Category Archives: daily grind

Three reasons why I chose industry research over academia

A picture of a set of tall office buildings viewed from the ground up next to a picture of a classic university building with ivy climbing the walls. The title of the blog post (Three reasons why I chose industry research over academia) is superimposed on both pictures.

-Alex Lu

After a long five years, my stint as a PhD student was finally reaching its end – and that meant I needed to hit the job market. As someone who was graduating from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto with a specialization in computational biology, I had some uncertainty about what kinds of positions I should be applying for. I was at the intersection of two fields with drastically different career trajectories. In the life sciences you are typically expected to spend a few years as a postdoc, but in computer science it’s not uncommon to apply for faculty positions right out of the PhD. I did know that I wanted to stay in academia, so I decided to apply to assistant professor postings first to see if I could successfully convince search committees that I was really more of a computer scientist, and then I’d fall back on postdocs if my search was unsuccessful. What I didn’t know was how much my preferences would evolve through the job search: despite being offered a Canada Research Chair position that would have come with up to a million dollars in federal funding, I ended up choosing an industry research position at Microsoft Research (MSR). What influenced my decision to choose industry over academia?

When I first entered the job market, I had three main ideas about academia that made me believe it was the only option for me. First, I thought it was more accessible. Universities are usually progressive, and each has their own accessibility or disability services department. Even though accessibility legislation exists, I always thought that the expense of hiring interpreters would clash against corporate goals of profit, so I assumed that companies would try to scrape by with the bare minimum of accommodations. Second, I thought it was the only place where I could pursue an independent research agenda. I do a lot of basic research, and I strongly believe that scientific research should be used to enrich everyone’s lives and be accessible to everyone, not held as secrets in a private company. Third, I thought it was the best opportunity for mentorship. In academia, you are required to mentor students. As someone from an underrepresented background on multiple axes, I wanted to make sure that other underrepresented people had the same opportunity to benefit from the academic system as I did. 

So naturally, the majority of my applications went out to universities. I sent out a total of 32 applications to research-intensive institutions globally. I made one exception — I sent out an application to MSR as the sole industry position I applied for. The only reason I sent out the MSR application was because a colleague had transitioned to a position there, and he sent me a Twitter DM inviting me to apply. I was initially resistant, but he reassured me that the application would be no additional work; to apply I just needed to submit the same research statement and CV that I was sending off to academia. I figured I had nothing to lose by applying, and sending off my application took less than thirty minutes on their online portal. 

A few months after I sent out my applications, I starting hearing back from departments. Being a fresh PhD graduate with no postdoctoral training, and with the pandemic causing hiring freezes, I was pessimistic about my prospects — so I was surprised to learn that I had scored several interviews at institutions in the United States, Canada, and Europe. What surprised me was that at the majority of institutions I was interviewed by life sciences departments, while the computer science departments mostly turned me down. I was expecting the opposite given the standards for postdocs in both fields, but it turned out that many life sciences departments were excited about interdisciplinary research and aware of field-specific nuances in training. The majority of institutions where I interviewed were incredibly warm and inclusive, and excellent on access: one consulted with their access department ahead of time and offered me 1.5x the time on the screening interview to account for interpretation delays; another institution’s search committee greeted me in sign language. I think my positive experience may have been influenced by me explicitly identifying as Deaf and queer in my research statements; some institutions may have self-selected out at that point, leaving me with only the progressive departments. 

My interview at MSR came later than most of my interviews in academia, so they had to beat a pretty strong impression as well as my natural resistance to the idea of industry research. So how did they do it? What I found is that MSR systematically challenged each of the misconceptions that I had about academic versus industry research. In doing so, they exposed faults in the academic system. While I was aware of these faults, I always considered them nuisances that I had to accept to join an otherwise principled system. MSR offered some better alternatives, and made me realize that these were things I did not actually have to put up with.

First, on the accessibility front, I was taken back to learn that Microsoft had their own in-house ASL coordination team. During my academic job interviews, I was mostly interviewing at departments that while open-minded, had never employed a Deaf faculty member previously. I expected this would be the case; Deaf STEM PhDs are still rare due to the sheer amount of systematic barriers, so I naturally accepted that I would need to do a lot of explaining and legwork on my needs. I had already devised a strategy to minimize the impact of this inexperience on me: I told each of the departments that they should enlist my current academic interpreters at my PhD institution, so I would not be penalized as departments scrambled to find potentially less-experienced interpreters without being aware of the pitfalls. In contrast, the ASL coordination team at MSR directly reached out directly to me. They were totally on board with my plan, but they also made me aware of their own services. They told me that they provided ASL interpretation for about 40 Deaf employees globally, so they already had a system in place for coordinating interpreters. In fact, their in-house ASL coordinator was actually Deaf herself, and was a certified DI — I had an opportunity to chat with her, and we discussed her plans for building a community for Deaf and hard of hearing people at the company. 

This was the first thing I realized MSR could do better than most academic departments: they were able to bring institutional knowledge on accessibility. I’ve always considered myself fortunate, because as a Deaf person, I’ve rarely had to “fight” for my needs — I’ve mostly worked with accessibility departments and academics who were open-minded and interested in accommodating me. But even when working with institutions that are willing, I still have to allocate a proportion of my energy to explaining who I am and what I need to those who have never worked with Deaf people before. I had always considered that energy tax to be inevitable. Microsoft challenged that belief. While I still have to do some explaining — for example, I’m the first Deaf person they’ve hired in a research role (as opposed to sales or engineering etc.), so there are still specific nuances that come with that — for the first time, I could consider what else I could do with the energy that I would normally expend on defending my existence. 

Second, on the research front, I learned that MSR gave full research autonomy to their researchers. Prior to interviewing at MSR, I mostly knew about industry through informational interviews with start-ups and smaller biotech companies. I was not impressed; in addition to keeping my research scope constrained on what would be immediately beneficial to the company, I would not have the opportunity to publish and disseminate my research to the public. What my interview at MSR taught me was that industry research actually occupies a wider spectrum than that. The researchers there explained to me the structure of the company: while Microsoft itself has its own research team that does work on more product-orientated research, MSR is considered an independent entity. While it receives funding from the parent company, the researchers pursue their own research agenda, publish almost all of their research publicly, and maintain active ties with academic institutions. Finally, I was also very excited about how the research group was set up: unlike a traditional academic department, which is stratified by discipline, MSR is highly interdisciplinary, and you see social scientists, mathematicians, biologists, etc. on the same floor every day, instead of being hosted in a different buildings across campus. As a highly interdisciplinary researcher, I was excited about just how much my research would branch out in an environment where I was in constant contact with people of different research backgrounds than me.

Essentially, my new position looks similar to an assistant professor position, with some key differences: the biggest is that there is no grant-writing or mandated teaching involved. There is also no tenure involved. For me, all of these things were appealing. I had always viewed the grant-writing side of academia as a necessary evil to keep the research churning, and the prospect of just not having to write grants was mind-bogglingly exciting. While I enjoy teaching, I enjoy it with highly-motivated students who are there to learn, and I don’t like the administration aspects of more routine courses where many students are just there to check off a requirement on a degree. As for tenure — while the end-prospect was exciting, I was concerned about how the demands of the tenure track might change my values and research philosophy. One of the things I expressed while interviewing with academic departments was that I didn’t want to sign up for a school where publication requirements for tenure were too demanding. I felt that stress of churning out papers might trickle down to my students, and I wanted to be someone who would hold space for my students to learn and explore their own interests instead of expecting them to be productive to bolster my own portfolio. 

Third, I realized that there is still so much mentoring that can be done outside of formal academic structures. One of the disadvantages of the MSR position for me was that I would not be able to build a lab and mentor students through a graduate degree. I initially considered this a serious demerit that would clash with my goals of fostering underrepresented students through the academic system. However, the other benefits of the MSR job made me think about alternative ways I could achieve this goal. I realized that the autonomy baked into the job would still give me a lot of opportunity to do good. For example, each researcher at MSR has the opportunity to hire an intern from a graduate program every year, and I consider this a way to give students opportunities and expose them to new research interests; I plan to keep the scope of my hiring wide and will be looking at outreach from institutions that serve underrepresented students, like HBCUs. Similarly, a lot of MSR researchers take on voluntary academic supervision or service appointments: some serve as diversity chairs for conferences, and many sit on PhD committees. I’m already discussing co-supervising some postdocs, and opportunities for more machine learning education at Gallaudet. I would say that not limiting my mentorship options to the boxes that academia provides for me may foster more creativity, and I’m looking forward to how I carry this out in the future. 

Overall, my interview at MSR left a major impact on me. And this meant I had a very difficult decision to make: my offer at MSR came at the same time as an offer from a major Canadian university. I remember sitting at my desk with both offers side-by-side, and thinking how my offer from academia was everything I had ever wanted. Even when I was a child, my parents had always encouraged me to go into higher education, because they said that with my disability, public institutions would be willing to accommodate me but not private companies. In some respects, I had been groomed into viewing academia as the place for me, and I also feel like this story is true for many other disabled people. I think this is a motivating factor behind much of the activism around accessibility in higher education, because there is a dissonance between the way we are trained to see academia as a sanctuary, and the way it actually is in practice. But in the end, my industry offer won out. It promised a brighter future, without many of the things that I had settled for as a matter of “this is just the way things are” in academia. While we will see if those promises bear fruit, for me, the risk is worth it.





A white male with dark hair and a half smile in front of a shop. He is wearing a lilac colored shirt and a jean jacket.

By day, Alex Lu is a computational biologist whose research focuses on artificial intelligence that can “teach themselves” biology in large-scale microscopy datasets through puzzle-solving and interaction. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Toronto, and will be starting as a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research in September. By night, he is a Deaf-queer community organizer. He previously served as a board director for the BC Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf, the frank theatre company, and OPIRG-Toronto. His work as a journalist focuses on the intersection between disability, queer, and racial communities.

Hearing and understanding are not the same

– Sarah Sparks

Hearing and understanding are not the same. Hearing sound is not just about the ear. AN image of a white woman with black pulled back hair holds a hand behind her ear.

Deaf and hard of hearing professionals who use hearing technologies sometimes find ourselves in challenging situations. Whether at conferences, in daily work environments, or in other professional settings, we encounter frequent misunderstandings about our hearing abilities. At times, hearing colleagues mistakenly believe that we understand everything that is said so long as we have heard it. We might need to advocate extra strongly for ourselves when a conference organizer declines to provide American Sign Language interpreters, CART services, FM systems or other accommodations because we have access to sound. Colleagues who see us every day might assume that we have access to information when we do not: that we understood an oral exchange simply because we heard it.

The following is repost from Sarah’s blog and you can see Sarah sign her blog in ASL at this link.


Family members of deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) people sometimes ask me questions like this one: “My deaf child seemed not to hear when I asked if she finished her math homework, but she understood when I said, ‘Dinner is ready!’ Why did she hear one but not the other?”

Like many DHH people, I have experienced hearing without understanding. As an audiologist and cochlear implant user, I know to expect this from myself. But awkward situations do occur sometimes. I might find out that a neighbor spoke to me in the hallway and now believes that I’m rude because I didn’t answer. Or a friend thinks that I don’t care about their problem because they mentioned it while I wasn’t looking and I didn’t catch all of what was said. Or a family member is confused because I understood, “What movie do you want to watch?” but missed, “Could you do the laundry tonight?”

Explaining, “I heard it, but I didn’t understand it,” can be a challenge. Most people, including our hearing friends and families, have never had to think about the differences between hearing and understanding. What are those differences, anyway? To answer that question, we need to consider the following:

Hearing devices do not provide “normal” hearing. Hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other devices are great technologies. Many DHH people use them for access to sound, but they do not provide “normal” hearing. DHH people have more access to sound with hearing devices than we have without them, but these technologies do not work like eyeglasses that correct to 20/20 vision.

Hearing is not just about the ear. We hear with our brains, not just our ears. Hearing aids and cochlear implants do not repair damage to the tiny nerve cells in the inner ear, the bones in the middle ear, and other parts of the ear’s anatomy that may be affected. Because of this, DHH people who listen through hearing devices do not necessarily receive the same sound input to the brain as hearing people.

Hearing that sound is happening is not the same as processing sound. Determining where a sound is, how far away it is, what kind of sound it is, and whether it is different from other sounds: all of these are possible because of auditory processing in the brain. When a hearing person is listening, they have access to subtle auditory cues. These are variations in sounds that we need for differentiating one sound from another. They play an important role in auditory processing. Even with hearing devices, most DHH people will miss some of these cues. In some situations, these cues are missing for hearing people too. Have you ever struggled to understand someone speaking through a megaphone, intercom system, or out-of-tune radio? Hearing a spoken message does not necessarily mean that all of its information was accessible.

What might happen if a DHH person heard the message, but some of the information in it was not accessible? A few examples:

  • Misunderstanding words and sentences: the DHH person heard, “The samurai” instead of “The sand is dry.”
  • Misunderstanding the tone of the message: the speaker was excited, but the DHH person heard their tone of voice as angry.
  • Difficulty hearing in background noise: the speaker’s voice seemed distorted by the noises in a restaurant or at a party, and the DHH person did not hear the words clearly.
  • Perceiving a sound as far away when it is nearby: the speaker was near the DHH person in the hallway, but the sound of their voice seemed farther away. The DHH person did not know that the speaker wanted their attention.
  • Perceiving two similar but different sounds as the same: the DHH person consistently hears /m/ and /n/ as the same, so words like “moo” and “new” also sound the same.

Listening for understanding requires cognitive effort. Auditory processing isn’t the only thing that the brain does with sound. Language processing is a whole other topic for another day (and spoken language is not the only kind of language!). For now: making sense of sounds and understanding their meanings within a spoken language requires effort and energy from our brains. That effort is greater for DHH people who use hearing devices because the auditory input that we receive is not the same as hearing people receive. Noise in the background means that even more cognitive effort is required for listening. When a person has to use more cognitive resources to listen, their ability to comprehend and remember auditory information decreases.

Think of it like the gas tank in a car: when the road is clear and you’re driving at a steady speed with no delays, you will use less gasoline than you would when driving the same distance in a rush hour traffic jam. For most hearing people, daily listening involves clear roads and steady speeds with a few pockets of occasional traffic. The day ends, and a new day begins with a full tank of gas. But for DHH people, there are fewer clear roads. The day is full of traffic jams and roadblocks like background noise, lack of access to visual cues, and complex listening situations where auditory information is missed. The day ends, but our gas tanks never get refilled completely. Our hearing coworkers and classmates might be ready for a nap by the end of a long day while we were exhausted and in need of a listening break (and maybe a nap too!) by noon.

Why did the DHH person in your life hear what you said just now but didn’t seem to hear you five minutes ago? Maybe they heard you talking five minutes ago but didn’t know that you were talking to them. Maybe because they thought you were talking to someone else, they opted to save some of their listening energy for later. Maybe they heard what you said five minutes ago but another sound was happening at the same time and their brain prioritized that sound instead. Maybe the speech sounds of what you said five minutes ago were more challenging to understand than the speech sounds of what you said just now. Maybe the DHH person is exhausted from a long day of nonstop auditory input, and what you said five minutes ago required more listening effort than what you said just now. Or maybe you spoke more softly five minutes ago and they didn’t hear you at all. There are many possible reasons that a DHH person might not have understood a spoken message.


A smiling, young white woman with glasses wears her dark hair back to show her cochlear implant.

Dr. Sparks holds a clinical Doctorate in Audiology (Au.D.) from Gallaudet University. She is the founder of Audiology Outside the Box, an audiologic counseling and aural (re)habilitation-focused telepractice. She also works part time at another clinic, providing cochlear implant, hearing aid, and diagnostic testing services. Currently, she is studying at Gallaudet for a Ph.D. in Hearing, Speech, and Language Sciences. Her clinical and research interests include pediatrics, vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, cochlear implants, the audiologist’s role in counseling and self-advocacy skill development, and audiology services provided in American Sign Language. Her Ph.D. dissertation research will focus on vestibular dysfunction and its impact on deaf/HoH children.

6 Ways to Dismantle Barriers for Disabled Faculty on Campus

-Stephanie Cawthon

This is a repost from Dr. Stephanie Cawthon’s blog, where she explores topics such as educational access, equity, attainment and deafness. ‘6 Ways to Dismantle Barriers for Disabled Faculty on Campus was originally posted on April 8, 2021, along with a downloadable infographic.

Infographic summarizing the 6 activities listed in the main text that can dismantle barriers for disabled faculty. Each action is presented in a different color with pared down representative drawings.

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.

Eloquence is Overrated…and Exhausting

white woman with dark shoulder length hair

–Hi there. I’m Sara, and I’m almost deaf. 

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.  

Sara Halpern

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.

Young white woman sites with a canyon behind her. She wears a baseball hat and glasses. The wooden  sign next to her says "Ooh Aah Point".

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.

Smiling white man sits at a table with a model of the human ear in front of him. He wears black sweater and behind him are shuttered windows. The text on the right reads " Cochlear implants are not my thing... yet" On the left "the Eagle Ear Blog' is written below The Mind Hears logo.

Cochlear implants are not my thing… yet

— Henry

This is a repost from Dr. Henry Adler’s blog, The Eagle Ear, where he chronicles his career and deafness. ‘Cochlear implants are not my thing… yet‘ was originally posted at The Eagle Ear on November 29, 2020.

I was a graduate student at Dr. James Saunders’ laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  At that time, the laboratory focused on both the structural and functional aspects of hearing loss and recovery in chickens.  The laboratory had other research interests such as the structural aspects of middle ear bone development in small mammals, but that’s beside the point.

I was the first deaf graduate student at UPenn’s own Biomedical Graduate Group – I entered there with an undeclared major in the fall of 1989.  My initial plan was to major in pathology but I eventually got my doctorate in Neuroscience. That’s been already explained in an earlier blog (Why I chose Neuroscience over Marine Biology – August 17, 2020).

It was an unusual time for me and anyone involved in inner ear research for different reasons.

As for me, I was probably one of very few scientists with a congenital hearing loss, perhaps the first deaf scientist who attended any meeting of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology (ARO).  Yes, there had been a few others with hearing loss who had attended such a meeting, but none of them was born with a hearing loss or had hearing loss at an early age.

As for other ARO members, well, many, if not all, of them had originally focused on helping ameliorate the effects of hearing loss on everyday life.  Such focus had involved learning how to treat or even cure hearing loss.  When they either met or heard about me, they’d say, “Whoa!”  They must’ve been struck by the possibility that maybe a deaf individual might want not only to learn about the functional and structural aspects of hearing loss in all animals including human beings but also to consider treatment for his own hearing loss so that he could fit better into the Hearing Research community.

Well, as I described in an early blog (‘You have a bad attitude’ – August 17, 2022), the answer is no.

For several years when I was at Jim’s laboratory, I had worked with him, fellow graduate students, medical students doing rotations, residents in otolaryngology and other visiting scientists.  Some, if not all, had tried to pressure me into having a cochlear implant, either seriously or in a fun way.  I always brushed them off.

Nearing the end of my graduate studies, I was working on my Ph.D. dissertation.  Naturally, I was under immense pressure to finish it off before my dissertation defense, but I also was able to relax a bit when I could take a few moments to do so.  One of them took place at the laboratory when I believe we all had a lunch break, maybe for a pizza or dessert break.  Jim and all his graduate students were chatting back and forth, and of course I couldn’t grasp all of what they were talking about.  Somehow, Jim commented something about cochlear implants, and I finally blew up on him.  Jim realized how serious I was about not having a cochlear implant, even though the point he was making was not about my decision not to have a cochlear implant but was made in general.  But at that time, I thought he was talking about me.  Hence the loss of my temper.

A few weeks later when it was time to orally present and defend my dissertation, my parents and my fiancée Denise came to watch me.  I was nervous as hell – I was rather confident with my approach to present my work but had little, if any, preparation to answer audience questions for several reasons.  

One reason is I didn’t participate much in group discussions about hearing research in general – participants would talk back and forth, and sign language interpreters would try to capture what they were discussing.  Unfortunately they weren’t always successful because they themselves weren’t scientifically proficient.  Another reason is that Jim and/or my fellow graduate students either didn’t have time and/or didn’t know how to prepare me for any question-and-answer sessions.  Even though one of my fellow graduate students had deaf parents, he himself was a very quiet individual. Most of the time, no sign language interpreters or any other accommodations were available at the laboratory.  So, it was OK for me to sit back and let them talk without my having to participate.  No wonder that at least one of my fellow graduate students had felt (and even expressed) that I had been a lazy student.

Let’s go back to my lack of cochlear implantation during my graduate studies.  When I barely passed my dissertation defense (I thought I didn’t pass it, but I wasn’t the only graduate student who had felt that way), we had a lab party.  During the party, Jim had told my parents that I would not be a good candidate for cochlear implantation. He might have based his conclusion on his interactions with me, including my blow-up a few weeks back then.

Several days, months or years later (I don’t remember exactly when), my parents told me about Jim’s mention of my not being a good candidate for cochlear implantation.  At first, I said OK.  Later on, when my parents read my blog (that is, You have a bad attitude), they reminded me of Jim’s assessment of my candidacy.   

Now, only after I had kept (and still keep) hearing from my peers with hearing loss who now wear cochlear implants and are doing well, career-wise, as well as had seen how well my wife Denise is doing with her own cochlear implant, I realize that the lack of candidacy was based on my attitude on cochlear implantation.  It’s not because I’m against cochlear implantation, but because comments from people with whom I’m friendly or in a close relationship have stiffened my resistance against having my own cochlear implant.  Plus, I just have had too many things on my mind, and I don’t want cochlear implants, followed by therapy, to take time away from things I want or need to do.


Biography of Henry J. Adler: I am a Research Assistant Professor at the Center for Hearing and Deafness at the University at Buffalo.  I do research on several fields of Hearing Science — they include (but are not limited to) hearing loss, hyperacusis, and tinnitus, as well as inner ear injury, protection, and repair.  I have been involved in Hearing Research since the early 1990s when I was a graduate student at the Biomedical Graduate Group at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn).  I have been profoundly deaf since birth and started wearing hearing aids AND speech therapy when I was 15 months old.  I went to the Lexington School for the Deaf in Jackson Heights, NY and then was mainstreamed into the NYC Public School System, which culminated with my entrance into Bronx High School of Science.  Afterwards, I matriculated at Harvard University, majoring in biology, and worked as a research technician at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary for two years before entering UPenn.  Within a year after my college graduation, I began to interact with Deaf people and eventually became adept in American Sign Language.  So, I’m not limiting myself to just spoken and sign languages but I aim to maximize my efforts to obtain as much information as I can at both personal and professional levels.  You can learn about my perspectives on the effects of hearing loss on both personal and professional lives of mine via the-eagle-ear.com.

Making your in-person and remote workplaces accessible for your deaf/HoH colleagues

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 link to read our list of recommendations. We welcome your comments and suggestions either to this post or directly within the document at this link.

Conquering faculty meetings (or not…) when deaf/hard of hearing

-Ana

Making it as a deaf/hard of hearing (HoH) academic can often feel like a game of whack-a-mole. Between research activities, teaching duties, and that large nebulous category ‘service,’ communication challenges lurk around every corner. Some I can troubleshoot fairly quickly— i.e. arranging a classroom so there is walking space between desks and I can approach my students to better hear them (mole whacked!). Other challenges have required a few more tries, but I’ve eventually figured out viable solutions—i.e. belatedly acquiring an FM system was a game changer when it came to group discussions of papers (mole missed, mole missed, mole whacked!). But there is a situation that I have not yet been able to master, even after many, many years: the departmental faculty meeting.

I had less than a passing knowledge of that special faculty obligation that is the Departmental Faculty Meeting when I started out as an assistant professor. I’d heard some friends and my spouse—people who’d gotten faculty positions before me—mention them, usually accompanied by eye rolls. But I didn’t really have any expectations about what these meetings entailed or what my role in them might be.

Cue over to my first faculty meeting as a deaf/HoH faculty in a predominantly hearing institution. I walked into a an overly large room (overly large for the number of people we had) that looked somewhat like this:

A room with chairs in rows, in which a faculty meeting is taking place. Stick figures are scattered throughout, with one twisting and turning her head in an attempt to speech read what is being said by people in all corners of the room.

We were 15-20 faculty seated in a classroom meant for over 40, with everybody seemingly intent in maximizing their distance from all others. After an hour of feeling like a bobblehead as I desperately twisted my neck trying to speech read my department chair in front and my colleagues in all corners of the room, I came to three conclusions:

1. Faculty (who would have thought!) are just like undergrads, and will beeline for chairs in the last rows of a room

2. Important stuff got discussed in faculty meetings (I think I caught some words that sounded like budgets and curriculum…)

3. I was dead meat, because I could not follow anything that was being said

So I went home and cried. My first year as an assistant professor, I cried after every single faculty meeting. Granted, we didn’t have that many faculty meetings back then, but enough to confirm my deep-rooted fear that I was certainly not going to survive this career path. It was clear to me in my first year that faculty meetings were whipping me soundly; if I were keeping score I would call it: Faculty Meetings 1–Ana 0.

Of course the obvious thing to do would have been to ask my department chair to change the setup of the faculty meetings. After all, my colleagues knew I was hard of hearing and relied on hearing aids for communication. But I was terrified that if my department caught whiff of how much I struggled to hear, this would sow doubts about my competence as a teacher and doom my tenure prospects. Besides, although I had a long history of self-reliance, I had zero experience in self-advocacy. Among my many thoughts were “What in the world falls under the ‘reasonable’ umbrella in reasonable accommodation?” and “oh, wait, I’m not a US citizen, does the ADA [American with Disabilities Act] even cover me?” (I still don’t know the answer to this one).

Towards the end of the academic year I found some courage to request CART (Communication Active Real Time Translation) for a final retreat-style faculty meeting. The captionists were to sit next to me and type out all discussions. My chair knew about the CART, but I (foolishly) didn’t alert the faculty. At the beginning of the meeting, a colleague expressed discomfort about the presence of unknown people in the room (the captionists). Though an explanation brought a quick apology, I felt marked. Added to the captioning time lag that at times jarred with what I could hear, I scored another loss: Faculty Meetings 2–Ana 0.

A transmitter with an omnidirectional microphone placed on a table.

My second year brought a new department chair, a tiny increase in self-confidence, and also an increase in the frequency of faculty meetings. Aaagh! I finally resolved to approach my chair and request that faculty be seated in a round square table format during meetings so that I would have a better shot at speech reading. Simultaneously, I acquired a new FM system and a transmitter with an omnidirectional microphone — a forerunner of the one pictured here. I would place it on the center of the table and voila! OK, so it wasn’t quite 100%, and I was still missing most of the banter and jokes, but jumping from 50 to 90% comprehension (These are completely unscientific numbers. Naturally, there’s no way for me to ever tell how much I’m missing; my estimate is based on my confusion level at the end of meetings) felt wonderful. This was it! I was going to nail this faculty thing! New score: Faculty Meetings 2–Ana 1!

Then my department grew. 

Schematic of a conference setting in a hollow square format.

Okay, I get the fact that department success is gauged in part by growth. And yes, improving faculty-to-student ratios is always a good thing. But growth meant that in order to sit all of us in rectangle we were now sitting like this:

Ummm, with a gaping hole in the middle, where is microphone transmitter to go? I started putting it next to me, but of course this makes it much less likely to pick up voices from those sitting farther away. I considered going back to CART, but at this point I had had my first kid and often had to rush out of faculty meeting before the end in order to make it to daycare pickup; I couldn’t bring myself to subject others to my sometimes ad hoc schedule… so I muddled along and considered this round lost. New score: Faculty Meetings 3–Ana 1.

A Lego knight with shield, sword and helmet. It is pretty happy that no faculty meeting can hurt it now.

Fast forward a few years—the department kept growing. We were now meeting in a large room that combined my two meeting nightmares: square table arrangements with a central hole AND faculty sitting in rows (we no longer all fit around the square). Even worse… recall that faculty are just like undergrads….most actively choose to sit as far away from the center/front of the room if given an option. So much for our “round table.” 

I started to cultivate the attitude recommended by some of my hearing colleagues… faculty meeting, bah, waste of time, place where people go to hear themselves talk, nothing happens there that couldn’t be solved more quickly through email….bah! OK, so attitude was my new weapon armor. By my calculations we were now at this score: Faculty Meetings 4–Ana 2. Ha! A comeback!

Schematic of a conference set up that involves chair lining up the perimeter of a room, as well as table set in a U-shape, with a peninsula in the center also lined with chairs.

A few years later, further department growth and another new chair. But I told this one about my difficulties following discussions whenever we sat in rows. Alas, we were now too many faculty to sit in any sort of rectangular format that would fit in a room. I had started in a department with around 20 people and we now had more than 50! To maximize my visual contact with faculty in a room, we came up with this pretty funky rectangle with peninsula shape. Ummm… perhaps we can call this score: Faculty Meetings 4–Ana 3? We would have patented this design, but there were two problems. The perimeter of the room (around the rectangle) still had to be lined with chairs in order to have enough seating should everybody decide to show up. And see observation #1 above: faculty are just like undergrads. This means that people prefer to take the perimeter spots before they take any rectangle spots. And it turns out that people prefer to STAND IN A CORNER of the room before taking ANY of the peninsula spots in the center. New score: Faculty Meetings 5–Ana 3.

So we get to where we are today. I catch myself wondering how traitorous it is for me to dream of a smaller department while also cultivating a blasé attitude towards faculty meetings so that I release myself from feeling obligated to try and follow the discussions. In a way, this outcome is an anthesis of what a blog post on thriving in academia with deafness should be. Over a decade of trying to find a solution for a way to participate effectively in what should be a routine part of faculty life has led instead to something that resembles an arms race and I have no solution to offer. At the same time, however, this post on getting by in academia with deafness portrays pretty effectively the reality of trying to adjust to shifting communication settings as a deaf/HoH academic. I hesitate to sound as if I’m advocating “managing” as opposed to “thriving” when it comes to facing the fluctuating demands of academic life, but sometimes, while we’re whacking those moles, “managing” is what we can do.

Pandemic addendum: I wrote this post before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, never imagining the ways in which my faculty meeting odyssey would be upended yet again. The thought of meeting in-person with 40-50 colleagues now seems so distant, and new “moles” have appeared in our now virtual faculty meetings (ahem…thinking here of all those who choose to speak with their zoom cameras OFF). Yet I’ve also picked up some new management strategies in the interim… For example, Michele’s recent post points out some of the silver linings for deaf/HoH academics in working from home. And from Paige Glotzer’s profile I’ve now learned of the existence of Catchbox throwable microphones; if when life returns to normal, could this be my new faculty meeting strategy? I can’t wait to see

Accommodating a Pandemic

-Michele

We’ve all been adjusting to the ‘new normal’ of the Covid-19 pandemic. Working from home now means interacting with colleagues and students via our computers. Shopping means wearing masks and washing hands. In-person social interactions are laced with anxiety over potential Covid-19 exposure. Like me, you might have adjusted to changing conditions back in March and April with a hopeful eye towards summer—the anticipated ebb of flu season—and with it a hope for the ebb of Covid-19. But this virus has proved that it is not the flu. Covid-19 is going to be with us for a while in the United States.

So, we adjust to and accommodate this pandemic by adopting new ways to work and live. We academics are figuring out how to teach on-line, how to multitask through seminars, how to conduct meetings on-line, and how to connect with our colleagues through innovative on-line conferences. This is the new normal. We miss times past when we could stop in a colleague’s office to ask a question, interact with students after class, and walk with a friend across campus for coffee. All of those interactions are vital to building the strong connections that comprise our social network. I grieve for those lost, or temporarily misplaced, connections and feel their loss brutally. But I will tell you a secret. Something that seems preposterous in the face of our isolation and struggle to connect and support one another. My secret is that I am ambivalent about returning to in-person work on campus.

Accommodating a Pandemic over photo by Gabriel benois of a laptop with zoom meeting in progress. On the desk next to laptop are a tablet, a digital watch and a phone.

Working from home, I have far greater control over my communication environment than I do with in-person meetings/lectures/conferences. With this new normal, I don’t have to snap my head from one person to another during meetings to try and catch the fast interchange of conversation. The awkwardness of turn-taking within on-line meetings means folks don’t talk over one another. Now, I don’t have to strategize the placement of my FM system in order to best capture voices throughout the room (post about FM systems at conferences). As long as folks are using good external microphones, I can use the amplifier on my computer to boost voices. While it is still difficult to arrange for captionists or ASL interpreters for meetings during this pandemic (finding captionists has actually become much more difficult because of high demand!), I am able to use artificial intelligence-based transcription software (I like using otter.ai but there are several out there) to fill in gaps and provide some relief from listening fatigue. I don’t have to arrive to meetings early in order to grab a seat with my back to the windows so that speakers won’t be back lit. 

Which seat will allow me to speech read the most people? Or should I sit where I can speech read the people likely to talk the most?  

Now, as long as folks have their videos on and are well lit, I can usually speech read them OK within small to moderate sized meetings. Ryan noted in his post on sudden remote teaching that when meetings become large, you can’t see everyone well. Furthermore, Sarah Nović nicely points out the drawbacks of Zoom group meetings of both signed language users and hearing people in this BBC worklife article.

By the way, invest in a headset or external microphone and please don’t sit with your window behind you because it makes you backlit. Besides, won’t it be more pleasant for you to gaze past your computer to look out of your window during our boring Zoom meetings? If you can’t avoid being back-lit, adjust for low-light conditions (e.g., Zoom has a video settings for this).

The need to accommodate the schedules of colleagues around the globe means more recorded talks in my discipline, many of which offer some form of captions so that I can catch most of what the speakers say. With this new normal, I don’t have to sit through conference talks wondering if speaker said anything that wasn’t depicted on the slides text, graphs and figures.

Vigorous internal debate: 
Me: I don’t get it. Dare I ask a question?
Also me: No, the speaker probably addressed this issue and I/you just missed it. 
Me: What if other people missed it?
Also me: No silly, they are all hearing. It is just me/you.

The return to in-person work, whether it happens in January 2021 or January 2022, will undoubtedly require wearing masks. As Ana explained in her post on wearing masks, this appropriate safety precaution interferes with communication for deaf and hard of hearing folks. Recently, I went into the office to water my plants and ran into some students. We all sported masks to talk with one another. While it was lovely to see them in 3D and to have a less stilted conversation than possible on Zoom, the interaction was extremely tiring for me since I couldn’t speech read their faces. Could I do this all day? No. Absolutely not. While folks rightfully complain about Zoom fatigue, the weariness that accumulates with hours of Zoom meetings, I prefer Zoom fatigue than fatigue that comes from conversing in masks. 

In our accommodation of the pandemic, we are all changing the way that we work. These changes were not designed to be more inclusive and accessible to deaf/HoH academics but many of these changes have inadvertently made our participation easier and more equitable.  Consequently, I am reluctant to go back to less accessible work modes – especially those involving masks. Can we apply innovations in accommodating this pandemic to help us build a more inclusive long-term post pandemic academic workplace? I hope so. 

Let’s start with inclusive strategies, such as having captions for all meetings, lectures and conferences. While we are at it, let’s raise our hands in meetings and practice turn taking.

To Hear, or Not to Hear? The Mental Gymnastics of Hearing Device Use

A word cloud showing the most common appearing words in the post in different colors.
Alt text. A word cloud showing the most common appearing words in the post in different colors.

-Sarah Sparks

I had planned to write this post about listening fatigue, but as I began writing I realized that a related yet rarely discussed topic resonated more in the moment. This post is my attempt at addressing the complexity of that topic.

The mental gymnastics involved in deciding whether and/or when to use hearing devices is not discussed often—at least publicly. This can be an uncomfortable topic because the decisions about amplification use made by deaf and hard of hearing people have an impact on how we are viewed within our professions, the willingness of other people to take our accommodation needs seriously, and the assumptions made by others about our communication needs and preferences. Ideally, decisions about amplification use should be made freely. That doesn’t always happen in the context of an audist society. Some might argue that because of audism (the belief that hearing and speaking are superior to deafness and signing, and the consequent discrimination), none of these decisions are ever truly free.

I am against audism in all its forms, and I also believe it is possible to genuinely like and want amplified sound for its own sake, not because of attempts to assimilate to the hearing world. But perhaps more often than we would like to admit, deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) professionals who use hearing devices make decisions about device use based on what others expect rather than what feels best to us as individuals. 

I identify as deaf. I am a full-time, bilateral cochlear implant (CI) user who also communicates in and loves both American Sign Language (ASL) and English. In times past I would wear my CI processors from the moment I woke up in the morning until about an hour before going to bed at night, sometimes topping 18 hours of device use in a day. That was exhausting, and I’m glad that I have since found a CI use pattern more suited to my needs. These days I am still a full-time CI user in that my device use averages approximately 8 hours per day, but rarely do I use my processors outside of professional situations. I’m a pediatric audiologist, and I work with many hearing children and their parents as well as the hearing parents of deaf and hard of hearing children. I care about communicating with all of them in their native language whenever possible. Because of this, my processors go on as soon as I walk into clinic in the morning and they come off as soon as I’m on my way home in the evening. If I have class or a meeting in the evening, generally I will keep them on for that purpose. 

Mostly, I’m comfortable with my current CI usage. But my choices come with unique kinds of personal and professional costs that affect neither hearing professionals nor deaf professionals who don’t use devices. The decision to use my CIs as frequently (or infrequently) as I do has a downside that I don’t discuss often: the constant need to evaluate why I use them (or not). Every day, I notice how my decisions interact with others’ conscious and subconscious expectations for me not just as a deaf person, but also as a person with auditory access. Confident as I am in my decisions to switch up my communication—ASL, spoken English, or written English depending on the situation—often I find myself wondering about my CI use pattern and messages that others may infer, independent of anything I say directly.

Does using my CIs full time lead others to believe that I value spoken language over signed language? Maybe I need to clarify every other day that I love ASL and that spoken-language access isn’t the only reason I use my CIs…

Do my coworkers and other acquaintances see my CIs and assume that if my processors are on, they should always speak instead of sign? Maybe I should use my processors only when I want people to speak to me, but then I wouldn’t get to use them for many of the sounds I genuinely want to hear…

How does my CI use impact the willingness of employers and conference/event organizers to fulfill requests for accommodations? In the past, people have heard the clarity of my speech and thought I was exaggerating when I described the limits of my CI hearing. Maybe I’ll have to explain for the thousandth time that my speech is so clear because I wasn’t born deaf, lost my hearing progressively, and don’t hear nearly as well as I speak. Maybe this is why some deaf professionals who can hear and speak choose not to…

If I prefer to speechread my way through certain kinds of interactions, am I leading others to believe that I don’t need visual language? Maybe the access problems I experience are my own fault for opting to communicate in two languages…

If I remove my CI processors for a few hours while among colleagues in my profession, will they see me as irresponsible and make wrong assumptions about how I counsel my own CI patients? Maybe they’ll lose trust in me as a clinician or researcher and assume that I’m recommending lackadaisical or capricious device use…

My signing is clearly non-native: if I’m around other deaf professionals, is wearing my processors (even without batteries) necessary to remind them that I’m not a hearing person? Maybe they’ll see me as just another hearing audiologist if I’m not wearing them… or despite my wearing them…

Are my CIs sending the message that deaf/HoH people can be audiologists and hearing scientists only if we use CIs? Maybe I’m hurting someone else’s opportunities unintentionally just by trying to be deaf in the way that feels most okay for me…

What message does my observable CI use pattern send about deaf/HoH professionals who don’t use hearing devices at all or use their devices differently than I do? Maybe my own decisions affect whether they can get their access needs met…These are just a few of the questions that come to mind when I’m deciding whether to turn on my artificial, electronic auditory access. Needing to think through these and other costs of my CI use pattern is almost as exhausting as listening fatigue itself. Multiple times a day, I have to decide which is more important: using my CIs in the ways that feel best to me, or using them in ways that are least likely to result in negative consequences for me and other deaf/HoH professionals. Every day, I have to decide which battles I’m willing to fight and how my choices about CI use affect my ability to do so. I know that I can’t be the only deaf CI user who struggles with navigating these concerns both inside and outside of academia.

A dark haired woman, with hair pulled back and dark-framed glasses is smiling. She wears a dark colored blazer and has a cochlear implant.
Alt text. A dark haired woman, with hair pulled back and dark-framed glasses is smiling. She wears a dark colored blazer and has a cochlear implant.

Dr. Sarah Sparks: Dr. Sparks holds a clinical Doctorate in Audiology (Au.D.) from Gallaudet University. She has experience in a variety of clinical settings, including a university clinic, private practice, school for the deaf, and two pediatric hospitals. She completed her final year of clinical education at Boston Children’s Hospital where she also held a fellowship in the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) program. She is currently studying at Gallaudet for a Ph.D. in Hearing, Speech, and Language Sciences. Her clinical and research interests include pediatrics, vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, cochlear implants, the audiologist’s role in counseling and self-advocacy skill development, and audiology services provided in American Sign Language. Her Ph.D. dissertation research will focus on vestibular dysfunction and its impact on deaf/HoH children.

Navigating a masked world when you are deaf/HoH

-Ana

While the pandemic rages around the world, I know I have been incredibly lucky. Like many, I have struggled to keep my kids busy and to some degree engaged with their education, struggled to keep any semblance of work productivity, and struggled to remain optimistic about a return to a post-pandemic life that resembles my pre-pandemic one. However, I have been healthy, and nobody close to me has fallen sick. And—through the accident of timing—I have also experienced the pandemic in two geographic areas, one of which has thus far managed the coronavirus quite well (Germany), and one where I arrived once it was under control (Massachusetts, USA).

Definitely lucky.

And yet… There is a part of me that very much wants to throw a tantrum and howl at the moon about the unfairness of it all. All because of the need for face masks, which have greatly reduced my ability to communicate. 

In the last 4 months, face masks have emerged as the cheapest, most reliable method to stop the spread of COVID-19. We all have to wear them. And while all the deaf/hard of hearing (HoH) people I know are 100% behind mask wearing, many of us have been put in a bind. Navigating effective communication when out and about is never effortless for us. Lip-reading does not capture all spoken sounds, and there is a great cognitive load involved in filling the gaps to understand what is being said. Add masks, and communication with others becomes nearly impossible. 

To begin with, face masks make it very hard for those of us relying on speech- and lip-reading and on signed languages to understand speech.

This has been documented very eloquently in this article by Sara Nović for the Washington Post; in this interview of Gallaudet professor Dr. Julie Hochgesang; in this article by Shari Eberts for the “Living with Hearing Loss” blog; and this post by Nehama Rogozen for Slate magazine.

And, despite the feel-good idea of face masks with clear “windows,” our communication travails aren’t likely to end any time soon, as explained by Katherine Woodcock (@safeandsilent) in this and this blog post. 

And, surprisingly, masks pose an unexpected hazard to our hearing devices.

Alt Text: A worried face trying alternative orders to putting on a behind-the-ear hearing aid, face mask, and glasses. Each time the objects end up in a tangled mess (many thanks to M. Cooke for help with animation).

As a wearer of behind the ear (BTE) hearing aids and glasses—and now masks—I find that there are just too many things hanging from my ears. Trying to adjust or remove any of them leads to a tragi-comic (yes, I am still capable of laughing at myself as I nurse my tantrum) Rube Goldberg machine chain reaction that inevitably ends badly for at least one of my accessories. I derive some solace (and humor) from knowing I’m not the only one facing these issues: 

In the first frame the face of a person wearing a behind-the-ear hearing aid, face mask, and glasses celebrates that everything is on correctly and they can go out. In the second frame the glasses have fogged up.
Alt text: In the first frame the face of a person wearing a behind-the-ear hearing aid, face mask, and glasses celebrates that everything is on correctly and they can go out. In the second frame the glasses have fogged up.

But it is a pyrrhic sort of consolation. Inevitably I find that the effort of trying to navigate a masked world becomes too laborious, leading to a temptation to disengage and isolate. I want the world to beat COVID-19; I also want to not be cut off from the world. On the worst days it seems neither is possible.

Many of us are struggling to come up with solutions for this conundrum wrapped in a mask. Suggestions of relying on pen and paper or speech-to-text apps are helpful for short interactions, but I see friends starting to cautiously socialize in masks, an activity I feel cut out of. While I know that there is likely not a one-size solution for all of us deaf/HoH, I would love to collect suggestions on how to be a part of the masked world.

I leave you with some parting words from Sara Nović to hearing people:

“The burden of communication has never been solely on deaf people. The pandemic has simply unmasked the fact that we usually do most of the work for you. Now that we physically can’t, we need you to do your part.”