As I have not yet advanced in my career despite completing my Ph.D., I continue to seek opportunities for career development. For most people, including deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, a college degree increases their employment opportunities, economic benefits, and success in the workplace. However, disabled folks are persistently underemployed, meaning that their skills are not being used in the workplace. I have worked for the same academic institution for 32 years with most of my work in secretarial support, even though I have applied for administrative positions that would better match my education credentials. My lack of advancement in the workplace can be attributed to several factors, including a lack of disability awareness, inadequate accommodations, and non-inclusive behavior. COVID-19 provided administrators with a better understanding of the types of accommodations that can improve work performance and enable professional growth for employees with hearing loss.
Let’s begin at the beginning. In 1986, after graduating from high school, I moved from Hamilton, Ohio, to live with my sister in New Jersey. However, my life experienced a turning point. Although, I was not diagnosed with hearing loss as a newborn, only a few days after living with my big sister, she noticed something was wrong with my hearing. The big sister did what any big sister would and had my hearing checked. I learned that my entire life, I have been reading lips to understand conversations due to sensorineural hearing loss.
How was my life before the hearing loss diagnosis?
Attending college has always been my dream to enable me to climb the corporate ladder to the boardroom. I struggled academically from the 4th grade until high school, so I hesitated to take college preparatory courses. I needed help to excel despite studying and completing my homework. When I took English tests, I misspelled words and needed support. During the lecture, I needed help understanding math concepts. Hence, instead of prepping for college, I pursued vocational education to acquire office skills, such as typing and stenography, which were in demand at the time. Shorthand could have been more efficient, while typing and stenography were fast. My stenography assignments and tests were always incomplete, and I earned low grades, negatively affecting my attitude toward my teacher. I understand now that the teacher was not at fault. Because I was unaware of my hearing loss, I didn’t know I needed accommodations. Despite facing academic challenges, I remained persistent, kept believing in my dream, and received my Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 2008.
Was 1990 the right time for accommodations?
The 20th century saw some laws aimed at improving accessibility to employment for Americans with disabilities. On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. As a civil rights law, the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, such as jobs, schools, transportation, etc. (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990). What does this mean for me? In the workplace, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for an employee with hearing loss to perform well on the job. But access also requires administrators to understand disability awareness. Raising awareness fosters an open communication environment and enhances the interpersonal support required to succeed in the workplace with hearing loss. Employers with solid disability awareness recognize that the first attempt at accommodation might not be the best and that you must refine and adjust to various situations. An employer can demonstrate hearing loss awareness by creating a welcoming environment, knowing an employee’s specific hearing limitations, fostering an open communication environment, and having some understanding about the situational nature of accommodations.
Several months later, I applied for a position as a law school secretary. The opportunity to enter higher education was exciting. While I was proud of my 85-wpm typing speed, I knew shorthand would be challenging. When the academic Dean interviewed me, her communication skills were excellent, and she displayed courtesy, competence, and engagement. While I didn’t know this at the time, I needed these attributes in a supervisor who could create an accessible work environment. I disclosed my hearing loss to the Dean, who assured me that it would not be an issue and that the administration would provide the necessary accommodations for me to succeed at work. It sounded great, as I believed it would work. According to the Dean, employers must provide reasonable accommodations under the ADA. What are accommodations? I assumed that if the sound were loud, I would hear it, but that’s not the case – it’s more complex than that. Although I can listen to speech sounds, I can only sometimes understand some words. (See previous TMH post by Sarah Sparks about hearing versus understanding).
I accepted the job offer. My responsibilities included working with eight faculty members, answering calls, taking messages, and handling correspondence. I sat in a noisy area, and my employer, and I, in our limited knowledge of options at the time, believed that an amplified phone was the ideal accommodation. Although the telephone amplifier made louder sounds, the speech was unclear, and the voices sounded muffled. I advocated to my supervisor about my difficulty understanding speech over the telephone, yet I continued answering the phone for fifteen years. Unfortunately, I received negative performance reviews every year. I realize now that it was not appropriate for me to answer the phone during that time. It is beneficial to have a knowledgeable accommodations office on campus to provide disability support to law school students, faculty, administrators, and staff. That office might have told my supervisor and I about alternative strategies for my work accommodation.
Knowing Your Needs
Although the employee must be able to request appropriate accommodations needed to perform well on the job, the success of disabled employees also requires administrators to understand disability awareness and to establish an open communication environment. These conditions enhance the interpersonal support required to succeed in the workplace with hearing loss. Employers with solid disability awareness recognize that the first attempt at accommodation might not be the best and that you must refine and adjust to various situations. An employer can demonstrate hearing loss awareness by 1) creating a welcoming and inclusive environment with open communication, 2) knowing the communication styles and models that work best for specific employees, and 3) having some understanding about accommodations. There are soft and hard accommodations.
Soft accommodations are:
Face the person when speaking.
Talk in a normal tone.
Talk in quiet spaces.
Send the person an email of the time you’ll stop by their desk so they will be aware.
Share an agenda before the meeting, so the employee knows what will be discussed.
Understand that the employee may experience listening fatigue and need to take breaks during the meeting.
Know that the employee can only follow one conversation at a time.
Hard Accommodations include.
CART or live captioning.
I refused to give up on my career and persisted through driven strategies of self-accommodation, self-management, and self-advocacy.
Latisha Porter-Vaughn is a doctoral graduate from The University of Arizona. Her Ph.D. published research is “Perceptions of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing College Students’ Work Readiness and Preparation.” She is a research associate with the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes to continue contributing to literature that will help improve education and employment outcomes for students who are deaf or have hearing loss. And a paralegal at Seton Hall University Center for Social Justice. She is a Gallaudet University Peer Mentor for people who have hearing loss. She is also the president of the HLAA New Jersey State Association and chair of its Scholarship Committee. She is the co-founder of the HLAA Essex Chapter and a Deaf Snapshop Mentor of SPAN New Jersey. She has self-published her book “Sounds of the Heart: The Story of a HearStrong Champion Persisting Against All Odds” and is soon to self-publish her second book “How We Hear: A Useful Guide for the Hearing to Understand Hearing Loss—Answers to 10 Questions for the Workplace & Social Situations.”
The new year brings a fresh start to our lives; it’s a natural time to reflect on the year past and make plans for the coming year. In what is becoming a The Mind Hears New Year tradition (see posts from 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022), we have updated our list of recommendations for making your workplace accessible and refined the layout of the recommendations. You can view and download the full list of recommendations for making your workplaces (in-person, hybrid and remote) accessible for your deaf and hard of hearing colleagues at this link. Below we provide an outline of the best approaches for increasing workplace accessibility and provide links to blog posts that explore particular aspects in detail.
Universally design your workplace: Our spaces become more inclusive for all when we improve access for any subgroup of our community. Consequently, by increasing the accessibility of our workplaces for our deaf and hard-of-hearing (HoH) colleagues, we create a better workplace for everyone. This includes hearing folks who have auditory processing disorder, use English as their second language, or are acquiring hearing loss during their careers. Chances are that someone in your department has hearing loss, whether they’ve disclosed this or not, and will benefit from your efforts to make your workplace more accessible (see The Mind Hears blog post about where are all the deaf and hard of hearing academics). This is why you should universally design your workplace now and not wait until someone who is struggling asks you to make modifications.
Sharing the work: With a google search you can find several resources on workplace accessibility for deaf/HoH employees, such as the Hearing Loss Association of America’s (HLAA) very usefulemployment toolkit. One drawback of these resources is that nearly all of the suggestions are framed as actions for the deaf/HoH employee. While deaf and hard of hearing academics need to be strong self-advocates and take steps to improve their accommodations, our hearing colleagues can help us tremendously by sharing the work to create accessible workplaces. Speech reading conversations, planning accommodations, and making sure that technology/accommodations work as intended is never-ending and exhausting labor that we do above and beyond our teaching, research, and service. Your understanding and your help can make a large impact. For example, if a speaker doesn’t repeat a question they were asked, ask them to repeat even if you heard the question just fine. The people who didn’t hear the question are already stressed and fatigued from working hard to listen, so why expect them to do the added work of asking speakers to repeat? (see The Mind Hears blog post on listening fatigue). Repeating the question benefits everyone. The changes you make today can also help your workplace align with equal opportunity requirements for best hiring practices (see The Mind Hears blog posts about applying for jobs when deaf/HoH here and here). The Mind Hears coordinated the listing of advice for different academic settings below to help you become better allies today.
One size doesn’t fit all: If a participant requests accommodation for a presentation or meeting, follow up with them and be prepared to iterate to a solution that works. It may be signed interpreters (there are different kinds of signing), oral interpreters, CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation), or Assistive Listening Devices(formerly called FM systems). It could be rearranging the room or modifying the way that the meeting is run. Keep in mind that what works for one deaf/HoH person may not work for another person with similar deafness. And what works for someone in one situation may not work at all for that same person in another situation, even if these seem similar to you. The best solution will probably not be the first approach that you try nor may it be the quickest or cheapest approach; it will be the one that allows your deaf and hard-of-hearing colleagues to participate fully and contribute to the discussion. Reaching the goal of achieving an academic workplace accessible to deaf/HoH academics is a journey.
Want to be a better ally and make your workplace accessible for your deaf and hard of hearing colleagues?Follow this linkto read our list of recommendations. We welcome your comments and suggestions either to this post or directly within the document at this link.
Translated by ~Jenny Kung, Heather Fair, and Minru Li
With help from Xiang Li, Anran Cheng, and Xiaoxu Ma
The goal for The Mind Hears is to serve as a global resource for deaf and HoH (hard of hearing) academics. Though countries differ markedly in the degree of resources provided to deaf/HoH individuals, our hope is that this blog can be a refuge and forum for all, regardless of where you are. To date, however, most of our blog contributors and followers have been in the US and Europe. Jenny Kung, Heather Fair (see Heather’s recent profile), and Minru Li have generously reproduced The Mind Hears Mission Statement here in Simplified Chinese characters to help reach our Chinese-speaking friends, allies, and colleagues worldwide. We welcome help with translating our mission statement to other languages!
While just the mention of ‘social media’ can elicit eye rolls from our senior colleagues, many of us deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) academics have found social media, such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, to be very helpful for connecting with others who share similar lived experiences. However, sharing our experiences with lack of access on social media can be a mixed bag. Occasionally, they receive no response or engagement. Sometimes, our stories evoke ‘that is terrible’ responses. Many folks feel powerless to offer effective solutions and they might either not respond or provide a ‘this is terrible’ response. This is understandable. Lack of communication access is a very challenging problem that often cannot be fixed easily because many of our conferences, lectures, meetings, etc. were designed by and for hearing people. Providing a ‘this is terrible’ response validates our frustration even if it doesn’t actually help to change the situation.
One amazing aspect of social media is that sometimes our message can reach folks who actually do have the power to change communication access. But will they make changes or not?
A few months back Michele was impressed with how effectively Paige was able to use social media to self-advocate for change. We decided to co-write this post to provide an example of how one hard of hearing academic inspired a conference (we will call it the ABC conference) to swiftly change their inaccessible approach after it was already underway. Like other deaf and HoH academics, we are both used advocating for our needs in professional settings. Paige has been outspoken about turning self-advocacy into policy in their home department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They had long admired Michele and Ana’s work on creating The Mind Hears platform and community for deaf and HoH academics. We hope that this example can serve as a model for how we all can be more effective with our self-advocacy.
Paige took to social media after a frustrating morning when they joined a virtual panel as an audience member and realized that not only was there no captioning, but neither was there the usual Zoom feature to request it of the host.
Post #1: An entire zoom conference I’m required to attend as part of a prize committee without even the option to request captioning in sessions? LOL
The post got quite a few ‘this is terrible’ responses. Paige used those responses to explain the issue and educate commenters.
Post#1 follow up comment: They don't let you directly message a host in the chat so I'd have to publicly request captioning, revealing my disability to everyone in the session. Still awful but preferable to what seems like total ignorance and zero effort on considering accessibility.
The story could have ended there but Paige opted to advocate for change in two ways. First, they privately contacted the meeting organizers and then they shared a summary of the meeting on social media in a follow up post.
Post #2:This is the exchange I had with the moderator of the ABC in its virtual conference lobby. This is a major organization and a large international conference, being held entirely on Zoom. I'll be sending an email to the leadership later. I'm tired.
Paige: “Good morning. I am currently in a session where there is not even an option to request captioning. I am surprised by this. Is there something that can be done to ensure this basic accessibility feature in all sessions? The only time I've encountered this problem in the past is when the host of a Zoom session does not have an institutional Zoom account that supports live transcription.”
ABC representative: “Sorry to hear this. The meeting will be recorded. And we can add captions afterward if you need to re-watch your presentation. The ABC does not have an institutional account. Again, apologies for this.”
Paige: “This is very disappointing. It means I can't participate equally if I want to ask questions. I'm also on a time-sensitive prize committee so waiting for the captions to be added probably won't let me meet the requirements of my job today. This is a basic accessibility measure long standard at virtual conferences. I have long loved being a part of the ABC but today it has sent a message that disabled members such as me are not considered or valued, even as we do service for the organization.”
ABC representative: “Hello, I am currently looking into our options. And we will surely take this to the Trustees.”
Paige: “Thank you.”
A member of the ABC conference committee also saw the post on social media.
ABC chairperson comment to post #2: Hi all writing into this as ABC person centrally involved in planning this conference and also active in it for many years. We assumed that our zoom account would support captions. We have never done a conference like this before so we are learning. This was unexpected. My apologies this has happened but as our web coordinator said we'll look into this to try to figure this out.
A little later in the same thread
ABC chairperson follow up: You've been sent an email from the ABC president apologizing and explaining how this happened- and also that we think the problem has been fixed.
Paige: That sounds really fantastic. Thank you to you and everyone at the ABC who worked to resolve the issue. I'm looking forward to trying out the captions tomorrow.
The next day Paige logged in to find Zoom’s live transcription enabled for all conference panels. Paige posted a follow up to conclude the story and give credit to the organizers they knew were reading:
Post #3: After my exchange with the ABC and my post here, leadership reached out to me and worked with Zoom to enable captioning in sessions. The president of the ABC personally apologized and folks checked in with me today to make sure live transcription worked. I am happy that the organization responded rapidly and collectively to increase accessibility in the middle of the conference. Today's going much more smoothly.
My hope is that people remember this when planning the next conference. Whether in person or virtual, access needs to be considered (and tested beforehand) just like any other standard feature of an event.
This story ends with the conference apologizing for the oversight and providing improved access. But not all of our self-advocacy stories end this way. Both of us have participated in inaccessible conferences. A group of AV staff once told Michele that no FM telecoil neck loops were available anywhere in the major US city of their conference. Paige has repeatedly been told that access features such as captioning recordings or providing access papers are too expensive and cumbersome to consider. We all have stories where we request better access and get nowhere.
What made advocating for change effective in this instance? What can we learn from Paige’s experience in order to make our own advocacy efforts more effective.
They didn’t stop after the initial sharing on social media. Talking to the conference representatives takes valuable energy and time. Energy and time that you could be investing in the conference. Paige recognized that they needed to prioritize investing time in contacting the conference representative and taking notes on that conversation.
In advocating for themselves, the Paige was very clear that their lack of access wasn’t just going to affect them but also the integrity of the prize committee. Unfortunately, when organizations perceive that only a few deaf or hard of hearing people are impacted, they will not see the issue as important. Being able to frame your lack of access as impacting others provides more traction. While not all of us are part of prize committees we can say “A colleague has asked me for feedback directly after their presentation and I won’t be able without better access”. This kind of statement, which can always be true, points out how much everyone misses out when deaf/HoH are excluded. If applicable, one can also make the point that more accessible communication, such as captions, benefits more than just deaf and hard of hearing participants. Ideally, this numbers game should not be necessary. Unfortunately, we know we are self-advocating within ableist settings.
When Paige shared the exchange with the conference representatives on social media, the conference was now being held accountable publicly for their response. This is a very savvy use of social media. Now it isn’t just the deaf/HoH academic who is waiting the conference representative to respond, but many hearing colleagues are also now invested in the outcome and will want to see the conference do the right thing.
The conference chairperson who read the social media posts was wonderful at accepting that they needed to make a change. Sometimes folks just get defensive and aren’t willing to change. We like to think that points 1-3 helped the conference chairperson be more receptive to change but sometimes this is out of our control.
Paige Glotzer is Assistant Professor and John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Chair in the History of American Politics, Institutions, and Political Economy in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of History. Their award-winning first book, How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890-1960 was published in 2020. Their work has been featured in both peer reviewed journals and popular outlets, including the Journal of Urban History, CityLab, and Time. They joined the University of Wisconsin after a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard University Joint Center for History and Economics.
Our goal for The Mind Hears is to have it serve as a global resource for deaf and HoH (hard of hearing) academics. Though countries differ markedly in the degree of resources provided to deaf/HoH individuals, our hope is that this blog can be a refuge and forum for all, regardless of where you are. To date, however, most of our blog contributors and followers have been in the US and Europe. Taking advantage of the fact that Ana is Colombian, we have reproduced our Mission Statement here in Spanish in the hopes of reaching our Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues worldwide. We welcome help with translating our mission statement to other languages.
En el año 2018, Michele Cooke y yo, ambas profesoras en la Universidad de Massachusetts, Amherst, USA, decidimos empezar un blog que reflejara nuestras experiencias como personas con sordera en un ambiente académico. Así nació “The Mind Hears [La Mente Oye]”. Dada nuestra localización geográfica, las entradas del blog han sido – hasta ahora – publicadas en inglés. Con la esperanza de que este blog llegue a ser un recurso global para personas sordas trabajando en universidades, traducimos aquí la misión del blog al español. Esperamos que esto lleve a nuestros colegas de habla hispana a contribuir entradas al blog en el futuro.
Este blog está escrito por y para académicos en cualquier etapa de su carrera con algún grado de sordera. Aquí usamos el término “sordo” para representar a todas las personas con discapacidad auditiva, independientemente del grado de sordera y del modo de comunicación preferido (ya sea oral o por lengua de señas). Los objetivos de este blog son:
Proporcionar un foro para la colaboración abierta entre académicos sordos
Compartir estrategias para prosperar con sordera en el mundo académico
Fomentar una red de académicos sordos que promuevan estrategias de comunicación inclusivas en las instituciones académicas.
¿Por qué un blog?
Como académicos sordos, continuamente hemos enfrentado obstáculos en el camino al éxito profesional en entornos diseñados para y por personas sin discapacidades auditivas. Nuestras experiencias no han sido todas iguales. Dependiendo de nuestros antecedentes/proveniencia y de las instituciones en las que nos encontramos, es probable que tengamos diferencias en acceso a recursos y en la capacidad de abogar por si mismos. Debido a que la sordera puede ser una discapacidad invisible, hemos a menudo perdido oportunidades para reconocernos y aprender estrategias efectivas los unos de los otros. A través de este blog, esperamos alcanzar a académicos sordos y con problemas de audición en todo el mundo, tanto para reducir el aislamiento, como para armar una “caja de herramientas” comunitaria de recursos e ideas. La sordera es variable y puede afectarnos de muchas y diferentes maneras, pero a través de la experiencia compartida del blog, esperamos brindar algo de valor a todos aquellos que visitan y contribuyen a nuestras discusiones.
¿Por qué académicos?
Como académicos, estamos involucrados en muchas actividades que requieren comunicación continua, a menudo con colegas y estudiantes oyentes. Dictamos clases, presentamos seminarios, participamos en comités y páneles de asesoría, moderamos sesiones de discusión y dirigimos reuniones de grupo, participamos en actividades de divulgación pública y nos comunicamos con la prensa. Muchos de los impedimentos a la comunicación que se presentan en estas actividades son exclusivos al entorno académico — y el éxito de todos los académicos, oyentes o sordos, depende de la comunicación productiva en estas situaciones. Sin embargo, los académicos sordos a menudo no encontramos soluciones adecuadas para los obstáculos a la comunicación: nuestros audiólogos no tienen suficientes clientes académicos, y las oficinas de servicios para discapacitados en las universidades están diseñadas para servir principalmente a los estudiantes de pregrado (no profesores, estudiantes de posgrado u otros académicos). Al centrarnos en la comunidad académica sorda, particularmente a niveles después del pregrado, tenemos la intención de crear un recurso personalizado que ayude a todos los académicos que se identifican como sordos a alcanzar nuestro potencial profesional.
¿Por qué “The Mind Hears [La Mente Oye]”?
El título de nuestro blog proviene de una carta escrita por el autor Víctor Hugo al educador sordo, Ferdinand Berthier. Hugo escribió:
“¿Qué importa la sordera del oído, cuando la mente oye? La única sordera, la sordera verdadera, la sordera incurable, es la de la mente.”
Estas líneas encapsulan la poderosa idea que nuestro potencial para contribuir al ámbito académico, al conocimiento y a la sociedad no está limitado por nuestra capacidad o incapacidad de escuchar sonidos. Las dificultades que surgen al trabajar en entornos académicos dominados por la audición se pueden enfrentar con creatividad y resiliencia, las cuales son características de la mente. Las herramientas que las personas sordas usan para facilitar la comunicación, incluyendo la lengua de señas, la lectura labios, el uso de audífonos, los subtítulos y los implantes cocleares, por nombrar solo algunos, ilustran el potencial ilimitado del ingenio humano. La declaración de Hugo también refleja nuestra convicción de que la colaboración con la mente abierta a nuevas ideas, a la inclusión y a aquellos que abordan las cosas de manera diferente a la nuestra, puede beneficiarnos a todos. Ya sea que nos hayamos criado usando lengua de señas en la comunidad Sorda, o que recientemente hayamos perdido la audición, todos los que trabajamos en el mundo académico hemos desarrollado formas de ser exitosos. A veces podemos ver beneficios en nuestra sordera (por ejemplo, Deaf Gain), y otras veces nuestra sordera puede ser una carga no deseada (por ejemplo, Conquering faculty meetings (or not…)). Este blog es un hogar para todas estas perspectivas y experiencias. Esperamos que hallen en este blog un lugar de encuentro gratificante de mentes verdaderamente empoderadas, ingeniosas y abiertas.
The new year brings a fresh start to our lives; it’s a natural time to reflect on the year past and make plans for the coming year. In what is becoming a The Mind Hears New Year tradition (see posts from 2019, 2020, and 2021), we have updated our list of recommendations for making your workplace accessible. You can view and download the full list of recommendations for making your in-person and remote workplaces accessible for your deaf and hard of hearing colleagues at this link. Below we provide an outline of the best approaches for increasing workplace accessibility and provide links to blog posts that explore particular aspects in detail.
Universally design your workplace: Our spaces become more inclusive for all when we improve access for any subgroup of our community. Consequently, by increasing the accessibility of our workplaces for our deaf and hard of hearing colleagues, we create a better workplace for everyone (see post on the impact of the Mind Hears). This includes hearing folks who have auditory processing disorder, use English as their second language, or are acquiring hearing loss during their careers. Chances are that someone in your department has hearing loss, whether they’ve disclosed this or not, and will benefit from your efforts to make your workplace more accessible (see post on Where are the deaf/HoH academics). This is why you should universally design your workplace now and not wait until someone who is struggling asks you to make modifications.
Sharing the work: With a google search you can find several resources on workplace accessibility for deaf/HoH employees, such as the Hearing Loss Association of America’s (HLAA) very useful employment toolkit. One drawback of these resources is that nearly all of the suggestions are framed as actions for the deaf/HoH employee. While deaf and hard of hearing academics need to be strong self-advocates and take steps to improve their accommodations, our hearing colleagues can help us tremendously by sharing the work and not expecting us to bear all of the burden of creating accessible workplaces. Speech reading conversations, planning accommodations and making sure that technology/accommodations function is never-ending and exhausting work that we do above and beyond our teaching, research, and service (see post on making an impact at high stakes conferences, post on conquering faculty meetings, and post on teaching very large classes). Your understanding and your help changing our workplaces can make a huge difference to us. For example, if a speaker doesn’t repeat a question, ask them to repeat, even if you heard the question just fine. The people who didn’t hear the question are already stressed and fatigued from working hard to listen, so why expect them to do the added work of ensuring speakers repeat questions (see post on listening fatigue and post on the mental gymnastics of hearing device use)? Repeating the question benefits everyone. The changes you make today can also help your workplace align with equal opportunity requirements for best hiring practices (see The Mind Hears blog posts about applying for jobs when deaf/HoH hereand here).
One size doesn’t fit all: If a participant requests accommodation for a presentation or meeting, follow up with them and be prepared to iterate to a solution that works. It may be signed interpreters (see post on working with sign interpreters and post on networking with deaf colleagues who use interpreters), oral interpreters, CART (see post on Captions and Craptions), or FM systems (see post on Using FM systems at conferences). It could be rearranging the room or modifying the way that the meeting is run. Keep in mind that what works for one deaf/HoH person may not work for another person with similar deafness. What works for someone in one situation may not work at all for that same person in another situation, even if the situations seem similar to you. The best solution will probably not be the first approach that you try nor may it be the quickest or cheapest approach; it will be the one that allows your deaf and hard-of-hearing colleagues to participate fully and contribute to the discussion.
Want to be a better ally and make your workplace accessible for your deaf and hard of hearing colleagues?Follow this linkto read our list of recommendations. We welcome your comments and suggestions either to this post or directly within the document at this link.
I can pass as hearing. With good lighting, low background noise, and a good night’s sleep I can follow and participate in small group conversations like any hearing person. Like nearly all deaf/hard of hearing (HoH), my ability to listen, speechread, and follow conversations decreases quickly with less light, accrued listening fatigue of the day (see post on How much listening is too much?), more background noise, additional people with quick back-and-forth banter, or unfamiliar accents (see post on Understanding unfamiliar accents). I’m also pretty good at bluffing.
<garbled speech>… nod and smile<garbled speech>Ho! The group is laughing now. Laugh a little — but not too much
<garbled speech>nod and smile …
I don’t sound as deaf as I am because of years of speech therapy to teach me how to pronounce sounds that I can’t hear. The message speech therapy delivers is that the deaf/HoH folks should work hard to sound as hearing as possible. The burden is on the disabled person to assimilate rather than for hearing folks to tolerate deaf accents (see post on Eloquence is Overrated). Until I met other deaf/HoH folks in graduate school, I bought into that myth. I worried a lot about how I spoke, and my own internalized ableism fueled the myth that if I just worked hard enough nobody would know about my deafness. I could overcome my disability. My view on speech has changed over the years and I now find deaf accents wonderful/familiar/comforting. Though I will admit to still having some worries about my speech when I give high-stakes presentations —that internalized ableism is a tough beast to tame.
So, the combination of my slight deaf accent, excellent bluffing skills, and the privilege of being able to follow well-lit conversations with low background noise may be why people sometimes seem to either doubt my declarations of my deafness or underestimate my degree of hearing loss. Most of the time I don’t really care how my hearing is judged, but every now and then folks decide to call me out for what they perceive as inconsistency between my acting like a hearing person and my statement of my deafness — they will say “You don’t sound deaf”, or they will even try to test my hearing. Their nosy and inappropriate questions remind me of a hearing test that I failed the summer before my senior year of college.
I was hired by a mining company to participate in secondary gold exploration in northeastern Nevada. We lived and worked in a camp several hours from the nearest town. My field partner and I were hired to collect and log the rock cuttings (broken bits of rock produced by drilling) from various prospects within the claim. If we saw some promising cuttings, we sent them off to be assayed for their gold content. The mining company was hoping to find some high-grade Carlin-type disseminated gold that would make it worth setting up a mine in this remote high desert locale. Spoiler alert: We never did find good enough gold at that location. But the company paid us well for that summer of exploratory work. This job meant that my field partner and I got to hike around in the rattlesnake infested high desert every day to retrieve cuttings from the drill sites. The drillers would move the rig every week or so to a new site that we had previously marked for sampling. I mentioned to my co-workers that I couldn’t hear rattlesnakes and ask them to warn me if they heard a rattle when we were moving though the brush. I also took care to stomp the ground when I ventured someplace craggy where rattlesnakes might lurk. While I knew that rattlesnake bites were treatable, I didn’t relish the idea of an emergency 2+ hour drive to the nearest medical facility.
After one long day, I was in camp and standing around chatting with my co-workers (my field partner and the camp cook) and suddenly their eyes opened wide and their mouths formed startled “O”s. They were stunned and clearly were no longer listening to whatever fascinating and captivating story I was talking about at the time.
“Look behind you!”
I turned around and 5 inches from my face was a writhing burlap bag. The bag was moving in all sorts of directions consistent with a bagged and very angry snake.
The drillers had decided to test my hearing loss and caught a rattlesnake in the bag. They wanted to see if I really wasn’t able to hear the snake. While I was babbling away, they snuck up behind me and held the bag inches from my head waiting for my reaction.
I learned a couple things from this. #1 Never trust drillers. #2 This experience also taught me that my lived experiences aren’t appreciated by most hearing people and some of them won’t trust my own assessment of what I can and can’t do. Sometimes they will test me to see if I’m ‘for real’. “Can you hear me if I cover my mouth?” Sometimes they will doubt my abilities. “You can’t accept this job because it involves visiting construction sites with heavy equipment that you won’t hear.” Sometimes, they will presume what accommodations I need without asking me. “Zoom has auto-captions, so I figured you were all set.” It is no wonder then that sometimes it is easier for deaf/HoH not to disclose their deafness and thereby avoid dealing with inappropriate responses. If we just work hard enough, we can pass for hearing and no one will know or ask anything.
But not disclosing my deafness isn’t safe for me. Not disclosing and working hard to pass as hearing is harmful to me in that I’m doing a lot of work just to stay in place and that impedes my ability to thrive. Just like I benefit from my field partner calling out to me when they hear a rattle, accommodations in my academic career allow me to participate more fully and avoid both harmful misunderstandings and grueling listening fatigue. This rattlesnake-in-a-bag experience prepared me for an academic career where my colleagues, fellow data loving scientists, want to see direct evidence of my invisible disability.
So, when I’m asked inappropriate questions about my deafness, I picture in my mind that writhing burlap bag. I’ve got this — after all, you are the one holding a bag with a pissed off rattlesnake.
The Mind Hears was excited to learn that Anne and Breanne are two deaf graduate students in the same School of Integrative Plant Sciences. So many of us navigate graduate school as the only deaf student in the university, much less the graduate program. So we caught up with Anne and Breanne to explore how having a compatriot in graduate school has impacted their experiences. We asked them these questions:
Breanne: I am a PhD candidate in Plant Pathology at Cornell University, and am researching the population genetics of a fungus that causes powdery mildew of grapevine. I have loved science since I was a little girl, and was inspired to pursue sciences due to all of the different rare diseases that have occurred in my family. I’ve always been fascinated by infectious diseases and molecular biology, and the idea of translating that to plant diseases and protecting our crops was very exciting to me for graduate school. I identify as DeafBlind, and was born in New York State with moderate to severe hearing loss; I lost my vision as a teenager due to the recessive genetic disorder known as Usher Syndrome. I began using ASL to communicate during my undergraduate years at RIT/NTID, but have since lost those skills. It has been hard being apart from a deaf community for so long.
Anne: I am a PhD candidate in Horticulture at Cornell carrying out research in viticulture, by evaluating impacts of canopy management practices on above and below-ground parameters in grapevines. I’ve always been very passionate about fruit crop production and hope to go into extension, to teach students in the vineyard or orchard about management practices, to develop my own teaching videos on all things fruit crop and wine related in ASL, and one day, possibly to own a farm winery. I was born profoundly deaf in Connecticut and grew up with SimCom (Simultaneous Communication), initially learning SEE (Signed Exact English), then later, ASL, when I improved my fluency during my postgraduate years in Colorado.
Tell us about your discovery that you were not the only deaf student when you started your graduate program.
Breanne: Day 1 during the School of Integrative Plant Sciences (SIPS) graduate school orientation I was wondering, “why does the interpreter keep looking at someone else?” If only you could hear my thoughts that day; I was so shocked (and thrilled!) when I pieced it together! Looking back, I have no idea who was presenting or what they were talking about. I was ecstatic to meet Anne that day, a fellow deaf woman and someone whose smile melted away the stress of that orientation day on this brand new campus.
Anne: It really made my day when I learned of Breanne — I got goosebumps when I learned that I wasn’t the only deaf person and just had to meet her. I am so proud of Breanne for pressing on, reading thousands of papers, looking at microscopes, advocating for herself to get her guide dog, advocating for others, and continuing to succeed in her program. And I love being able to just communicate with her in sign and not have to worry as much about my speech! She is probably one of the first Deaf, and first DeafBlind in academia at Cornell’s AgriTech campus in Geneva and is making a huge impact there. Meanwhile, I have been staying in Ithaca, where my research is, and have been working as a Graduate Community Advisor for the graduate, post-doc, and visiting scholar housing community on Cornell’s Ithaca campus. I have also been educating the residents in the graduate community, which is predominantly international students, about people with disabilities. These residents, whom I love so much (they spark so much joy), either have a lack of or a rudimentary understanding of people with disabilities, as their native countries either suppress or hide their disabled citizens. They have been incredibly open and have shared with me that their experiences as foreigners are in some ways similar: having to navigate American sociocultural norms and encountering miscommunication and misconceptions. Many of them have made a lot of effort to communicate with me when we had trouble understanding each other! It’s encouraging to see that. In this context, Breanne and I have shared our thoughts, feelings, and strategies for working with people who have not had exposure to the deaf and disability communities.
Tell us of other ways that having deaf fellow students on campus have impacted you.
Breanne: In our second year, Anne introduced me to a new third Deaf person on campus — a new law student who already had a PhD, Dr. Caroline Block! We had a group facebook message going and we shared our experiences with the handful of ASL interpreters being assigned to us. We found out that whenever one of us requested a different interpreter, Cornell Student Disability Services would trade our interpreters mid-semester. When personal style is the issue, it’s okay to retain the interpreter for another student, but that wasn’t the case here. These interpreters sometimes didn’t have the experience necessary to interpret doctoral level courses, would check their phones mid-lectures, and would not wear black clothing despite knowing I’m blind. Thankfully, the three of us decided to meet with Student Disability Services and demanded that all ASL interpreters adhere to professional policy, and that one interpreter in particular never be hired for any other Cornell student again. Also, please let me note that we’ve also had some amazing interpreters, ones that are proficient and root for us every step of the way in our PhDs.
I remember early on in my studies being so stressed from the commuting to and from the Geneva campus, the culture shock of attending this big Ivy League university, and having to try and remember if I had requested access services (and if so, which ones?) for this event or that lecture. However, the absolute hardest part was falling victim to ‘the hidden curriculum,’ the unwritten norms and unspoken expectations that many underrepresented minority (URM) doctoral students are not aware of. My mother was the first in our family to go to college and got her Bachelor’s degree when I was growing up, and then I was the first in my family to pursue a PhD. It seemed like every graduate student in my department had at least one parent who had a PhD. I did not have many close friends in my program, and I felt so alone. Honestly, I had just kind of accepted this fate, that “okay, this is Cornell, they don’t have Deaf students or a deaf community in Ithaca”, that I truly did not think I should try to change things. I eventually realized it wasn’t just me. Cornell was not set up to support us and we needed to work exponentially harder than our peers just to survive. Without having Anne and Caroline to talk to for mutual support, I would have continued to think that my failure to thrive was my own fault.
On days where I did not feel like continuing on in the PhD program, I would still get out of bed and try because I knew that I represented so many Blind and disabled people out there who are told to pursue a career that “suits their blindness.” This is something my own family and friends told me too. As a disabled person who’s made it this far, I feel it is my duty to pave the way and make it easier for those who come after me. Anne and I are both trailblazers. I didn’t really know what was expected of me in terms of my doctoral research, but it was obvious that this place wasn’t inclusive to people like us so I buried myself in advocacy. I was committed to making Cornell a better and more equitable and inclusive place to go to graduate school. I was elected to and served on the Presidential Task Force that was formed in response to horrible incidents of racial bias in Ithaca, I served as the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) Student Advocacy Committee Chair, I wrote the mental health & well-being section of the Graduate and Professional Community Initiative (the GPSA’s 5 year strategic plan, administration use it to inform the decisions they make for our community), I worked closely with other student leaders, administration, deans, and people in Cornell Health and was very successful.
However, I can honestly say that I’m not sure if I would have made it this far in the program if Anne weren’t here, starting a PhD in the plant sciences at the same exact time. Anne is the only other scientist I have ever been able to use ASL with at a Cornell event, and someone who was dealing with so many of the same struggles as me. Having her to validate my experiences is what kept me strong enough to self-advocate in the face of trial after trial. We both eventually passed our A exams (doctoral candidacy exams), and we both felt embarrassed about when we did it — as if there was an unspoken timeline that we did not achieve compared to our hearing peers. However, I firmly believe that what matters most is crossing the finish line and not how fast you got there. I know that we will both cheer each other on during our dissertation defenses and both be successful in passing those too. I cannot stress enough how knowledgeable and skilled Anne is as a viticulturist and scientific researcher. This plant sciences are blessed to have a woman like her pursuing her PhD in a lab and university that has global recognition, and any institution would be lucky to have the chance to hire someone who is both so scholarly yet so pleasant to work with.
Anne: Yes, I echo Breanne’s statements about our experiences. We had challenges with the interpreters initially. I have had several interpreters who are lovely people, but I had to ask them to be more professional (wearing black, etc). One of them kept violating professionalism and had been passed around among the deaf students, so, with the power of three outstanding deaf scholars, myself, Breanne, and Dr. Block, who now has a PhD and a JD, we collectively met with the Student Disability Services to ask that the interpreter be removed. Since then, the interpreting agency, when faced with an interpreter shortage, kept bringing them up, asking if we were okay with scheduling them if nobody was available. We all would decline and change our meetings to avoid that situation. We are grateful that Cornell Student Disability Services has changed a lot since then, with the hiring of a wonderful disability accommodation access specialist who made an effort to learn ASL and all about Deaf culture! This specialist has gone above and beyond, so that is a change we are very pleased about – they have been very easy for me to work with. Plus they have honored my request to work with specific interpreters and not once did they assign me to someone who is not a good fit for me. I was able to focus a lot more on my studies, since this communication specialist has been hired. My student disability counselor, who has a disability, is also fantastic, and together with the accommodation specialist and the new director, created the change we needed.
Also, Breanne has done outstanding work with the GPSA and Presidential Task Force, and the American Phytopathological Society (APS) conference committee, bringing a lot of much needed change. And this is something we’ve also noticed: there is the hidden curriculum, sociocultural norms, and much more that many miss, not only in the deaf/HoH+ community, but also those in the disabled, first gen, and other minority communities. We hope to see Cornell doing something about it, developing a workshop or two to address the hidden curriculum, so we have been bringing specific aspects to light through our social platforms. I have been blessed with people including my family and my advisor who brought the bulk of the hidden curriculum to light, but many others are not as lucky. So the pipeline in retaining STEM scholars is leaky as people drop out or change their career paths. Again, Breanne and I have conversed a lot through various mediums, brainstorming approaches to educate people while supporting each other. She and I have also been overcoming challenges in our respective PhD programs and cheered each other on when we reach milestones. I received a conditional pass on my A exam and did not become a PhD candidate until my fourth year, which I was very embarrassed about, compared to others in similar fields, yet Breanne really cheered me on. When she shares her accomplishments with me, I have so much pride and joy for her!
What other challenges have you found remain for you in grad school, despite having the support of deaf colleagues?
Breanne: Cornell in general – it is not a welcoming or inclusive place for people like us, or us specifically. We’ve had faculty that are supposed to support, advise, and mentor us practically turn their backs on us at certain points in our programs. Even our professional support system is fragile. Luckily our support has grown, our access services are far better, and we now have an ASL professor on campus, Brenda Schertz. I am very hopeful that ASL and the deaf community will grow here. With this, I hope every student can find the mutual support Anne and I found in each other.
Additionally, I have since received my first guide dog which has significantly improved my personal and professional life. People in my department seemed confused as to why I needed one, I barely even used my white cane. However, they didn’t see me fall off the steps of the stairs inside the plant science building during my graduate school interview, my heart rate spike every time I stood at the top of the stairs when all the light bulbs were out, or all the bruises I had from travelling to/from work and running errands. I was so fortunate to have advisors that sought education directly from me on life as a scientist with a guide dog and supported me. In the United States, service dogs are allowed in all public facing businesses, even in hospitals, but individual institutions and professors often bar students and employees with service dogs from working in the laboratory. The only time a service dog should ever be barred from a scientific lab is if it would hurt the integrity of the research itself (i.e. an experiment on bird behavior when birds see dogs as predators) or if the research could seriously harm the service animal despite them wearing similar PPE to humans and staying out the way as service dogs are trained to do.I am deeply grateful for Cornell Student Disability Services and both of my advisors’ full support in this area, but the stress was certainly still there. I could so easily be denied access to my lab space like so many of my blind and disabled colleagues. I will not stop advocating for changes in this space because I have always firmly believed that science is for everyone. How can we recruit and retain diverse scientists if you reject a freshman from taking your introductory chemistry lab course because they have a service dog to mitigate their disability? Anne and I frequently speak out about our frustrations that despite endless conversations about ‘diversity,’ nobody seems to value disability as part of the beautiful spectrum of diverse and underrepresented people we need to support in STEM, and we are trying to change that.
When participating in a panel discussion in the DEAF ROC conference in Rochester, NY in 2019 called, “Successfully Advocating & Maintaining Relationships with Access Services,” I learned about PhD students having uniquely assigned ASL interpreters who they were able to develop a close working relationship with. This situation allows interpreters to learn the subject matter as the students develop their expertise throughout the years, and allows for more seamless communication with advisors and labmates. It also removes the burden from Deaf students of trying to remember whether or not they have requested interpreters for an event yet, since interpreters essentially maintain their same meeting schedule. Bringing disabled people together to share experiences is crucial, because this arrangement is something I never would have dreamed of asking for, yet would clearly benefit most Deaf PhD students. I firmly believe that this should become the norm for graduate school education, where 4-6 years are spent working tirelessly to become an expert and create new knowledge in a highly specialized field. In addition, I also look forward to continuing to work with Anne and other disabled colleagues, and pursuing a career that allows me to make drastic changes to make STEM more accessible, equitable, and inclusive for people of all historically underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds.
Anne: While we are very grateful for this opportunity to pursue a PhD at one of the world’s most renowned universities, Cornell generally needs a lot of advocacy to be kept accountable in adhering to its “any person, any study” motto. There is a lot administrators don’t know that we d/Deaf, DeafBlind, HoH, and other members of the disabled community continue to try to educate them about. There are things that we need in order to succeed, and we find ourselves advocating a lot for our needs to be met, and for policies to be put in place for future students so they can focus on their studies more. Unfortunately, there are still some people who question our abilities to do something simply based on our disability or hearing status. I have been lucky to be surrounded by excellent people in the viticulture and enology industry who are working to make the field more accessible. Breanne and I constantly have to remind people to look at the person, their passion and perseverance, as well as what they bring to the table, and not accept stereotypes held by the world. There are a couple of valuable resources already available including a wonderful paper done by our colleagues in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) discussing strategies for at-risk scientists, and while they are helpful, there is still a gap when it comes to the deaf/HOH+ communities. I look forward to seeing a time when these gaps are all filled!
Due to recent racism and bias incidents, people at Cornell are beginning to open their minds to issues that disabled scholars too have been facing. Since we started in 2016, we have been advocating for captioning or transcriptions for podcasts and videos, contacting many clubs and departments, especially Cornell’s own Diversity and Inclusion office. Now Cornell does that by default much more often than they used to. There is still work to do but I am pleased with the progress we have made so far. I have been working with Cornell Dining to encourage them to develop alternative ways to order food, such as providing a paper and pen. While they listened to me, they decided to develop an app, “Get Set”, which allows students and faculty/staff to order ahead of time. It is a wonderful idea, however, there are people who don’t use smartphones and paper and pen are still not available. So that is a work in progress.
Breanne and I plan to co-author a paper to share our experiences of working with deaf/HOH + scientists, especially those with intersecting identities, to provide a framework for future mentors and scholars One thing we will highlight is the need for a designated interpreter who is to be assigned to that student only, going with that student everywhere, as needed, and to be on call for last minute meetings, like statistical consulting drop ins. We would love to see more Black and other minority deaf entering Cornell and we will advocate for the assigning of interpreters who are culturally similar e.g. Black interpreters, upon request. It is very encouraging to see the changes that are occurring.
As higher education strives to be more inclusive and open to all, historical barriers are being dismantled. Yet these efforts often overlook a key group: disabled faculty.
Faculty are an essential part of any campus. Expectations for their work are high — develop and teach courses, advise and mentor students, and serve their institutions and fields of study. Doing this well provides a critical foundation for students to prosper and grow, but it is a demanding, dynamic, and complex juggling act — especially if you factor in disabilities that are frequently unconsidered, unacknowledged, and unaccommodated.
I have participated in committees that discuss campus accessibility, often as the only disabled faculty member. There’s a lot of work to be done. Here are six ways to get started and support disabled faculty on your campus.
Assume faculty do not disclose their disabilities
Many students do not disclose their disabilities when they arrive at college and neither do most faculty, attempting to avoid the persistent negative stigmas against people with disabilities. Faculty who face high stakes decisions for tenure and promotion have even less incentive to disclose.
Disability is also variable and needs may change. Some physical and mental health conditions are sudden, while some are progressive and may change over time.
Recognize ableism exists on your campus (and work to eliminate it)
Disabled people face discrimination and oppression both in their professional lives and in society as a whole. Ableism — or attitudes and behavior that people without disabilities are more valued than those with disabilities — is embedded in our systems and in the design of our workforces, including academic institutions.
Disabled faculty experience marginalization and microaggressions on a daily basis on campus, including:
barriers in physical buildings and online classrooms.
lack of access at all university activities.
exclusion from disability accommodations and outreach.
negative assumptions about their contributions to academic life.
Even simple faculty meetings can be challenging and overwhelming for a disabled faculty member to navigate, especially if they are newly hired.
Include disability in campus diversity efforts
Diversity and equity is at the center of efforts to reduce gaps in opportunity afforded to white, male faculty from high socioeconomic and elite backgrounds. Campus-wide initiatives are on the rise across the nation in an effort to respond to these systemic and historical inequities.
But disabled faculty are often not included in policy or practices geared to increasing diversity. Check the diversity mission statements at your institution. Is disability recognized as a part of campus diversity? Are disabled faculty represented in decision-making about improvements to campus and its climate?
Make it easy to request accommodations and encourage flexible work options
Disabled faculty often face significant institutional and attitude barriers when they disclose their disability and access needs. First and foremost, have a clear and centralized process to make accommodations requests (and have them paid for, so there is no budgetary haggling). This can also reduce the hassle and stress of advocating for access.
Also consider making flexible work options available to all faculty, reducing the need to make special requests based on disability status. As we have learned during the pandemic, flexibility and options that were never before accepted as part of regular workspace interactions are now what we use for everyone.
Ensure all aspects of their job are accessible
Faculty members have many roles within the campus community: teacher, advisor, researcher, committee member, supervisor, advocate.
When thinking about accommodations, institutions often focus only on what is needed for formal instruction or when the faculty member is in class with students. Institutions instead must think holistically about accessibility — how to provide equal access to all of the social, cultural, and interpersonal aspects of campus life. At your college:
How do disabled faculty engage with students during office hours or colleagues during meetings?
Are there captions on videos displayed around campus?
Are accessibility supports available for guest lectures and events?
Can faculty members be included via video platforms if physically coming to campus isn’t possible?
Lead with intention
A culture of access must come from the top. And it must come quickly. Each experience of ableism and inaccessibility is cumulative, resulting in a significant psychological and emotional toll. Disabled faculty are often tired and demoralized, and feel unwelcome in academia. This chronic marginalization can become itself a barrier, above and beyond the policies and behaviors of the institution.
As folks with hearing loss, we have been trained to speak clearly so that we mask our deafness and can be accepted to be as capable as the hearing. While people associate academic brilliance and intelligence with eloquent elocution, we know that this correlation isn’t true. Linguistic bias exists.
The recent social narrative surrounding President Biden’s stuttering reminds me of The King’s Speech in which Colin Firth plays a tortured King George VI dealing with the emotional rollercoaster only a profound stutter and pressure of public speaking could bring. To me, speaking eloquently seemed like an impossible request. Of course, Firth does so in a crescendo-like, climactic, Oscar-winning performance that had me rolling my eyes. But it also made me all warm and fuzzy inside. I do understand the rewards of accomplishing the task, but is it all worth the physical, mental, and emotional stress?
Is eloquence overrated?
Literacy abilities are equated with intelligence: both what kinds of literacies we have and the expressions of those literacies. This is problematic. For example, Standardized White English is reinforced as the societal norm in classrooms, the media, on exams, in cultural narratives; consequently the “good” English speaker is centered in the academic sphere – the person who is articulate, eloquent, and has native or near-native English fluency – marginalizing a vast swath of experiences.
Below are reflections from two deaf The Mind Hears readers that capture the emotional and mental tension of performative eloquence. Their experiences also honor, in a small way, the progress we can make towards a broader and more inclusive definition of what it means to be articulate.
The Ohio State University, Modern Jewish & European History
Hello, I’m Sara – without an H, thanks — and I was born profoundly deaf in 1985. I learned language through lipreading for the first four years of my life. I still missed out a lot because I was not overhearing conversations or listening to Sesame Street (I liked Mr. Rogers better; at least I could read his lips). Once I was implanted in 1989, there was a period of intense audio therapy before I started kindergarten. Then I continued with speech therapy until I graduated from high school in 2004. While those therapies are no longer part of routine, my mishandling of the spoken and written English language haunted me throughout college and early years of graduate school.
Like Sara, I internalized that the notion of articulateness, including a strong grasp of my native language, signified intellectual intelligence. I received this messaging when I had to take all those standardized exams, including from the Department of Education and College Board (including AP and GRE), where the rubrics were clear. Phrases such as “well written” and “sophisticated thinking” confounded me. I knew I was smart; I read well above my grade level but somehow I could not spout the “right” words or formulate sentences that could make sense to others.
My own speech pattern further hampered my ability to deliver the way people like the Obamas or George Clooney could. I hated public speaking of any sorts because they were always graded on my ability to speak clearly, pronounce every word correctly, and slow down. Coming from a family of New Yorkers with their rapid fire conversations, it hurt me that I was not allowed to blend in my own family either. Where was I supposed to fit in within the educated, middle-class American ideal of “articulateness” and get an A+ in that?
All that changed when I went abroad to study German and Hebrew and research in various countries where English was not the native language or where English accents were different from my own (Australia and the UK in this case). I found that no one cared how I spoke so as long as I was understandable, which meant slowing down and pronouncing words clearly as they were doing. Since I was doing the same in German and Hebrew, this practice eventually influenced how I spoke English. Every time I returned to the United States, I carried this practice with me and native English speakers responded more positively than before. (Still, every now and then, I get asked if I’m from Germany…)
After these experiences, I have more or less given up striving to fit ideal standards as imagined by bureaucrats in the Department of Education and the College Board, because we are living in a globalized world where English is the most widely used language, spoken in diverse manners. We are all intelligent but in our own unique ways.
Alma C. Schrage
University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, Natural Resources and Environmental Science
I feel like deaf/HoH folks get socialized early to fit in, to pass, because often the reaction if we say “what?” is being treated as if we are not intelligent…which is kind of a double bind because we can get stuck in situations where we have no idea what is going on and get caught in it.
When I started high school, I joined Model UN because a friend was in it and I wanted to prove I could do it. I had to rely on my partner to relay what everyone was saying. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to communicate, so often she would say “Talk about this issue and why it’s bad because –” That worked fine because I was comfortable ad libbing, and it actually went really well — we got an honorable mention, which was kind of amazing with it being our first conference. But at the same time the award felt kind of empty — it felt like I was just a mouthpiece and not making any of the decisions or critical thinking because I wasn’t receiving the information I needed to do so. I had a mind and was looking for conversation and reciprocity, not empty, performative acts of speaking so the experience was frustrating. I quit after that first conference. Ironically my hearing friend and debate partner was really angry about me quitting – the fact that it was inaccessible didn’t really seem to register with them.
The isolation and lack of access that I experienced as child and teenager because of my good speech is part of what pushed me towards learning American Sign Language (ASL) as an adult: It supported the conversation and connection that I craved, both with signing deaf communities and deaf mentors, but also with the hearing communities I interact with through my advocacy, my work, and going about my daily life. If you sign, people immediately get it — Oh, she’s deaf — and they are more willing to do things like write stuff down or use gestures for basic communication. I’ve found that as an English and ASL user it has been easier to get hearing academics to think more concretely about accessibility and inclusion, which is desperately lacking in academia. Signing has also made me a better self-advocate when I do speak; my experiences with signing Deaf mentors has pushed me to be more assertive and less patient with hearing attitudes and behaviors that are inaccessible or blatantly discriminatory.
Because of the intersections of my privilege — being a white academic — and my particular deaf experience – having reading as my primary access point to language and learning, plus clear speech – I’ve largely been able to dodge people’s prejudices about speaking “good English” and intelligence. The flipside of that coin has been how it renders my deafness invisible. My speech has often fooled hearing people into thinking I understand more than I do; how could a person profoundly deaf speak so well?
A Way Forward
As we wrote this together and I read about Sara and Alma, one theme became clear: spaces such as The Mind Hears where we can converse are small but integral to understanding the deaf experience beyond ourselves. Adapting to adaptations while being unexpectedly advantageous or savvy feels ironic, but listening, really listening to others’ narratives can offer new ideas for advocacy.
Sara Heaser is a Lecturer of English at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, where she specializes in basic/co-requisite and first-year writing curriculum, pedagogy, and program development. Her writing about teaching has been featured on the Bedford Bits blog, the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and Composition Studies. Her favorite aspects of her job are mentoring undergraduate education students and new teachers, tutoring adult learners, and teaching first-year, first-semester writing students. She is an alum of the Dartmouth Summer Seminar for Studies in Composition Research and Winona State University.