anticipating and planning for future communication challenges, educating unaware individuals, and dealing with the social isolation resulting from communication challenges can drain us of energy, ambition, and time. We will blog about these challenges! While there is comfort in sharing stories and realizing that others are going through similar experiences, we aspire for this blog to transcend being merely a “complaint forum.” Instead, by sharing various ways that we approach different challenges, we hope to build a community toolbox of solutions.

If you are a deaf/HoH academic, please consider contributing blog posts or becoming involved in the discussions. If you know of a deaf/HoH colleague, please spread the word about our blog and help us grow our network. If you want to learn more about the deaf/HoH experience, ask questions and follow this blog. You can help TheMindHears strengthen its impact so that it provides value to each of those who visit.