Check out Dr. Virdi’s debut book, Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History (link here)
Current Title: Assistant Professor
Location: University of Delaware (Newark, DE)
Field of expertise: History of medicine, technology, disability
Years of experience (since start of PhD): 12
I was born in Kuwait to Sikh parents. At age four, I became ill with meningitis and was hospitalized for nearly six months. During the course of my recovery, we learned that I had lost my hearing and mobility and that my eyesight was severely weakened. Rehabilitation taught me how to walk again. Later, I got glasses and was fitted for hearing aids. In 1989, the year before the first Gulf War, my family went to Toronto for vacation and to learn about schooling for me. We ended up deciding to stay, which in hindsight was lucky, as the war destroyed our neighborhood back home. I ended up being sent to a school with a class for deaf and hard-of-hearing children and was educated in oralism and received speech therapy; when I was 13, in grade 7, I was mainstreamed into the school’s gifted program and later mainstreamed into high school classes.
How did you get to there you are?
I consider myself to be blessed to have teachers who encouraged my inquisitive nature and taught me how to work independently. One year in my HOH class, for instance, I was the youngest student; my teacher crafted a special curriculum for me that required me to conduct a lot of independent research on varied topics, including Greek mythology, medieval astronomy, and even 1950s pop culture. After receiving my BA in philosophy of science, I was lost on what to do with my life. I had been working in fashion merchandising and marketing for several years and it seemed natural to turn it to an established career. I randomly decided one evening to investigate a PhD program at the University of Toronto and set up a meeting with the Graduate Chair. Honestly, I didn’t think I would get in or that graduate studies would be a good fit for me, but I applied because I wanted to see if I could. No one else in my family has a PhD and I had no guidance about navigating academia. Everything was a challenging learning experience.
What is the biggest professional challenge (as educator or researcher)? How do you mitigate this challenge?
Right now, it is finding a work-life balance, especially because both work and life are occurring at home!
What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?
I’m a staunch advocate for captioning for all professional and educational meetings. In the pre-COVID-19 world, whenever I gave public talks, I ensured they were accessible in different ways—having closed-captioning/CART services or providing a printout of my talk for the audience. Now, I caption my recorded videos and insist on captioning whenever I do public events. This insistence isn’t just for me—the way I see it, if this access improves my ability to participate and communicate, then it must improve others’ experiences too. So I try to hold my own work at the accessibility standards I want to see for everyone. .
What advice would you give your former self?
That intuitive gut feeling? Don’t doubt it.
Any funny stories you want to share?
Once I was taking a flight and revealed to the airline that I was deaf, so I could receive support services if necessary. When I got to the gate, I identified myself and the attendants instructed me to take a seat where they could see me, so that they could get my attention when it was time to board. While waiting, I felt a tap on my shoulder. One of the attendants wanted to tell me that boarding would begin in five minutes and instead of saying so, he did this series of motions to communicate:
<points finger at me> <points to gate> <makes exaggerated flying movement with his arms> <shows his hand to indicate 5 minutes> <gives me a thumbs up>
What is your typical day like?
On a good day?
Up at 7am, walk the dogs and feed them, have coffee and read a manuscript or article. By 9am, work on my own writing. Emails and lunch. More writing or editing in the afternoon. A hike in early evening with the dogs and my partner, followed by dinner at home and a movie or novel before bed.
On a bad day?
Who knows, time has no meaning. Neither does sleep!