Tag Archives: deaf academics

Profile: Dr. John Dennehy

A white man with grey hair and a mask covering mouth and nose holds an eppendorf test tube and eyes its contents. He is wearing a dark blue shirt with a pattern and is in a laboratory type setting with white pipes in the background.
  • Current title: Professor 
  • Location: Queens College CUNY, New York 
  • Field of expertise: Virus ecology and evolution 
  • Years of experience (since start of PhD): 25 
  • Website: dennehylab.org 
  • Twitter: @DrJDennehy 

Background?

I was born deaf. At the time, my family had recently moved to rural New Hampshire. Early on, my parents struggled because I did not hit age-appropriate speech and language milestones. However, doctor after doctor told them that my hearing was fine. One even suggested that my mother seek psychiatric help. Finally, my parents took me to Mass Eye and Ear, where I came under the care of an amazing woman, Audiologist Rhoda Morrison. She properly diagnosed my hearing loss (profoundly hearing impaired), and connected me with another amazing woman, Leah Donovan, a speech therapist.  

We moved to the suburbs of Boston to be closer to Mass Eye and Ear and Ms. Donovan. I was fitted with hearing aids and rapidly became verbal. My family attributes my rapid acquisition of language to the fact that my mother and my aunt would regularly read to me. In fact, my habit of placing my ear on their throats while they read led them to believe I was unable to hear.  

By the time I was ready to go to school, there was debate as to whether I should attend Beverley School for the Deaf or mainstream at North Reading Public Schools. Encouraged by Ms. Morrison and Ms. Donovan and learning about newly implemented speech and language services at North Reading Public Schools, my parents decided to mainstream me. Despite the challenges of being deaf,  I found school easy and was often bored. I read constantly, everything I could get my hands on. My aunt likes to tell this anecdote about when I was very young. She asked me why I asked so many questions. I responded, “I want to know ebrything.” 

My school career was checkered. Depending on my interest in the subject, I would either do extremely well or barely squeak by. I did not hear much that went on in the classroom but was able to compensate by reading everything. Even in grammar school, I had my sights on advanced study after college. However, I often felt stymied and underestimated by school administrators. On the last day of 6th grade, my friends and I opened our junior high school class assignments for the following fall. Finally, we had graduated from elementary school to having classes in real subjects: life science, English, history, mathematics. Classes were assigned numbers for degree of difficulty: 0 for honors, 1 for standard and 2 for remedial. I sat in shock and shame on seeing I was assigned to level 2 classes. These assignments were not based on my grades or my standardized test scores, but rather the perception that, as a deaf student, I would not be able to compete against my peers in a junior high classroom. Skipping ahead 4 years, my guidance counselor at my highly competitive private college prep school disregarded my National Honor Society standing and told me not to bother applying to my top choice as I did not stand a chance in getting accepted. Consider instead a local state school or even a community college, he advised. Later, at Holy Cross, an academic advisor told me I should be ‘more realistic” on learning of my intention to follow the pre-med program. Medical schools would not make “exceptions” for my disability. In any event, patients would avoid a deaf doctor regardless of his qualifications. I remember these events often and have made it a point in my life to make sure that I do not belittle the aspirations of others.  

My advisor’s advice notwithstanding, I followed the pre-med track as an undergraduate. However, on being employed as a phlebotomist at a local hospital, I realized medicine was not for me. I disliked working in the hospital and found the work exceedingly stressful. Since I had been targeting medicine as a career for most of my early life, I did not really have a plan B. After a few lateral moves, I decided to pursue a career in academia.  

How did you get to where you are? 

Following my decision not to seek a medical degree, I was not sure what to do. I interned at a few companies in industry, but nothing really captured my interest. I ended up taking a job as a groundskeeper at a fancy New Hampshire resort on a lake. I had not quite finished my bachelor’s degree (all that remained was completing Physics II), but I agreed to work from May to November. That summer was quite idyllic. I enjoyed the outdoor work immensely and was quite prepared to not return to college in the fall. In my non-working hours, I evaluated different methods of estimating chipmunk population density for my college honors thesis. At some point, I found out that my boss, Carl, was the son of zoologist Hubert Frings of the University of Hawaii. Carl himself had done extensive behavioral ecology work with his father and advised me on my research project. From him, I learned more about science and academia as a potential career.  

One day at the end of August, Carl took me aside and said, “I’m afraid I am going to have to fire you.” I was stunned. I thought we were getting along well. “You shouldn’t be wasting your time here,” Carl continued, “You should be finishing up your degree. You still have time to enroll in fall courses.” So, with that, I returned to school to finish Physics II and graduated the following semester.  

As I was increasingly interested in wildlife biology, ecology, and evolution, I applied for and was accepted into the master’s program in zoology at the University of Idaho. I will not dissimulate here; my main motivation, in addition to getting a masters, was to explore the country around Idaho. I was captivated by the place names on the atlas — The Wilderness of No Return, Hell’s Canyon, Yellowstone, Snake River, Glacier National Park, Craters of the Moon — that flanked the largest wilderness area in the lower 48.  

For two years, I studied the behavioral ecology of pronghorn antelope on the National Bison Range in Montana. I loved the work and found myself very much at home in science and academia. Unfortunately, I discovered that behavioral ecology was a very challenging field to pursue. Jobs and funding were difficult to acquire, and the work was very slow making it difficult to demonstrate productivity. Some faculty in my department advised pursuing other fields of biology, perhaps with microbes. At the time I thought, “Microbes? Are they nuts?” 

My master’s studies were also noteworthy as I reached the limits of my ability to compensate for not being able to hear much of what occurred in classrooms by reading extensively. My professor in Comparative Vertebrate Reproduction would cover the very latest research, which was not written up in the standard textbook. This circumstance forced me to acknowledge my deafness to myself and realize that I could not compete with my peers without assistance. With considerable reluctance, I sought help with Student Services, and was provided with a notetaker. It worked out well in the end; my friend was paid to attend class and take notes (as she should have anyway) and I received extensive notes on the lectures.  

Following graduation from University of Idaho, I decided to pursue mosquito biology reasoning that, as disease vectors, the research would be fundable by NSF and NIH. I joined Todd Livdahl’s lab at Clark University for a PhD. The project, which included a research assistantship, was fully funded and would be close to my family in Massachusetts. I enjoyed my time in Worcester, Massachusetts and was happy with my decision to pursue an academic career. However, after a couple of years, I became somewhat disenchanted with mosquitoes; they suck (blood). To maintain mosquito populations in the laboratory, we were obliged to feed the female mosquitoes blood meals so they could lay eggs. There are several ways to do this, but the easiest and cheapest is to use graduate students. So, I offered up my arm for mosquito feeding for science on a daily basis. The only good thing I can say about this experience is that it somewhat reduced my body’s reaction to some mosquito species’ antigens. For some mosquito species, bites no longer itch.  

After a couple of years of blood-feeding mosquitoes, I decided to do my dissertation research on another topic. In a committee meeting, one of my committee members suggested that I should model my career on Richard Lenski of Michigan State University. He was one of the founders of the field of experimental evolution. For my dissertation, I decided to experimentally evolve populations of the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans to test hypotheses regarding the evolution of sex and recombination.  

After successfully defending my dissertation, I reached out to Rich Lenski and inquired about a postdoctoral position. He let me know that he did not have any opportunities available, but that his former doctoral student, Paul Turner of Yale University, was looking for a postdoc. Working with Paul, I was able to acquire an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship and took up the study of the bacteriophages of Pseudomonas syringae. Yes, microbes. The very same organisms I shunned as uninteresting just a few years prior.  

In Paul’s lab, I fell in love with phages and decided it would be my scientific focus in my own lab someday. After three years in Paul’s lab, Ing-Nang Wang invited me to join his lab at University at Albany to work with Escherichia coli phages. Here I learned about genetically modifying phages and started a long-term project on stochastic gene expression that I continue today.  

In 2007, I was hired as an assistant professor at Queens College and rose through the ranks to my present position as full professor. My two biggest accomplishments are having a continuously funded laboratory over the past 14 years and having mentored dozens of students from a wide variety of backgrounds in research. I still study the viruses of bacteria as well as other viruses such as rotavirus and SARS-CoV-2.  

What is your biggest professional challenge? How do you mitigate this challenge? 

My biggest professional challenge is hearing in difficult situations, such as in noisy environments or in rooms with poor acoustics. This manifests itself at events such as scientific conferences and while teaching. I have great difficulty hearing amplified talks, questions from students during classes that I teach, and people speaking during noisy conference dinners or poster sessions. This difficulty makes it very challenging to network with other scientists or keep up with advancements in my professional field. Social media, especially Twitter, have helped mitigate this challenge somewhat. In addition, the COVID19 pandemic has led to a transition to video conferencing, which, when coupled with live transcription, make it much easier to understand my colleagues when they speak.  

One of my great failings has been not asking for accommodation when needed. Asking for help goes against my very strong impulse towards independence and my desire not to inconvenience others. The COVID19 pandemic has inspired me to advocate for myself much more than I formerly did because without accommodation (i.e., live transcription), I would not be able to participate in my work. I am resolved to request assistance when needed in the future, which may come in the form of interpretation at conferences and other events and in the classroom.  

What advice would you give your former self? 

Two things: 1. Trust your instincts, and 2. What do you care what other people think? 

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.

Profile: Dr. Stephanie W. Cawthon

A smiling white woman with straight, shoulder length brown hair. She is wearing a pink top and dark blazer, and a delicate chain around her neck.
  • Current title: Professor 
  • Location: The University of Texas at Austin, USA 
  • Field(s) of expertise: Education and Disability Equity
  • Years of experience in academia (since start of PhD): 24 years
  • Website: stephaniecawthon.com       
  • Twitter: @swcawthon

Where did you go to school?

After early childhood in a segregated setting for students with disabilities in Canada, I was in mainstream classrooms in both public or private U.S. schools. I went to Stanford University for my BA and MA (both in Psychology) and then University of Wisconsin at Madison for my PhD in Educational Psychology. 

What do you do now?

I wear several hats in my professional life. I am a full professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education in the Department of Educational Psychology, with a courtesy appointment in Special Education. I am the Founding Director of the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes. I am also the Director of Research for Drama for Schools, a partnership with UT’s College of Fine Arts, and an Editor of Perspectives on Deafness at Oxford University Press. But no single role really captures what I do, so I started a new website: stephaniecawthon.com. Do check it out. 

What kind of hearing loss do you have?

Both ears, sensorineural and congenital, roughly 50DB-55DB (moderate range). In practical terms, speech is fine in some situations, not in others. I’m missing much of my upper range. I lip read a lot and fill in gaps with contextual clues even when I don’t realize it. Talking to me from the other room is a sure fire way to make sure I don’t know what you’re saying. 

How do you identify?

These days, I identify as deaf, inclusively defined. Until about five years ago, hard-of-hearing. Never as hearing, although many in my family would have described me that way. 

Do you use an assistive listening device?

I got hearing aids at about age 4 and used them continuously in public until recently. Now I use them as additional support in settings that are not accessible. I also appreciate captions to help fill in gaps when people are not signing. 

Do you sign?

Some. I first took a few ASL courses in college (liberating!) and then more much later, when I had deaf graduate students and colleagues who signed. I’ve had some private tutoring and learned a great deal working with a wide range of signers and interpreters over the years. Fingerspelling (expressive or receptive) at a natural pace is still the most difficult part of the language for me. 

How do you communicate at work?

If there is a deaf person in the room who signs, I will sign. In the last few years, this includes public presentations, which is terrifying — particularly when the interpreter is new or doesn’t know me. If the group is all non-signers, I will voice and, depending on the accessibility and availability of interpreters, will ask for access support for receptive language. When I am teaching a large class, I will sometimes sign, especially if I know I will be relying on interpreters for receptive language to communicate with my students. It’s too hard to switch back and forth from voicing in English and seeing ASL. 

What advice do you have to your former self?

I pretty much went full steam ahead for the 20 years from PhD and through full professor promotion. At one point, a senior colleague advised me to remember academia is a marathon, not a sprint, and to slow down. That felt pretty entitled coming from someone who didn’t have to face the negative biases and elevated standards of my cohort — especially compared with that of 30 years ago, when jobs were more plentiful and budgets were flush. Instead, my advice is to pay attention to the physical and psychological requirements of running a very fast marathon, because that is the reality for anyone facing an uphill battle in light of audism and other -isms that are still very much the drivers of perspectives in higher education. I now know the tremendous energy and personal costs required of running that fast marathon. But I also now know what helps: earlier bedtimes, more boundaries around the speed of responding to requests, the magic of saying “no,” yoga, therapy, relying on a support network, finding a creative outlet, and taking vacations. 

Has your professional identity as a deaf academic evolved? 

I think it’s pretty clear from my research that I have a personal connection to deaf people, but there was rarely a time early in my career when I put my deaf identity front and center in my work. A major pivot point was when my college asked me to be a presenter for a brown bag lunch series. Instead of focusing on a research study or line of inquiry, I presented a personal account of how my professional identity has evolved over the course of my career (so far). I called my presentation “Statistics Don’t Lie ‘Til You’re Trying Not to Be One.” I quite nervously signed it, with a trusted interpreter who knew me well. 

Something I name in that presentation — and have been working through ever since — is the twin impact of audism and imposter syndrome. I think many deaf academics and professionals come to realize the extent to which we internalize audism, which then sets up the tyranny of low expectations about us and can contribute to feeling like we’re totally fake (imposter syndrome). This has shown up in subtle and overt ways throughout my lifetime, both personally and professionally — such as the attitude that research in deaf experiences and deaf education isn’t as important as that of other fields. I was even told by a boss once to consider another line of research, because people aren’t really interested in it. Over 100 publications and nearly $25 million in grant funding later, I just smile.

What do you know for sure? 

As all ideas that mature, there is a deepening of the core essence of what you are doing. I think I always knew this in a general way, but as I quickly approach 50 — at what is typically the halfway point in an academic career (I finished my PhD just shy of 30) — here’s what I know for sure:

  • Systemic barriers and opportunities are the long term solution. That kind of work is not what I was trained to do, but I have a passion for it. Working towards systems change is my number one goal for the next half of my career.
  • Inferences about individual outcomes of deaf people require taking context and deaf perspectives into account. Research is very much about evidence — and how we view that evidence says as much about us as researchers as the data themselves. 
  • Disciplined work and progress in small ways add up fast. Even when you can only do a little, just do a little. I recently read Atomic Habits by James Clear, and it has been the most influential boost in this pandemic productivity malaise.
  • It’s really hard to keep up with current literature without having a reason to read it. Write so that you have to read, so that you can then write. The most recent article I led, Evidence-Based Practices in Deaf Education: A Call to Center Research and Evaluation on the Experiences of Deaf People, will publish in Review of Research in Education in April 2021, and it was an opportunity to explore new fields and tie those perspectives with what I have already built over the past twenty years. 
  • One of my best and apparently rare skills is asking good questions. This is true in my role as friend, as colleague, as mentor, as supervisor, as leader. I have learned that there’s no right answer to most situations or problems, but there are great ways to think clearly about strategy and decision making when you have a chance to respond to good questions. 
  • I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do next. There’s a shift coming, and I’m in that pause between letting go of one bar on the trapeze and catching the next. I love working in a leadership role and building places where people can thrive. This is inclusive of mentoring graduate students — having them as part of a larger team is such a critical experience in their development — and working with staff, who are some of the most important and under-recognized members of an academic community. 
  • Thought leadership and dissemination is one of the most exciting things that I do. I very much like giving media interviews and graduation speeches, using social media tools to build a community of thinkers, and writing and sharing information that has practical application. I love the intersection of research and communications, especially how strategy makes the whole endeavor coherent, both visually and in terms of message and content. Being asked to be on this blog is part of it! Thank you so much for the invitation.

Profile: Dr. Hilde Haualand

A smiling white woman with blue eyes and graying hair cut in a curly bob. She wears a light blue shirt, and delicate gold chains around her neck.
  • Current title: Professor
  • Location: Oslo, Norway
  • Field of expertise: Sign language, deaf studies, sign language interpreting
  • Years of experience in academia: Contract researcher since 2001, PhD completed 2012.
  • Twitter: @hildemh

Background?

I am a deaf multilingual in several signed and written languages (and selectively and contextually, sometimes also spoken languages), who grew up in a hearing family. My parents made sure I met deaf role models early on. I obtained my elementary education at the local school, but played with friends and participated in leisure activities at the nearby deaf school. Continuously switching between deaf and hearing people instilled in me a lifelong habit of observing and comparing people, their language habits, and their social behavior in different contexts. After completing my MA in social anthropology in 2001, I started to work at a contract research institute (Fafo Research Foundation), and eventually also obtained my PhD in social anthropology from the University of Oslo in 2012. After a post doctorate at NTNU – Norwegian University of Science and Technology 2015-2017, I started to work as an associate professor at OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University, where I was recently promoted to (full) professor. 

How did you get to where you are?

Feeling like a half insider, half outsider among both deaf and hearing people for years, I was attracted early on to the thinking and theoretical approaches of social anthropology. Being raised in a family of academics, it was never a question if I should enter higher education, only which field – and I was lucky to find my direction early. After working as a contract researcher for a few years, my research group got a grant from the Norwegian Research Council, which included a PhD scholarship for me. Since I had maneuvered academia with and without interpreters for years, I did not really have any big concerns regarding accessibility, but could feel the impostor syndrome hitting every now and then. However, it was more difficult than I had anticipated to find qualified interpreters who could handle advanced academic discourse in English at a PhD level. When I finally got an agreement with the interpreting service providers that I would be able to work with a team of three interpreters throughout my PhD, things worked out better. Also, a growing international network of deaf academics has been an invaluable asset, as they inspire me, and make my job so much more fun than it would be if I only had to work with hearing academics. Last, but not least – I have a great group of colleagues at OsloMet. At the section for sign language and interpreting, Norwegian sign language is our working language, regardless of hearing status; this has been very important for my work environment, providing a collegiate spirit and a necessary feeling of belonging. 

What is the biggest professional challenge you have or have had? How do you mitigate this challenge?

Currently my biggest challenge is the idea that academia and research can be organized according to New Public Management principles, and all the “efficiency improvement” measures that really only put more administrative burden on faculty. I did not obtain a PhD to spend a full working day trying to make sure we get the rooms we need for teaching. Covid times have however put us all in the same boat, so it’s currently mostly about making sure the students get what they are entitled to, and make the best out of it. 

What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?

Our department has an in-house interpreter who is paid by the university. She does much of the ad hoc interpreting in the hallways, at shorter meetings, and on Zoom, and organizes all other planned and longer interpreting requests that continuously pour in when there are both signers and non-signers at the department and at the university. Had the university instead relied on outside interpreters, the labor of requesting and organizing all the interpreting assignments would fall on us [faculty]. Without our in-house interpreter, we would probably be able to devote less time to our professional work, and would spend more time organizing interpreters. 

What is your typical day like?

In these home office days, I start the day with a walk (following son to school) before a hour long virtual “Shut up and write” session with 4-5 colleagues at 9:00. Then there’s planning, planning, administration, teaching preparations, administration, e-mails and meetings for the rest of the day, and I often stop by 5 – 5.30. Then there’s almost always some reading (review, supervision, assessment etc.) to do, which I sometimes do at night, or during one of my favorite times: early Saturday and Sunday mornings, before the family wakes up, with a cup of coffee and a small piece of dark chocolate! But I’ve learned I also need daily breaks, so I often end the day with a TV show and some knitting before bed time.

What advice would you give your former self?

Work with people you like. There’s always brighter times coming when the days are dull. Impostor syndrome is probably one of the most common syndromes among researchers. Believe that you have a unique and valid position and vision, and can make a contribution. 

Any funny stories you want to share?

At a dinner for PhD advisors, one of my seatmates started to ask the usual questions about sign language (Is it universal? Why not?), interpreters (Do they work full time? Do you know them?) and deaf people (How deaf are you? Are there any other deaf researchers?), but eventually, I got one unexpected question; “How often do you have to answer these questions, and how much time to you spend answering them?” I made a quick estimate and said with a smile it could last about the time of one course at a conference dinner. A little bit later, I started a conversation with someone at the other side of the table, who soon (and as expected) started to ask the same kind of questions. I swallowed a small sigh, and before I politely prepared myself for another round with the same topic, the first seatmate burst out “Give her a break! Hilde just answered all those questions, and now I hear how stupid they are.” For the rest of the evening, we all talked about anything but sign language, interpreters and deaf people, which does not happen too often (unfortunately).  

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.

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

Profile: Dr. Khadijat Rashid

  • Current title: Interim Dean of the Faculty
  • Location: Gallaudet University, Washington DC
  • Field of expertise: International Development, International Economic Policy
  • Years of experience (since start of PhD): 25
  • Website: https://my.gallaudet.edu/khadijat-rashid

.

Background?

I’m deaf, as in profoundly, deeply deaf. I can’t even use hearing aids because they are worthless for me, though I do have an implant that I occasionally use to hear environmental sounds. I went to all kinds of schools: hearing schools for my early elementary education, an all deaf residential school for K-8, a deaf program within a hearing high school (not really mainstreaming since all the deaf students were together with teachers who signed). The journey continued in college, where I was initially the only deaf student at college, then I left in my sophomore year for Gallaudet University where I was finally in an all-deaf environment.  Graduate school was again “mainstreamed” as I was the only deaf student in my MBA program at the University of Maryland, and then the only deaf student in my PhD cohort at American University. So it’s been quite a journey! I studied International Relations for my PhD because I was not going to be limited by my deafness and I was determined to study in a field that had nothing to do with Deaf people or deaf culture, and so of course, I ended up as a faculty member and administrator at Gallaudet!

I am an American immigrant. I was born in Nigeria, West Africa, and emigrated to the USA as a teenager, so most of my life has been in the USA. I speak Yoruba (a Nigerian language), and can “pass” in Nigerian Sign Language, pidgin (a creole hybrid of Nigerian languages and English), and of course, English.

How did you get to where you are?

As mentioned earlier, I wanted to study in a field that wasn’t defined by my being deaf, and I was always fascinated with economics, politics, and different cultures. And I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I grew up, so I decided I would study in as many different fields as possible. So, my undergraduate degrees (accounting, general business and computer information systems) were in the business field, and I worked for a while in a large corporation. Then I went for my MBA in International Business and Marketing. But I got disillusioned with the materialism I saw everywhere in Business and decided to go back to study these areas I had always been fascinated by, international politics and political economy. I wanted to understand what differentiated us as human beings, and how our economic interactions worked. I loved my PhD studies at American University (AU), which were a blend of anthropology, critical theory, international relations, politics, and economics —just what the doctor ordered for my eclectic interests! I took the long and meandering route to that PhD, since I started it in 1995 and took several detours, including several moves and the birth of two kids, along the way to completion in 2004. I even got expelled from the program because I was taking so long to complete the degree, but managed to talk my way back in 2003, promising that if they only gave me a chance, I would complete my PhD in a year. They took a risk and let me back in, and once that fire was lit under me, even though I had two kids under 5 by then, I did finish on time.

When I started out, there were still relatively few deaf women with PhD’s, and none in my field that I was aware of. Moreover, I was a young, Black, Deaf immigrant juggling a full-time job (I was already teaching at Gallaudet by this point), kids, and full-time graduate studies, so it was not a piece of cake. It definitely wasn’t easy. Sometimes I was so tired, it felt impossible to go on. But somehow I found that impetus from within me, and at some point the goal felt attainable, especially as I’d already sunk so much into the PhD by then. I also had my job as a faculty member to consider – I had to have that PhD if I wanted to advance, and I felt I couldn’t let down all the people who had invested in me and who were counting on me to make it. My advisor and the program faculty at AU were all terrific people, and their faith in me when I didn’t have faith in myself spurred me on.

What is the biggest professional challenge you face (as educator or researcher)? How do you mitigate this challenge?

As an administrator now, I really don’t have as much time anymore for the fun aspects of the job, which include teaching and research. Instead, I spend more time in meetings and solving issues for our faculty and staff, so that they can then go on to serve our students. I loathe that I don’t see that many students anymore since my schedule is not consistent enough for me to teach regularly, so I get my “fix” by mentoring students, attending events, and having open office hours where they can come and talk with me.

This year, a huge challenge has been COVID and the pivot to remote learning. If anyone had told me in January 2020 that we would move an entire university from face to face teaching to remote in less than a month, I’d have asked them what they were smoking. But we did it and we continue to do it now. Keeping students and faculty engaged while we are all apart and isolated has been tough, but I’m proud to say that our community is resilient and we are making it work. We do so by having regular information sessions, hosting webinars, and sending out information blasts frequently. I’ve found that the greatest anxiety is in not knowing; sharing information, even the bad stuff, helps people understand what is happening, and many are relieved and appreciative to know what is going on.

What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?

Can’t think of any. Gallaudet is fully accessible to me as a Deaf woman.  

What advice would you give your former self?

Be braver and trust yourself! So often I didn’t speak up during my assistant professor days because I didn’t want to be that “angry Black woman,” or make people uncomfortable, or rock the boat. But sometimes that boat deserves to be rocked. I look back at all the grunt work I had to do, the committee assignments no one else wanted, the classes I had to teach even when I had a sick baby at home with no time off, the department meetings at odd hours that meant I wouldn’t see my kids awake at all that week… all the stuff that faculty today would and should protest. 

Now I make it a point to try and recognize when things like that are happening, and I’m actually in a position now to prevent them most of the time. And every time I have spoken up against an unfair situation, I have found that others often felt the same way, but perhaps were afraid or insecure or too junior, and were just waiting for someone to take the lead to change things. So now I try to be that person. I’m far enough along in my career that speaking out no longer carries the risk it did in my earlier days, and I use that superpower to hopefully smoothen the path for others coming after me.

Any funny stories you want to share?

Hmm… thinking… my kids are now 18 and 21 and they ask me all the time if I actually have a real job, because all they see is me at my computer typing away or signing during a meeting. They can’t believe I get paid to do that!

What is your typical day like?

Start at 8.30 am with a meeting over zoom. I’m quite the zoom expert now! More meetings until noon, get some work done, paperwork signed, attend a strategy session, feel hungry and wonder why, then realize it’s past 2pm and eat lunch at my desk while responding to emails. More meetings, and then finally call it a day around 8pm. Boring! But that’s a COVID day for you.

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.

Profile: Dr. Paige Glotzer

  • Current title: Assistant Professor and John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Chair in the History of American Politics, Institutions, and Political Economy, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Location: Madison, Wisconsin
  • Field of expertise: U.S. history
  • Years since PhD: 4
  • Twitter: @apaigeoutofhist; link to website 

Background

I was an only child in Brooklyn, NY, raised by supporting and loving parents. Neither is hard of hearing. Growing up, I never met other HoH/Deaf kids or got accommodations in school. We never watched things with captions or did anything that would help me gain the vocabulary to articulate my experiences. I was likely born HoH, but I finally got diagnosed at age seven and I didn’t get hearing aids until age 16. I got them when a noisy air conditioner in a classroom finally made it impossible for me to compensate with lip reading and context clues. I remember crying because at the time I thought getting hearing aids meant I had a deficit that I couldn’t overcome with effort. (To this day I sometimes don’t appreciate the extent to which I constantly work hard to hear, but I definitely don’t consider myself as having a loss or deficit). I somehow muddled through college with good grades, still unable and unwilling to communicate my needs. It really took graduate school for me to become empowered and proud of who I am. It’s there that I found allies and actually met other HoH and Deaf people. It was there that I first learned terms like “ableism.” I sometimes get frustrated thinking back on all the things that could have been. What if I had learned ASL when I was little? What if I had been exposed to Deaf culture growing up? I try to channel those feelings in productive ways. For example, over the last couple of years I have made a lot of progress with my parents on explaining to them why I need to see their lips when they talk. We already had a great relationship but it’s getting even better now.

How did you get to where you are?

Becoming a historian was a no-brainer for me. I’ve always been interested in history and I’ve always been interested in cities. Long before I formally pursued this career path, my favorite activity was walking through cities and wondering why they looked or functioned in certain ways. I have sharpened those questions over time to focus on the business of housing segregation. 

I have been reflecting on the past lately because my first book, How the Suburbs Were Segregated, was just published in April. It began as a paper I wrote my first year of graduate school in 2010. Graduate school got off to a rough start. It was the first day and I was excited to begin my path toward my dream job of historian. I walked into my first seminar, sat down, and realized with dawning horror that I couldn’t hear a single thing. The professor mumbled. The room echoed. We were seated in a formation where no one directly faced each other. I spent two silent hours trying to hold back tears. Later that day I finally realized: if I wanted to be a historian, I was going to have to do not just the work my peers did but also all the extra work of creating conditions where I could hear. I did that work, I am doing it now as a professor, and know I’ll always have to.

What is the biggest professional challenge (as educator or researcher)? How do you mitigate this challenge?

I face the challenge of teaching classes where some students have taken college-level U.S. history sitting next to others who have never had American history in their entire lives. Being a disabled educator has inspired me to meet this challenge by applying the principles of universal design to my teaching. I ask myself what decisions about pedagogy, content, and course design will create scaffolding and flexibility for everyone. Universal design has also allowed me to consider the intersections of disability with different experiences students face. For example, I make all my readings available digitally and for free. This makes the readings more accessible for students, but it also helps students who might not be able to afford to purchase books. I do not put the burden on the student to request an exception to some sort of “normal;” I teach for everyone.

What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?

Volume Amplification helps me do my job better. I have worked with my department to ensure that microphones will be used at all meetings and events with over ten people. For teaching, I use something called Catch Boxes, squishy cubes with microphones inside. My students can toss the Catch Boxes to each other and speak into them. It’s a form of amplification that’s scalable from my small classes, where I use one Catch Box, up through large lectures where I use two or more. The great thing about the Catch Boxes is that they open up new pedagogic possibilities—I can have free-flowing discussions even in a large lecture. My colleagues who are not hard of hearing generally write that off as impossible.

Any funny stories you want to share?

It’s difficult to think of a single story because sometimes my life feels like one long blooper reel. The way that I hear makes distinguishing certain sounds from one another very difficult. Unfortunately, that means I have a very hard time knowing whether someone has said ‘Paige’ or ‘Kate.’ This is a problem whenever I’m in the room with a Kate, which is weirdly often! I happened to sit behind a Kate for most of my senior year of high school. Those were fun times. 

Pale skinned woman with short wavy brown hair and plaid shirt laughs while looking downward

Advice to younger self

“You internalized a lot of shame and anxiety about your hearing because you thought your hearing was an inconvenience to others rather than an important part of who you are. It is okay to ask to turn on captions. It is okay to demand accommodations. And you are justified in feeling frustration or anger when people make ableist assumptions. You’ll learn to become a better advocate for yourself over time.