Tag Archives: deaf academics

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.

The sound we can see: working with hearing loss in the field

When I was 19 I went for a checkup with an audiologist and found out that I was hearing only 90% of what I should be. The doctor said that for my age, this was a high level of hearing loss, and attributed it possibly to the intense course of antibiotics I took for kidney failure when I was one year old. He suggested that I come back yearly to repeat the hearing exam, to verify if my ability further decreased below my current hearing levels. Of course I ignored this advice and never went back. When I started my graduate studies six years later, I decided it was finally time to visit the audiologist again, because I discovered that I could not hear the species of frog I had decided to base my research on. This was a very scary moment for me. How did I find myself in this situation?

In the last year of my undergraduate studies I took an ecology course and fell in love with the topic. I knew I wanted to earn a master’s degree in ecology, ideally working with animal populations. In Brazil, one has to take a standardized exam to enter a graduate program. I traveled 440 km to take the test and passed; I began my studies in the Federal University of Paraná located in Curitiba, in the south of Brazil. Among all the available mentors, there was one who carried out research on ecological dynamics of insects and anuran amphibians. I chose his lab and wrote a project proposal examining the population dynamics of an endemic species of stream frog (Hylodes heyeri) in the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, specifically Pico do Marumbi State Park, Piraquara, in the state of Paraná. Much of what I was to be doing was completely new to me: I had never worked with frogs and I also had never practiced the mark-and-recapture method. I thus faced a steep learning curve and had to learn a LOT about lab and fieldwork from my team and my mentor. In my first field outing, during which I was to learn how to identify and capture the species I would study, I discovered that I could not hear the frog. A labmate who accompanied me to the field said, “Are you listening? The frog is so close to us.” He thought I was not hearing the frog due to lack of experience, or because of the background noise of the stream. I worried that something else was amiss, and this finally prompted me to go back to my audiologist. There, I discovered that I had lost 2% more of my hearing, and this loss compromised treble sounds, those in the range of high to very high frequencies, precisely overlapping my frog’s vocalizations.

Now, I’m a PhD student and I use hearing aids programmed specifically for my hearing loss, which primarily encompasses frequencies above 4000 Hz. I was initially ashamed to wear hearing aids because people mocked them. But I didn’t consider changing projects, because I knew I could get help localizing the frog. I also knew there would be ways for me to analyze the sound without necessarily hearing it. Even with hearing aids, however, I can only hear the call of my frog when I am no more than 4 meters away. Other members of my lab can detect the sound of the frog from much farther away, even when they are 20 meters or more from the stream. This means that for every survey I carry out in the field, I need a person to accompany me to guide me to the frog, using their sense of hearing to identify the sound. But the assistance I receive in the field goes beyond locating my frog; the field can be dangerous for many reasons: I may not hear dangerous animals—such as puma, collared peccary, or leopards—approaching; and I may lose track of my team if people call me from too far away. Even for scientists without hearing loss, it is advisable not to carry out fieldwork alone.

In recent years, I have had the opportunity to learn Brazilian sign language (LIBRAS) in graduate courses. I am happy that it is a requirement for my degree! When I am in the field I communicate primarily with gestures. I am lucky that my frogs are diurnal, because I am able to see my companions in the field, making communication much easier. Once my companion hears the frog, they look at me so I can read their lips or we make gestures so as to not scare the frogs. Sometimes I use headphones, point the microphone of my recorder in the general direction of the frog, and increase the volume to better understand where the sound comes from—this trick of using my main research tool (my recorder) to find my frogs was taught to me by a friend who also carried out research in bioacoustics and had the challenge of finding a tiny mountain frog species that hid in leaf-litter (thank you, André Confetti). My frogs are also tiny, only 4 cm long. They camouflage in the streams and spook very easily, but in order to obtain my data, I need to get as close as 50 cm from the frog. Only then can I really start. The aim of my work is to analyze the effect of anthropogenic noise (such as traffic road sounds transmitted by playback) on frog communication. Once I am in position, I can play the anthropogenic sound, and record the frog’s call. I take these recordings back to the lab and experience the most rewarding aspect of my efforts to find these frogs. The recordings are transformed into graphs of the frequency and length of each call. Although I cannot hear the sounds my frog makes, I can see them! After seeing the sound I can analyze several call variables and calculate various statistics.

Would I recommend field work such as mine to somebody who finds themselves in my predicament? If you are open to creative workarounds, such fieldwork is possible for all. Having a field companion, using signs to communicate, and making use of the amplification provided by my recording equipment has solved the majority of my problems. Most important of all, having support from your mentor and other people who can help and you can trust is crucial. I do not intend to continue with bioacoustics research after I graduate, but if I need to mentor any students in the area, I’ll be happy to do it. I worry about my hearing loss too, in thinking of how it will affect my teaching in the future, because sometimes I hear words incorrectly and confuse their meaning. But I recently exposed my hearing loss in an interview; reading more at The Mind Hears and on other blogs has inspired me to worry less about my hearing loss and to continue to forge ahead in my career.

 

Biography: My name is Michelle Micarelli Struett and I am a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Program in Ecology and Conservation (where I also received my MS) at the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil. My undergraduate was at Maringá State University in Maringá, which is also in Paraná. I am interested in animal behavior, especially in frogs, and in my research will examine multi-modal communication in the Brazilian Torrent Frog (Hylodes heyeri). This unique frog can sing from one or both sides of its mouth (it has two vocal sacs), depending on context. I will attempt to determine what that context is that stimulates those two possibilities (auditive, visual, or tactile), and how anthropogenic noise may interfere with communication and social interactions in this frog. Despite my hearing loss (which primarily encompasses frequencies above 4000 Hz), I have not been constrained from working with frog calls and bioacoustics.

Understanding unfamiliar accents

-Ana

I wrote this post on an airplane coming back from an international conference I attended in Thailand. Because of the distance involved, participation at this meeting was pretty light on scientists from North and South America, but had a lot of participants from Europe (primarily the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Belgium) and Asia (primarily Thailand, China, Japan, Taiwan, but several other countries too). It was a wonderful conference: great venue, warm hosts, cutting-edge talks, great food, new people to meet, and some fun sightseeing thrown in. It also brought with it the usual challenges of trying to understand talks and poster presentations and network with important scientists in noisy settings. But this conference also brought home a specific problem that has stymied me throughout my career: understanding unfamiliar accents.

Deaf/HoH academics who depend on oral communication will likely be familiar with the problem that, even in an optimal hearing environment, we better understand those who speak like we do. Unfamiliar or “foreign” is relative, of course. I speak English and Spanish, but, due to the particularities of my upbringing, my best shot at hearing/understanding Spanish is with people who speak Colombian Spanish, or even more, the version of Colombian Spanish spoken in and around Bogotá (indeed, that is the accent I speak with – immediately recognizable to most Latin Americans). My Argentinean and Mexican friends can attest to how obnoxious I can be asking them to repeat themselves. Likewise, for English, I fare best with a northern Midwestern US type of English; Australian, British, Indian and many other accents will leave me floundering. I imagine that the same is true for other deaf/HoH academics, but with different versions of their language they are most used to.

Scholarly research, of course, is a global venture, and it is wonderful that many luminaries in my field hail from around the world. I’m already incredibly lucky that most professional communication is conducted in English, a language I happen to know. But, while hearing people can be quite understanding of my communication difficulties in suboptimal environments, it seems cruel (and professionally unwise) to tell colleagues that I can’t ‘hear’ them because of their accents—especially because many such colleagues have worked hard to acquire their English skills, thus going the extra mile to ensure communication. Because of globalism, the problem with understanding unfamiliar accents goes beyond conferences and professional networking. Many of my undergraduate and graduate students are also from various international locations. I am heartbroken every time I feel that my difficulty understanding my students negatively affects my ability to mentor them.

I have not found ideal strategies to deal with the challenges of unfamiliar accents. Every accent becomes a little more familiar with constant exposure, so I do understand my graduate students (with whom I communicate almost daily) better as time goes by. But it never stops being a challenge, and I sometimes have to resort to written communication in our one-on-one meetings. Since the undergraduates I teach change each semester, I don’t have similar opportunities to become familiar with their accents. For conferences and professional networking, I imagine that real-time captioning would be the ideal solution; but such a resource is not available at all conferences (though it should be!) and is generally not an option for networking. I’ve been excited by the recent advances in speech recognition software, such as that demonstrated by Google Slides, and wonder both if the technology can accommodate a range of accents and, if so, if it could ever become a portable “translator” for deaf/HoH individuals (I know some portable translator apps exist, but haven’t tried them and don’t know the scope of their utility; perhaps some readers can share their experiences?). I’m also curious whether unfamiliar accents are ever a challenge for deaf/HoH academics who rely on sign language interpreters. What other strategies have deaf/HoH academics employed to help navigate the challenge of unfamiliar accents in a professional setting?

How to work with ASL-English interpreters and Deaf academics in academic settings

Just like their non-Deaf colleagues, Deaf academics teach students, discuss and present their research, attend various professional meetings, and give media interviews. Communicating and sharing knowledge with others is a critical part of academia. However, not everyone has had experience communicating with somebody using sign language, and many non-signers are unfamiliar with the protocols of working with ASL-English interpreters. Ashley Campbell, the staff ASL-English interpreter at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Linda Campbell, a Senior Research Fellow of Environmental Science at Saint Mary’s, have put together a rich set of resources: a series of tip sheets on how best to work with interpreters in various academic scenarios. By sharing these resources with The Mind Hears, Ashley and Linda provide quick reference tools that will simultaneously educate and lessen any stress around facilitating communication through interpreters. Though originally written to facilitate ASL-English communications, these tip sheets can be applied to any settings that incorporate signed language-spoken language communications.

The tip sheets can be found at:

https://smu.ca/academics/departments/environmental-science-work-with-interpreter.html

Do you have ideas on further tip sheets to add to this resource? Are there other recommendations that you would add to the existing tip sheets? Please let us know what strategies you have found useful in educating non-signers, and help Ashley and Linda expand the reach and utility of the resources they have created. Write to Ashley at Ashley.N.Campbell@smu.ca or share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Ashley Campbell

Since 2015 I have been the staff ASL-English interpreter within the Faculty of Science at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada. My first exposure to sign language was in Belleville, Ontario where I lived for a short period early in life. Many years later I took ASL night classes for enjoyment and through learning the language and culture I became interested in studying it more formally. I graduated from an interpreting training program in 2010 and along with interpreting have volunteered for both provincial and national interpreting association boards. I have a passion for sharing knowledge with the mentality of “each one, teach one”. When I’m not working I am a mom to a very active toddler, cooking feasts for my family, and enjoying the odd Netflix program.

Linda Campbell

Dr. Campbell is a Professor and a Senior Research Fellow at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.  She moved to Halifax from a Canada Research Chair (Tier II) faculty position at Queen’s University in Kingston. Her research and teaching at Saint Mary’s University focus on contaminants in the environment and on sustainability / resilience issues, with emphasis on aquatic ecosystems and water resources. Currently, Dr. Campbell’s research group is examining environmental contaminants across the Maritimes and around the world, with projects looking at impacts of legacy gold mine tailings from the 1800’s and contaminant transfer in aquatic food webs, birds, bats and humans.

Teaching (very) large classes

-Ana

This semester I am teaching a large lecture course with about 175 students. I have taught this course 6 times before, with enrollment varying between 150 to 200. To be completely accurate, I only teach a third of the course, usually the first third of the semester, with two hearing faculty leading the other portions. Of course, teaching even a third of a course represents a challenge when your hearing is as crappy as mine. Therefore, my top priority for this class is ensuring that the students and I can communicate effectively (I speech-read and don’t sign). How do I do it? And does it work?

Like much of my professional life, the answer to the question “does it work?” shifts frequently. Some days I come out of class thinking I’ve nailed it and given students the educational experience they deserve. Other days, not so much. But, for better or worse, here is what I do:

I start out by making a very explicit announcement about being deaf/HoH the first day of class. I love the language that Michele used in her recent post about announcing your deafness to your class, and am thinking of borrowing some of this language next semester. Besides giving students tips on how best to communicate with me, my main preoccupation this first day is to emphasize that my deafness should not in any way scare them from asking questions, as I will work hard to ensure our communication. In a class this size, I am not always 100% sure I am getting this message across, but I try.

The second thing I started doing 3 or 4 years ago is using clickers. This classroom response system allows students to use handheld remotes to choose from alternative answers to a question I have posed, and I can assess their understanding in real-time. For me, this opportunity to interact with ALL students in my very large class, bypassing the usual difficulties of oral communication, is a radical departure from the usual state of affairs. I really like clickers, and love not having to dread the very solid silence that sometimes followed my lobbing a question to the class, while vainly hoping that an individual would venture an answer. However, clicker questions only go in one direction; they are no substitute for class discussion or questions asked by students.

So the final frontier—answering students’ questions! Large classes are, by their very nature, less interactive than smaller ones, as students are much more reticent about speaking out. I will here make a shameful confession in the era of “active learning” buzzwords—I derive some amount of comfort (or at least a decrease in anxiety) from knowing that a large class means fewer questions for me. Of course, questions still get asked, so the problems remain (and what serious instructor would prefer that their students ask less questions?!).

Walking up to students when they ask a question is not really an option in this course. I teach in auditorium-style classrooms and there is no way to get close to a student sitting in the middle of a row. What I have been doing instead is getting myself a student translator. I don’t have a TA, so I designate somebody in the class, ideally seated in the first row, to repeat questions for me. I have tried a few different student translator strategies. One semester I hired a work-study student to perform this role. The student was not a biology major and struggled mightily with the scientific vocabulary in the class—which meant that I struggled to understand the questions. I chalked this up as one of my not-so-good semesters. Another semester I asked a different student in the course to play the translator role each class period (in the interest of not overburdening anybody); this led to a lot of re-explaining of what I needed at the start of each class, which in turn led to awkwardness. Most semesters what I’ve done is ask two students—one for each side of the room—at the beginning of the semester if they are willing to play this role.

In general, things worked better once I started asking enrolled students for help, as students immersed in the class are very capable of understanding their classmates’ questions. A nice consequence is that most students feel surprised and elated to be asked to perform the translator role (that said, a few students have turned me down). Yet each year I find myself re-evaluating what I do. There can (and have been for me) hiccups with this approach. Examples are, designated students missing a class, leaving you without a translator.  Or, students’ unease about speaking up in large classes might result in your designated translator whispering, and now you have TWO students you can’t understand; to work around this, I have occasionally fitted my student translator with a directional mic that my FM system can pick up, but have found the amplified sound of notebook pages being turned too overwhelming. Finally, there is that constant whispering doubt: is it fair to ask a student to perform this extra bit of work for me?

You will notice an underlying thread to these strategies. At no point have I asked my university or department for help (though I should clarify that my department contributed to the work-study hire I once tried). Why not? Hmm, this sounds like material for another blog post. What I’m doing seems, for the most part, to be working for me so far. But there is room for improvement. I would be thrilled to hear from other deaf/HoH instructors about the strategies used to manage large classes.

What’s In a Name?

—Ana

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

― William ShakespeareRomeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s quote is overused, but the temptation to use it for today’s blog topic was irresistible. I would like to tackle the topic of labels—specifically the question of what label we, individuals who have varying degrees of hearing loss, use to describe our deafness within our professional academic environment.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that around 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss (this is a bit over 5% of the population).1They define “disabling hearing loss” as hearing loss greater than 40 decibels (dB) in the better-hearing ear in adults, and greater than 30 dB in the better-hearing ear in children. The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), reports approximately 48 million people in the United State (almost 20% of the population) with some degree of hearing loss.2Because the HLAA estimate includes individuals with slight to severe levels of hearing difficulty (16-90 dB) as well as those with profound hearing loss (>90 dB), their percentage estimate for the U.S. is greater than the WHO’s worldwide percentage estimate. Nevertheless, the numbers help with an important point. Hearing loss is a widespread, worldwide condition; however, how different countries address issues concerning deaf/HoH individuals can vary widely. When it comes to labels, I can only speak to my experiences of living in Colombia and the U.S. I’d like to recount this limited experience and how it has shaped my views, but I really hope our international colleagues will chime in with information that can increase our awareness of how deaf/HoH labels are viewed or used worldwide.

In the U.S., the currently prevalent and most accepted terms seem to be deaf, Deaf, and hard of hearing (see, for example, recommendations from the National Association for the Deaf).3Capitalizing the ‘D’ in Deaf holds special meaning in encompassing a group of deaf people that share a language (ASL) and a culture, and advocacy by Deaf people has contributed enormously to a nuanced understanding of how those in the deaf/HoH communities identify themselves.

In Colombia, the word “sordo” (Spanish for deaf) is the only label I know for people with hearing loss. However, “sordo” often conjures the image of a person who communicates exclusively by signed language (note, however, that Colombia did not officially recognize Colombian sign language until 1997).4Moreover, a 1996 law created to define the rights of deaf people in Colombia defines “sordo” as a person who presents a hearing loss of more than 90 dB that impedes acquisition and utilization of spoken language in adequate form.4 As an individual who relies primarily on hearing aids for communication, I have often felt at a loss in Colombia for words to describe myself, since “sordo” seems to have such a narrow definition. As a country, Colombia has not undertaken a comprehensive discussion about the best language to use when characterizing people with disabilities, to the extent that I know of no widespread recognized term for myself. Thus, for me, the abundance of labels to choose from in the U.S., even if each comes with some historical baggage, has always felt like a relief.

Perhaps this partly explains why I often reach for a term to describe myself that has fallen out of favor among many: “hearing impaired.” My comfort with this term may also stem from my scientific background. It feels like a useful description that (most of the time) explains relatively accurately that I have difficulty hearing, but will communicate through oral means (with all its attendant problems). Calling myself hearing impaired seems to me equivalent to saying that I am very nearsighted (and thus the shape of my eye causes images to be focused in front of my retina), or that I have a skin discoloration caused by a vascular anomaly (i.e. a port-wine stain) on my left hand. I’m not bothered by the term’s focus on something about me being “wrong.” Maybe because I’m a biologist I feel very aware that my sensorineural hearing loss is due to damage to my tiny cochlear hair cells, so that they cannot accurately transmit sound vibrations to my auditory nerve for my brain to interpret. “Damaged cells” fits comfortably within my definition of impairment.

Do I worry that the label I use will be taken by others to define me? The thing is, I do feel that my hearing loss contributes to who I am. Being Colombian also contributes to who I am, as does being an evolutionary biologist, being nearsighted, and being an introvert (which is probably due to some aspect of brain chemistry somewhere). The color of my skin, the color of my hair, my physical dexterity (or lack thereof) all contribute to who I am. None of these traits explains everything about me, but I am fairly certain that they, and others I do not list, have all shaped the person I am today. I therefore find it hard to get riled up about being referred to as hearing impaired or a hard of hearing person.

So what label to use? My opinion is that is that your label should be the one that you prefer. A label should feel accurate, non stigmatizing, non belittling, and comfortable. But the flip side to that is that nobody, not even our fellow deaf/HoH academics, can possibly guess what we prefer. The onus is thus on each of us to introduce ourselves, and let our colleagues know how we identify. And the onus is also on each of us to be kind and patient when our colleagues use something other than our label of preference.

What do you think? Is there an optimal way to refer to all deaf/HoH people in our community? An optimal way to introduce ourselves to our academic colleagues and students?

To our academic colleagues outside the United States: we need to hear from you to help us achieve an expanded understanding of the deaf/HoH experience around the world. How do you most often refer to yourself to others? Are certain labels regarded negatively?

 

1http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/deafness-and-hearing-loss

2https://www.healthyhearing.com/report/52814-Hearing-loss-statistics-at-a-glance

3https://www.nad.org/resources/american-sign-language/community-and-culture-frequently-asked-questions/

4Zambrano-Valdivieso, O; Almeida-Salinas, O; Suárez-Uribe, E; Restrepo-Pineda, J. (2017). La enseñanza de la lengua de señas colombiana como estrategia pedagógica para la inclusión educative—Estudio de caso. Revista Inclusión & Desarrollo, 5 (1), 37-48.

Why the world needs another blog

— Ana and Michele

We are two deaf/HoH tenured scientists at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and this summer we decided we needed to create a blog.

For Ana it was the cumulative frustration of feeling that after almost 12 years of teaching, she often still struggled with the same instructional challenges that had bedeviled her at the beginning of her career. For Michele it was a realization that she had shed her fear of having her hearing loss define her professional image as a research scientist. For both of us, it was a wearying sense that for too long we had each been re-inventing the wheel—continuously looking for solutions to problems that we cannot possibly have been the first or only ones to experience. “If only we had other people like us to talk to and exchange ideas with,” we thought. “Faculty who also fret about the best way to introduce their hearing loss to their students; postdocs who also have to worry about how to handle the soft-spoken person in the back row asking a question after their talk; grad students who are also trying to crack the code on how to be full participants in fast-paced journal clubs.” In the past, we had individually (and unsuccessfully) searched for blogs by deaf/HoH people working in academic settings that shared their experiences. This summer it finally dawned on us that we could create our own.

“But wait a moment!” you may ask. “You both work in the same institution—surely you talked to each other and exchanged strategies for success?” We’re somewhat embarrassed to admit that in all of our years of overlap at UMass, we actually didn’t engage that much with each other. The reasons for this are varied and nuanced and may be good sources for future blog posts. When Ana mentioned the idea of a blog to Michele a few months ago, we both instantly realized, this is it. We need to do this! We are on a mission, because people like us need this blog! So, despite all the myriad other demands on our time, we are making a blog.

Our aspiration is to create a forum for discussing the unique challenges shared by deaf/HoH professionals in an academic environment. We have two main objectives: first to build a network of academics with hearing loss from all career stages and from a diversity of fields. Through this network, our second objective is to share experiences, failures, and, most importantly, potential solutions to the professional challenges we encounter.

People with hearing loss make up 15% of the adult U.S. population, with likely similar percentages worldwide, but the proportion undeniably becomes smaller in academia. Because of our small numbers, our best shot at creating a community is online. The community we are gathering runs the gamut of experiences. It encompasses people who are recently deafened to those who were born deaf; those with mild hearing loss to those who cannot hear any sounds; individuals who communicate primarily through sign languages and those who do so verbally; academics in predominantly-hearing institutions and those at Deaf-serving institutions; graduate students initiating their careers, postdocs questioning their next step, and senior faculty who can impact academic culture; deaf/HoH people working in every academic discipline; academics in countries with abundant accommodations for deaf/HoH individuals, and academics in countries with more limited resources. Because the hearing loss experience is so variable and affects each of us in different ways, our best bet at finding solutions and workarounds to the challenges we each face is by including all of our diverse experiences in this shared forum.

We need to come together because being a person with hearing loss in an academic environment is hard. The daily exhaustion of communicating in non-ideal settings, anticipating and planning for future communication challenges, educating unaware individuals, and dealing with the social isolation resulting from communication challenges can drain us of energy, ambition, and time. We will blog about these challenges! While there is comfort in sharing stories and realizing that others are going through similar experiences, we aspire for this blog to transcend being merely a “complaint forum.” Instead, by sharing various ways that we approach different challenges, we hope to build a community toolbox of solutions.

If you are a deaf/HoH academic, please consider contributing blog posts or becoming involved in the discussions. If you know of a deaf/HoH colleague, please spread the word about our blog and help us grow our network. If you want to learn more about the deaf/HoH experience, ask questions and follow this blog. You can help TheMindHears strengthen its impact so that it provides value to each of those who visit.