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 and 2020), we have updated our list of recommendations for making your workplace accessible. The listing now includes best practices for remote meetings, a format that dominated our professional interactions in 2020 and will play a role in ‘normal’ operations going forward. While many presume that remote work increases accessibility for deaf/HoH, this is not always the case (see post on suddenly remote teaching and post on accommodating a pandemic). 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. Here we outline the best approach 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 here and 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. 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.
I look forward to and dread research conferences simultaneously.
I look forward to seeing my friends and colleagues, learning about new research, and exercising my neurons as I ponder different research topics and directions. I eagerly anticipate exploring the different cities and countries where the conferences are held. I long for those few days where I control my own schedule.
At the same time, I dread discovering that the provided access services are inadequate to catch the various research presentations and posters—the interpreting and/or captioning quality ranges from poor to excellent, so the significance of getting the gist of what is new research is >0.05 (I know I shouldn’t be using 0.05 as a baseline, my dear statistician friends). I also worry whether the quality of my research work is reflected accurately by the interpreters for my presentations.
But what I dread the most is being viewed as the deafperson, not as a scientist. At the first few conferences I attended, people would come up to me and ask questions such as, “How do you come up with signs for phytoplankton or photorespiration?” Often, they would try to strike up a conversation with the interpreter right in front of me and commiserate about how hard it must be to keep up with the scientific jargon, especially with people speaking at warp speeds. These conversations were always awkward since the interpreters know they cannot have personal conversations while they are interpreting. They would look to me for guidance on how to handle the situations, since they knew the protocol, even if my colleagues did not.
I’ve mastered responding with a strained smile on my face, “Yes, it isn’t easy. By the way, what is yourresearch on? And do you have a poster or talk here?” Most people get the hint and are more than happy to talk about their own research. After twenty years in the field, these encounters become less frequent, but they still occur.
Those encounters have become rarer over time because I have become more assertive about going up to other researchers to ask them about their work; but that assertiveness and confidence has come in part because of my growing scientific reputation in the field of estuarine science and oceanography. Now, I suspect that if I stand around and wait for people to come talk to me, they either won’t come due to fear, or they will come with the dreadedquestions. I truly appreciate my colleagues who come to me to discuss science.
At academic conferences, I am a scientist first, and deaf person second.
Dr. Solomon has been a faculty member at Gallaudet since 2000. She also is an adjunct at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and serves on masters and doctoral committees for research on increasing participation of deaf and hard of hearing people in STEM and estuarine science especially in the areas of nutrient and microbial dynamics.
In my first post for The Mind Hears, I want to tell you a little about my background, then outline some strategies that I’ve found successful for traveling and attending conferences.
I have been a regular at my ENT’s (ear, nose, and throat doctor) office since I was young, getting new tubes, replacement tubes, removing cholesteatomas, and repairing perforated ear drums. On a good day, I have about 50% of normal range of hearing—less if I have sinus or ear infections. Because I had my right ear completely reconstructed, I am unable to use any hearing aids effectively. Due to my upbringing in a impoverished rural town, I didn’t have access to speech therapy or options to learn American Sign Language. My loss of hearing wasn’t pronounced as an official disability, so I moved through most of my life trying to find creative ways to be successful at school or professionally. Now I wish I had spoken up more, but the aforementioned lack of resources and accommodations made it difficult.
Traveling is a necessity for (geo)scientists, from fieldwork, attending conferences, or networking with the scientific community. The quickest mode of transportation is air travel with changing pressure and humidity which apparently has a big impact on my sinus system. I remember attending the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting in San Francisco as an undergraduate in 2006, overwhelmed by the size of the conference and harder of hearing than usual. I thought I happened to catch a cold and tried to communicate my fellow scientists in loud poster sessions. I repeated this trip a few more times in graduate school and sure enough, the bacteria in my sinuses decided to have a party that moved to my ears. We all have flora in systems, mine just like to come unannounced and frequently. Later in graduate school, I traveled to Italy for fieldwork and I found myself with (surprise!) a sinus infection. It was not fun being in a foreign country and being unable to communicate at all in the local language; in addition, the infections made communicating effectively with my own team difficult. Nevertheless, I powered through these situations.
Because of my experiences, I’ve found myself being more vocal about my needs; I’ve realized that I’m my best advocate. Here are some strategies that have helped me.
Medical help: I have built a great relationship with my ENT and we’ve developed a system for traveling which helps prevent weeks of sinus congestion and nearly complete deafness. I travel for my job too often to make visits to the ENT feasible prior to every trip; but occasional visits a few times a year help. Please note, this is my personal plan; please consult your physician. I take steroidal prednisone and prescription-strength Sudafed right before a flight—this medication regime means I have a better chance of flying with limited, or even better, no sinus impacts. One downside to the medications, however, is that I’m sensitive to the steroid; I feel amped and often can’t sleep that first night if there are significant time zone changes—west coast to east coast in particular. This is not a minor downside; my reaction can make important meetings stressful. But the benefits far outweigh the cons. Since I’ve become a chronic sinus infection patient, normal antibiotics on existing infections don’t work. Proactively heading off infections is my preference, since if I’m at a conference or meeting, I cannot wait the two weeks for the medications to work. Waiting would mean that I’d miss conferences with breakthrough discoveries and vital conversations. I don’t love that I have to depend on medication and the side effects, but it helps me to be an active participant in conferences rather than a passive observer.
Live-captioning platforms and apps are improving, and more conferences are starting to use them for conferences and poster sessions.
An example is InnoCaption, an app for both Android and iPhone that can be used for teleconferencing meetings. A federally administered fund pays for it, and you must register, as it enables a live stenographer to generate captions. It requires a 4G network or reliable Wi-Fi.
Another approach is using smarter work phones that can use programs such as CapTel to do live captioning. These are phones such as the Cisco (model 8861) that does live captions during video. There are also applications such as Jabber that enable you to transfer captions to a computer screen for smart accessibility.
Traveling to foreign countries: Google Translate now has several offline dictionaries! Five years ago if you didn’t have Wi-Fi or data, you didn’t have Google Translate. But I recently used Google Translate successfully for Spanish! Google Translate is simple to use by talking into your smartphone—you can get good translations to or from English.
I find it helpful to I sit up front in conference rooms both to hear better and be seen.
If I didn’t quite catch the presentation, I ask the speakers for business cards to get a copy of presentations or posters.
Depend on the conference moderators: Another technique to anticipate impaired hearing depends on the conference size and style. I’ve asked moderators in advance (via email) to repeat questions from the audience if I’m a speaker. This helps to ensure I understand the question and help with accents. I’ve had mixed results—often there is no moderator to contact directly; it means I have to track down that individual in person before the session, which is a lot of work.
Normalize captions: The best way to normalize is to use Google Slides or captioned presentations for everyone all the time!
What tricks and tips do you use for communicating?
BIO: Circe Verba, PhD, is a research geologist, science communicator, and STEMinst at a government lab. She earned her doctorate in geology and civil engineering at the University of Oregon. Dr. Verba specializes in using advanced microscopy (petrography and electron microscopy) and microanalysis techniques to tackle challenges facing the safe and efficient use of fossil energy resources. Outside of the lab, Dr. Verba is an avid LEGO buff, even designing her own set featuring field geology and a petrographic laboratory.
In recent years, to my delight, captions have been showing up in more and more places in the United States. While I’ve been using captioning on my home TV for decades, now I see open captioning on TVs in public places, many internet videos, and most recently, in academic presentations. Everyone benefits from good captioning, not just deaf/HoH or folks with an auditory processing disorder. Children and non-native English speakers, for example, can hone their English skills by reading captions in English. And nearly everyone has trouble making out some dialogue now and then. But not all captioning is the same. While one form of captioning may provide fabulous access for deaf/HoH, another is useless. To ensure that our materials optimize inclusion, we need to figure out how to invest in the former and avoid the latter.
To unpack this a bit, I’m going to distinguish between 4 types of captioning that I’ve had experience with: 1) captions, 2) CART (communication access real-time translation), 3) auto-craptions, and 4) real-time auto-captions with AI. The first two are human produced and the last two are computer produced.
Captions: Captions are word-for-word transcriptions of spoken material. Open captions are automatically displayed, while closed captions require the user to activate the captions (click the CC option on a TV). To make these, a human produced script is added to the video as captions. Movies and scripted TV shows (i.e. not live shows) all use this method and the quality is usually quite good. In a perfect world, deaf/HoH academics (including students) would have access to captioning of this high quality all the time. Stop laughing. It could happen.
CART:This real-time captioning utilizes a stenotype-trained professional to transcribe the spoken material. Just like the court reporters who document court proceedings, a CART professional uses a coded keyboard (see image at right) to quickly enter phonemes that are matched in the vocabulary database to form words. The CART transcriptionist will modify the results as they go to ensure quality product. While some CART transcriptionists work in person (same room as the speakers), others work remotely by using a microphone system to listen to the speakers. Without a doubt, in-person CART provides way better captioning quality than remote CART. In addition to better acoustics, the in-person service can better highlight when the speaker has changed and transcriptionists can more easily ask for clarification when they haven’t understood a statement. As a cheaper alternative to CART, schools and universities sometimes use C-Print for lectures, where the non-steno-trained translators capture the meaning but not word-for-word translation. In professional settings, such as academic presentations, where specific word choice is important, CART offers far better results than C-Print but requires trained stenographers.
Some drawbacks of CART are that the transcription lags, so sometimes the speaker will ask “Any questions?” but I and other users can’t read this until the speaker is well into the next topic. Awkward, but eventually the group will get used to you butting in late. CART also can be challenging with technical words in academic settings. Optimally, all the technical vocabulary is pre-loaded, which involves sending material to the captionist ahead of time for the topics likely to be discussed. Easy-peasy? Not so fast! For administrative meetings of over 10 people, I don’t always know in advance where the discussion will take us. Like jazz musicians, academics enjoy straying from meeting agendas. For research presentations, most of us work on and tweak our talks up until our presentation. So getting advance access to materials for a departmental speaker can be… challenging.
Craptions:These are machine-produced auto-captions that use basic speech recognition software. Where can you find these abominationsless-than-ideal captions? Many YouTube videos and Skype use this. We call them ‘crap’tions because of the typical quality. It is possible that craptions can do an okay job if the language is clear and simple. For academic settings, these auto-craptions with basic speech recognition software are pretty much useless.
The picture at right shows auto-craption for a presentation at the 2018 American Geophysical Union conference about earthquakes. I know, right]Yes, the speaker was speaking in clear English… about earthquakes. The real crime of this situation is that I had requested CART ahead of time, and the conference’s ADA compliance subcontractor hired good quality professional transcriptionists. Then, the day before the conference, the CART professionals were told they were not needed. Of course, I didn’t know this and thought I was getting remote CART. By the time the craptions began showing up on my screen, it was too late to remedy the situation. No one that I talked with at the conference seemed to know anything about the decision to use craptions instead of CART; I learned all of this later directly from the CART professionals. The conference contractor figured that they could ‘save money’ by providing auto-craption instead of CART. Because of this cost-saving measure, I was unable to get adequate captioning for the two sessions of particular interest to me and for which I had requested CART. From my previous post on FM Systems, you may remember that all of my sessions at that conference were in the auxiliary building where the provided FM systems didn’t work. These screw-ups meant it was a lousy meeting for me. Five months have passed since the conference, and I’m still pretty steamed. Mine is but one story; I would wager that every deaf/HoH academic can tell you other stories about material being denied to them because quality captioning was judged too expensive.
Real-time auto-caption with AI: These new programs use cloud-based machine learning that goes farbeyond the stand-alone basic speech recognition of craptioning software. The quality is pretty good and shows signs of continuous improvement. Google slides and Microsoft office 365 PowerPoint both have this functionality. Link to a video of Google Slides auto-caption in action.You need to have internet access to utilize the cloud-based machine learning of these systems. One of the best features is that the lag between the spoken word and text is very short. I speak quickly and the caption is able to keep up with me. Before you start singing hallelujah, keep in mind that it is not perfect. Real-time auto captioning cannot match the accuracy of captioning or CART for transcribing technical words. Keep in mind that while it might get many of the words, if the captions miss one or two technical words in a sentence, then deaf/HoH still miss out. Nevertheless, many audience members will benefit, even with these missing words. So, we encourage all presenters to use real-time auto caption for every presentation. However, if a deaf/HoH person requests CART, real-time auto caption, even it is pretty darn good, should never be offered as a cheaper substitution. Their accommodation requests should be honored.
An offshoot of the real-time auto-caption with AI are apps that work on your phone. Android phones now have a Google app (Live Transcribe) that utilizes the same speech recognition power used in Google Slides. Another app that works on multiple phone platforms is Ava. I don’t have an Android phone and have only tried Ava in a few situations. It seems to do okay if the phone is close to the speaker, which might work in small conversation but poses problems for meetings of more than 3 people or academic presentations. Yes, I could put my phone up by the speaker, but then I can’t see the captions. So yeah, no.
What are your experiences with accessing effective captions in academic settings? Have you used remote captioning with success? For example, recently, I figured out that I can harness google slides real time auto-caption to watch webinars by overlapping two browser windows. For the first time, I can understand a webinar. I’ve got a lot of webinars to catch up on! Tell us what has worked (or not worked) for you.
You’re wearing your hearing aids, sitting at a conference presentation, feeling confident that you’re understanding what’s going on, when it happens. The audience reacts to something the speaker said, and you have no idea why. Until then, you’d thought that you were grasping enough of the presentation, but you’ve clearly missed something good. Reality check: your hearing aids might be good but you still can’t hear like a hearing person. I’ve been there. And I’ve found that when I’ve been able to get a good FM system set up at conferences, I can catch a lot more of the speaker’s remarks and subsequent discussions than when I try and go it alone with just my hearing aids. Getting FM systems to work effectively, however, can sometimes challenge even the most intrepid academic. So I thought that I would share what I’ve learned through several decades of requesting and using FM systems at conferences. I’ve occasionally used Real-Time Captioning (CART) and ASL interpreters at conferences, but someone more expert should post about those.
What is an FM system?
Frequency Modulation (FM) systems involve a paired transmitter and receiver that provide additional amplification to either a headset or, even better, directly to our hearing aids. That additional amplification can be invaluable in some difficult-to-hear situations. The audio signal is transmitted via waves within a narrow range of the FM spectrum—yup, the same as non-satellite radio. FM systems are sometimes called Assistive Listening Devices (ALDS). At conferences these systems can help by amplifying speakers’ remarks, audience questions, and ensuing discussions, as well as elevating conversations around posters above background noise.
Requesting FM systems at large conferences in the US
Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), large conferences in the US will have a box to check on the registration page to request accommodation. If they provide an open response box, I typically write:
“I need a FM system with 60 decibels of undistorted gain. The system should have a neckloop or induction earhooks that work with the telecoil in my hearing aids. Headsets are not compatible with my hearing aids.”
Through years of bad experiences, I’ve learned to provide very specific instructions.
Although I provide these specifics, I am often disappointed when I arrive at the
conference center. Many conference FM systems are pretty weak and only provide only a small amount of clear amplification (maybe 15-20 dB). This might be okay for someone who has a mild hearing loss—such as some with recently acquired loss—but it pretty useless for me. At other conferences, such as at the 2017 American Geophysical Union, I’m offered a setup as in the photo at right.
Me: These are not compatible with hearing aids
Clueless but earnest conference liaison: Oh yes, they are! You just put the headset over your ears.
Me: Um no. I use behind-the-ear hearing aids and my microphones are behind my ears. This is why I specifically requested a neckloop to directly communicate with the telecoil in my hearing aids.
Clueless but earnest conference liaison: A what?
Clueless but earnest conference liaison: Oh. Well, why don’t you just take your hearing aids out and use the headset instead?
Me: Umm no. My hearing aids are tuned for my particular frequency spectrum of hearing loss. I asked for 60 decibels gain for the system to boost above what my hearing aids offer and to compensate for people speaking softly, people not speaking directly into the microphone. . . That sort of thing.
Clueless but earnest conference liaison: Huh. Well, we don’t have anything like that.
After such unfruitful conversations I usually begin sorting out my own accommodations with my personal FM system (more on that in a bit). The few times that I’ve pushed for conferences or their sites to find an neckloop or a stronger FM system, I’ve never had success. For example, at one conference, a team of six technicians met with me to tell me that there was not a single induction neckloop to be had in the entire city of New Orleans—their hands were tied. Sure.
Warning about accommodation requests:Although conferences are becoming more responsive, I’ve found that about a third of the time, my requests on the registration forms are ignored. I never hear back from the conference, and when I show up they have no idea what I’m talking about. So as part of my conference prep, I now contact them about a month before the meeting if I haven’t received notification. I also budget an extra hour or two when I first arrive at the conference to sort out the accommodations.
Paired FM systems versus direct wired rooms
With paired FM systems, one transmitter is paired to one receiver that you carry with you. The transmitter must be set up in the conference room in advance of the session and is usually patched into the sound system so that your receiver picks up signals directly from the room’s microphones. In order to set this up, large conferences need to know which sessions you will attend several weeks ahead of time. This means that you can’t pop from one session to another as our hearing peers might do at large conferences. Also, if two HoH people want to attend the same session, the room may need to have two transmitters patched into the sound system.
Newer (or newly renovated since 2012) convention centers in the US and UK may have built-in transmitters throughout the convention hall. This means that you can take any receiver into any room and instantly get amplification without setting things up ahead of time. This flexibility is quite nice! The picture at right shows a charging rack of FM headsets and induction loops for the Washington DC Convention Center. I was really looking forward to using those at the 2018 AGU meeting, but unfortunately, all the sessions in my discipline were in the Marriott hotel next door and the system didn’t work at all there.
Small conferences and meetings outside of the US
For small conferences, as well as meetings outside of the US where the ADA is not in effect, I bring my personal FM system. At the top of this post are pictures of the FM system that I first started using around 1994 (left) and my current outdated fourteen-year-old system (middle). I can’t get this set repaired anymore, so I’m going to get a new one like the one on the right. Some benefits of personal systems over conference-provided systems is that personal systems are more powerful. My first FM system had audio boots that hooked directly to my hearing aids (left picture) which reduces signal degradation that can happen with neckloops (middle image).
At small conferences, I put my transmitter at the lectern before each session to help me catch more of the speaker’s presentation. Alas, this doesn’t help with questions and discussions, which can be a large challenge. At some conferences where microphones are used for questions and discussions, I ask the AV crew to patch my transmitter into the sound system. Right is a picture of all the different adaptors that I bring with me to ensure that my transmitter will work with the venue’s sound system. Some of these may be outdated.
While patching my transmitter into the sound system has worked very well in the past, I’ve had problems lately. Maybe sound systems have become more fussy about patching in auxiliary outputs. I am also not sure whether the newest FM systems, which use Bluetooth rather than FM signal, even have input jacks. Another hack that I came up with is to put my transmitter in front of a speaker (the photo at left is my transmitter taped to a microphone pole in front of a speaker stand at the 2018 Southern California Earthquake Center annual meeting). This hack allowed me to access the presentations and discussions that used microphones.
FM systems in poster halls
If the poster hall is crowded, you can aim the microphone of the FM system transmitter towards any speaker to elevate their voice above the background noise. This approach has worked well for me when using my own FM system. Note that the systems provided by convention centers are not mobile; it is best to bring your own to use in poster halls.
FM systems are expensive (~US$1000 – $4000), and like hearing aids, are often not covered by US health insurance. Full-time students in the US are eligible for personal FM systems through vocational rehab (degree of coverage depends on income). Many audiologists may not be aware of this (my own weren’t!), but check with the disability office at your university and they can hook you up with your state’s vocational rehab office. These FM systems are worth getting before you graduate! Some employers do purchase FM systems for their workers because they can be critical for career success; however, I’ve yet to meet an academic who has successfully negotiated an FM system from their employer (and would love to hear if you have). While insurance didn’t cover my last FM system, I was able to use a health spending account through my employer that saved me from paying taxes on the device. It is my understanding that outside of the US, personal FM systems are nearly always paid for out of pocket.
Why am I so pushy?
Since I end up using my personal FM system most of the time at large conferences, you might wonder why I keep requesting accommodations. I do so because I want the conference center to know that we are here. I want them to know that deaf/HoH academics should be considered when they are planning their meetings and ADA accommodations. If we don’t make waves, they will believe that the level of accommodation currently offered is satisfactory. I’ve heard too many stories of older academics who stop attending conferences because of declining hearing, and younger HoH academics discouraged from academic careers because of the difficulty of networking at large conferences. We owe it to ourselves and our community to be counted, advocate for flexible, effective amplification systems, and share our successful strategies.
Is my experience consistent with your own? What successful strategies have you used for FM systems at conferences?
I wrote this post on an airplane coming back from an international conference I attended in Thailand. Because of the distance involved, participation at this meeting was pretty light on scientists from North and South America, but had a lot of participants from Europe (primarily the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Belgium) and Asia (primarily Thailand, China, Japan, Taiwan, but several other countries too). It was a wonderful conference: great venue, warm hosts, cutting-edge talks, great food, new people to meet, and some fun sightseeing thrown in. It also brought with it the usual challenges of trying to understand talks and poster presentations and network with important scientists in noisy settings. But this conference also brought home a specific problem that has stymied me throughout my career: understanding unfamiliar accents.
Deaf/HoH academics who depend on oral communication will likely be familiar with the problem that, even in an optimal hearing environment, we better understand those who speak like we do. Unfamiliar or “foreign” is relative, of course. I speak English and Spanish, but, due to the particularities of my upbringing, my best shot at hearing/understanding Spanish is with people who speak Colombian Spanish, or even more, the version of Colombian Spanish spoken in and around Bogotá (indeed, that is the accent I speak with – immediately recognizable to most Latin Americans). My Argentinean and Mexican friends can attest to how obnoxious I can be asking them to repeat themselves. Likewise, for English, I fare best with a northern Midwestern US type of English; Australian, British, Indian and many other accents will leave me floundering. I imagine that the same is true for other deaf/HoH academics, but with different versions of their language they are most used to.
Scholarly research, of course, is a global venture, and it is wonderful that many luminaries in my field hail from around the world. I’m already incredibly lucky that most professional communication is conducted in English, a language I happen to know. But, while hearing people can be quite understanding of my communication difficulties in suboptimal environments, it seems cruel (and professionally unwise) to tell colleagues that I can’t ‘hear’ them because of their accents—especially because many such colleagues have worked hard to acquire their English skills, thus going the extra mile to ensure communication. Because of globalism, the problem with understanding unfamiliar accents goes beyond conferences and professional networking. Many of my undergraduate and graduate students are also from various international locations. I am heartbroken every time I feel that my difficulty understanding my students negatively affects my ability to mentor them.
I have not found ideal strategies to deal with the challenges of unfamiliar accents. Every accent becomes a little more familiar with constant exposure, so I do understand my graduate students (with whom I communicate almost daily) better as time goes by. But it never stops being a challenge, and I sometimes have to resort to written communication in our one-on-one meetings. Since the undergraduates I teach change each semester, I don’t have similar opportunities to become familiar with their accents. For conferences and professional networking, I imagine that real-time captioning would be the ideal solution; but such a resource is not available at all conferences (though it should be!) and is generally not an option for networking. I’ve been excited by the recent advances in speech recognition software, such as that demonstrated by Google Slides, and wonder both if the technology can accommodate a range of accents and, if so, if it could ever become a portable “translator” for deaf/HoH individuals (I know some portable translator apps exist, but haven’t tried them and don’t know the scope of their utility; perhaps some readers can share their experiences?). I’m also curious whether unfamiliar accents are ever a challenge for deaf/HoH academics who rely on sign language interpreters. What other strategies have deaf/HoH academics employed to help navigate the challenge of unfamiliar accents in a professional setting?
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!