Category Archives: job searches

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.

When to tell? Applying for jobs when you are deaf or hard of hearing

-Ana

Going on the job market was a fraught decision for me. As a postdoc considering tenure-track faculty positions, I relied on hearing aids and lip-reading for communication, but, due to my background, I was unaware not just of assistive technologies that could help with communication, but of the very existence of campus offices dedicated to providing accommodations. My struggles in grad school and as a postdoc had left me with severe doubts (enough to fill another blog post) about whether academia was a career path I could follow. Despite my misgivings, a supportive advisor encouraged me to try my hand at the job market, thus setting the stage for a second set of excruciating decisions to be made: What should I tell the search committees about my hearing loss? When should I reveal it? How much should I tell?

If you haven’t already, I recommend you read Ryan Seslow’s wonderful post about the numerous concerns a deaf/hard-of-hearing (HoH) applicant might have concerning equal consideration from search committees. Regardless of regulations to prevent discrimination (and such rules likely do not exist in every country), every step of the hiring process has potential for bias against candidates with hearing loss. Also sobering is Michele’s recent post about the leaky pipeline for deaf and hard-of-hearing academics. Could bias against deaf/HoH candidates during the hiring process contribute to the “leaks”? The topic of disclosing (or not) disabilities to employers has even been recently featured in the New York Times, and I have just now picked up a fascinating book of collected essays about disclosing disability in higher education. With this backdrop, it is clear that deciding what to tell and when is not a decision to be taken lightly.

With these concerns in mind, in summer 2019 The Mind Hears solicited responses to a very short survey about when folks chose to reveal their deafness. The 25 survey responders spanned people in a range of positions and career stages, with at least two actively on the
market, and the rest ranging from postdocs to lecturers, faculty on and off tenure tracks, researchers, and at least one retired professor. The survey showed that preferred communication methods varied widely, with a great majority of respondents reporting that they rely primarily on speech reading and hearing aids, but a little over 40% use sign language (Fig. 1).

While the number of responses prevents an comprehensive treatise on how deaf/HoH academics approach the job search process, this survey does provide a series of snapshots of choices that have been made—and why they have been made. Many personal factors can play a role in these decisions—such as upbringing, prior positive or negative experiences in disclosing hearing loss, primary mode of communication, career stage, and the type of institution applying to. Cultural shifts in social climate may also influence whether a strategy may be more appealing today than it was 20 years ago. Regardless of the limitations of the survey, as you sift through these snapshots of experiences, you may find something that resonates with your history or that gives you an idea of how to move forward in your own job search.

The first question we asked was: At what point in your job application for a professional position have you chosen to reveal your deafness? Among our respondents, the most common choice was “upon being invited to the interview,” followed by two polar opposites: “never” or “in the application materials”(Fig. 2). Various minor choices involved situational circumstances, the fact that application materials strongly suggested (but did not overtly reveal) deafness, or revealing only once the job offer was accepted.

What prompted people to make their choice? Those who never revealed their deafness or revealed it late in the process (during the interview or upon acceptance) expressed strong concerns about bias. Here is a sample of replies:

“ I have been rejected before the interview which I assume is because of my disclosure of being deaf.”

 “Not wanting to make a fuss, not wanting to give them the opportunity to [discriminate], thinking that I could get by without them knowing anyway.”

“worried about discrimination and also feel[ing] that it doesn’t affect my ability to do job so it isn’t any of their business.”

For those who revealed their deafness upon being invited to interview, the overriding concern was that their application would be evaluated without prejudice, but that performance during the interview would not be misinterpreted:

“I want to be upfront about the reason why I may asking ‘what’ more often than the hearing person so it doesn’t reflect poorly on me. It’s not that I’m not listening, it’s just that I physically couldn’t hear you.”

 “You need to make sure you are able to hear in the interview, and prepare the interviewers for any gaps in understanding that occur as a result of your not hearing them well.”

 “I want my resume to be read without any bias. If my resume gets selected for interview, it is based on my merits. So, at that time I let the interviewer know about my deafness to get necessary accommodations for a smooth conversation. However, I understand that even at that stage the bias can creep in.”

 “I like to be upfront and let the interviewer know that I will be using VRS [Video Relay Service]—I want a workplace that will be open to my being Deaf so like to bring it up as early as possible in a relatively nonchalant way.”

 “I didn’t want my disability to determine whether or not I would be invited to campus. I didn’t want interviewers to think I was strange if I tried to pass as a hearing person, so I told the committee that invited me for the interview.”

Those who chose to reveal their deafness early on, in the application materials, felt that valuable information about them would be lost without a reveal, or knew practices in their field would require challenging communication situations arising early in the process:

“I had one significant outreach in the Deaf community and wanted institutions to know that would likely be part of my service as a professor.”

 “The job was for a post in a university as a deaf studies and sign language lecturer, so it was advantageous to tell them at that time.”

“Most jobs in my field do first round interviews via Skype or Zoom and I cannot hear the committee members.”

We then asked: What accommodations have you requested during job interviews, and how have these requests been received? In my case, this question brought back painful memories. Because the concept of asking for accommodation was so foreign to me—I had an ingrained belief that my “problem” was mine alone to solve—the only accommodation I requested was that my host repeat all audience questions for me. I still cringe at recalling the most challenging part of my interview days—lunch with the graduate students, generally a large group, with many too shy to speak loudly. I had the terrified feeling that if I as much as glanced down at my pizza slice I was going to miss an incredibly important question from a person across the room whom I could not hear nor speech read. Fortunately, some respondents were much more savvy than I was, though, as you may expect, the answers were as diverse as deaf/HoH individuals can be.

Some folks opted not to request accommodations or to bring their own communication tools or approaches:

“None; I don’t want to doom my chances from the start.”

“None, I bring my own FM system and do my own research about the panel beforehand to see if there may be any additional concerns for speech reading.”

 “I reveal my HoH state right up front as soon as we’re introduced, explain that I might need to ask them to repeat themselves and [if] necessary, ask people to move closer.”

Several job seekers mentioned orchestrating seating arrangements in order to facilitate communication:

“I did not request formal accommodations but did ask for clarification within conversations and chose my seats carefully at meals [so that I could follow conversation].”

“Rearranging a room for my job talk in order to make the seating shallower and to make it more easy for me to walk up to folks during the Q&A.”

“No specific accommodations. I’ve told people I needed to see their face to lipread, and sometime I’ve asked to sit in a different place to help with lipreading. I see this as casually saying I have a hearing impairment, if needed, rather than formally declaring it as a disability.”

 Some job seekers explicitly requested accommodations for the interviews with mixed responses:

 “Used CART or written questions for onsite interviews; Caption phone for phone interviews. 60% of the time, it was not an issue. At other times, people did not understand the accommodation process and tried to speak instead of writing questions, or say like “I don’t know why, but he is using a special phone”, even after having informed about it in advance. At that time, I had to repeat the need for accommodation.”

 “I have used interpreters in interviews and this practice generated all kinds of rude and/or illegal inquiries. I have had an interpreter blocked from parts of the all-day academic dog-and-pony-show interview on the grounds it was the “confidential” part (only to find the other party sitting with his back to the bright window, rocking post-stroke half-face paralysis and a Western movie sheriff moustache).”

“Sign language interpreters, request was very positively received.”

Ultimately, our worry is that conscious or unconscious bias will lead search committees to assume that we are not suitable for the positions. But how to limit the effect of bias when we communicate our needs? We asked respondents how they reassured committees of their job suitability. Some suggested highlighting the unique strengths of being deaf/HoH:

 “I make sure to show the positive aspects as they would relate to the job, ‘I have these sets of skills and they would assist me in this position in the following way.’ These are not just skills that ‘make up for’ my hearing, but skills that I have [that] add an advantage over hearing individuals or individuals that don’t speech read or know sign language. Being multilingual is typically a plus on a search.”

 “My PhD advisor and I talked about how he would describe my deafness within his letter of recommendation. I had some concerns that he would take a ‘pitying’ tone and in our conversation I was able to suggest to him some ways to frame my hearing loss as one of my characteristics rather than as a challenge to be overcome. He seemed to understand so I trusted that his letter would assuage any fears of the committee. My PhD advisor had also been impressed with the significant effort that I had put into disability advocacy during my PhD. I believe that he framed this as my passion for serving the community.”

A few job seekers were confident that the search committee would judge their strong qualification fairly:

“I trust that my CV speaks for itself, as well as outlining my capabilities/communication methods in my covering letter.”

 “My qualifications show suitability in and of itself, confidence is key and knowing exactly what accommodations I need.”

Sadly, also common among survey respondents were concerns that the whole process is unfairly stacked against deaf/HoH applicants, or that the only way to be perceived as competent is to disclose as little as possible:

“My work history speaks for itself. I’ve been teaching for 13 years […]. But since I rarely make it to interview stage, I don’t even get to reassure the committee members of my suitability for the job.”

“After several interviews where both having an interpreter (‘do we have to pay a second person to have you work here??’) and not having an interpreter (‘but her answer to my question was not what I asked. She should have had an interpreter if she could not hear me’) did not work, I made a deal with the devil to get a [cochlear implant] so that I could fake it through the interview as a HoH person, just showing them that I could fit in. I did not draw a great deal of attention to my deafness. I know people on the search committee and the hiring Dean knew that I was deaf and used interpretation in other settings. However, I wasn’t going to bring it up if they didn’t. Surprisingly enough, that actually did work. I kept my head down and did minimal committee service and very non-interactive classroom style teaching until I was tenured before I began [to ask] for interpreting. The more interpreting I have had access to since then, the more effective my overall professional performance has been. It is a shame that businesses only see the cost of it, and not the performance improvement.”

Because the role of search committees is essentially to eliminate applicants, the job application process is a loaded situation for all, deaf/HoH or not. And it tends to be pretty easy for search committees to come up with reasons not to hire somebody, regardless of any anti-bias regulations put in place. As a result, it is also nearly impossible to prove that a hiring committee has discriminated based on an applicant being deaf/HoH. However, the fact that communication is such a critical and continuous component of academic jobs greatly increases the possibility that our deafness will be erroneously perceived to compromise our likelihood of academic success — before we even get a chance to prove prejudices wrong. There is no easy fix for this; the only one I can think of is to normalize the presence of deaf/HoH academics to the extent that any request for accommodation is seen as routine. Those of us who already hold positions have a role to play here, perhaps in being more forward about requesting accommodations, and in making sure that our deafness is recognized by colleagues and administrators. We should also make sure that diversity initiatives in academia explicitly incorporate disability as an important facet of diversity.

We are very grateful to all people who responded to the survey and were willing to share their experiences with us. Thank you for taking the time to share your stories. Such sharing can only help all of us, and we hope others will feel inspired to keep on paying it forward in the comments below.

Mandated equal opportunity hiring may not ensure equal considerations by hiring committees: A hypothetical scenario

-Ryan

Imagine that you are a deaf/hard-of-hearing (HoH) person applying for a full-time academic position in a U.S. public institution of higher learning. The position is listed nationally across multiple job boards. At the offering institution, deaf/HoH faculty, students, administrators, and staff members represent 1% of the population. You are highly qualified and display an extensive résumé with many accomplishments in your field and a strong history of service. Information about you is highly transparent on the internet at large.

You investigate and discover that the offering department does not currently have a deaf or hard-of-hearing person among their full-time and adjunct faculty.

Applying for the position:

When applying, you check the general “YES, I have a disability” box on the institution’s application and contact the human resources (HR) department directly to let them know that you are applying specifically as a deaf/HoH person. If you are offered an interview for the position, you request, as is your right, to meet with the search committee in person, rather than have the interview over a conference call. You cross your fingers, hoping that the HR department communicates with the department offering the position to ensure that they are presenting an equal opportunity for employment for those with disabilities. Does the HR department actually communicate your request for accommodation to the academic department? You may never know but let’s say that it does in this case…

Considerations of the hiring committee:

When the academic department’s search committee learns that you are deaf/HoH how will they respond? Are they experienced in the process of interviewing a deaf or hard-of-hearing person? How many interviews have they given to deaf/HoH applicants in the past? How many of those previous applicants were given an interview, made it to the second or third round of the process, and hired full-time? Where are the statistics to prove that equal opportunities are being given?

When the search committee learns of your request to meet in person for an interview because you are deaf/HoH, how aware and educated are the search committee members of Deaf culture and what it means to be deaf or hard of hearing? How aware are they of what it means to be a deaf/HoH faculty member teaching in a mainly all-hearing environment? Do they know the benefits of having a deaf or hard-of-hearing person as a part of their full-time or part-time faculty? What evidence is there within the department’s current publications, seminars, exhibitions, faculty development, and outreach efforts of awareness of the advantages brought about by workplace diversity that is inclusive of disability?

Is the typical academic faculty search committee equipped, skilled, and supportive enough to interview a deaf/HoH candidate if none of their members are deaf or hard of hearing? If they don’t have deaf/HoH members, are they sufficiently trained in deaf/HoH experiences to judge your application fairly against the numerous other applicants who do not have any disabilities? Are search committees trained enough to distinguish between medical and cultural models of disability, and to understand how these models impact their perceptions of your strengths? Are they savvy enough to move away from focusing on what the you can’t do, and focus instead on what your diverse perspective brings to the hiring unit?

Answers to many of the questions I ask above shouldbe part of the public record. My experience in the job search circuit thus far has left me disillusioned and believing that departmental search committees and HR departments are likely ill-equipped to handle deaf/HoH applicants. Studies have shown that search committees have many implicit biases. One of these biases is that since deafness may impede academic success, it is safer to hire a hearing applicant.

It’s time to fix this.

Have you ever been a on a faculty search committee where a deaf or hard-of-hearing person applied? If so, did that person receive the position? If not, would you like to share your experience?