Tag Archives: hard of hearing academics

And I knew the silence of the world

This is part 2 of an autobiographic pair of posts by Stephen Klusza about his decision to get cochlear implants in graduate school. You can read about his life up to his decision in part 1. This multimedia post includes a video at the bottom of the page with images and excerpts of songs that express Stephen’s journey.


–Stephen

Hello darkness, my old friend,
I've come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence….


- Simon and Garfunkel “The Sound of Silence”

Within the past decade, I have occasionally remarked that if I were born 50 years earlier, I would have been out of luck. After losing the rest of my hearing, I felt that I was past the point of no return. In an effort to leave no stone unturned, I went to see a specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Gainesville, who ordered an MRI to determine the cause of the loss. Although the radiologist report came back with no findings, my specialist looked through it more thoroughly and found that my vestibular aqueducts were malformed in my inner ear on both sides. They were partially functional but prone to collapse at any time. Then, he said that I would be a good candidate for cochlear implantation. Even in the late 2000s, I had never heard of cochlear implants (CIs), despite my many previous visits to many audiologists and ENT doctors. I was stunned to learn that something could bring my hearing back. It all seemed too good to be true – and it was. 

The doctor presented many caveats and uncertainties about the procedure. The process is irreversible, in that you lose any residual natural hearing upon surgical implantation. The surgery has a small risk of facial paralysis because of the proximity of facial nerves to where they drill to access the implantation site. The other factor weighing on my mind was the increased visibility of the processors compared to hearing aids. I had always worn behind-the-ear hearing aids that were visible with my short hair, but I still wished I could completely blend in the crowd and be left alone from all the stares and whispers that I had experienced all my life. Wearing hearing aids or cochlear processors was never a source of shame for me. I was simply tired of being a spectacle. I was tired of working much harder than hearing people just to be worthy of the furthest seat at the table. I was tired of persevering against all odds for a world that treated me as lesser than my hearing colleagues.

My pain is self-chosen
At least, so the prophet says
I could either burn
Or cut off my pride and buy some time
A head full of lies is the weight, tied to my waist

The river of deceit pulls down, oh oh
The only direction we flow is down
Down, oh down….

-Mad Season "River of Deceit"

I did not have a magical moment of rational clarity that led to my decision to get implanted. In my vulnerable state of self-preservation, I simply clung to the tiny slivers of hope that things might somehow get better with the implant. My first surgery (left ear) was scheduled during Christmas break to allow for recovery from the invasive surgery. My parents visited for a couple of days to help me get through the worst of the post-operative trauma from the outpatient surgery. I had a reaction to the anesthesia and severe dehydration led to nausea, vomiting, vertigo, and migraines from the tightness of the head bandage. My only respite from the pain was formless sleep.

Every Christmas, I would go with my parents to visit my grandmother, but I was unable to do so this time. She completely understood but it broke my heart that because of my surgery, she would not be able to see me or my parents that year. My parents spent a lot of time and resources to help me recuperate. I was more distant in my interactions with everyone, including my dog Honey. Given that we went on many daily walks and enjoyed play time whenever I was home, I can only imagine the puzzlement she felt when my demeanor changed, when I largely stopped doing those things with her. It is something I regret to this day because I lived by myself and she was alone whenever I wasn’t home, and there was no way that she could understand what was going on. In retrospect, I sometimes wonder if guilt was the deciding factor for me to get implants. There was a chance that implants could bring back some semblance of the life that I used to have with my family and the few friends that I had. I was even willing to put myself through more pain and uncertainty just for the chance to hear Honey’s grumbles and barking when she didn’t get her way (since I spoiled her rotten).

A long December and there's reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last
I can't remember the last thing that you said as you were leaving
Oh the days go by so fast

And it's one more day up in the Canyons
And it's one more night in Hollywood
If you think that I could be forgiven
I wish you would

- Counting Crows “A Long December”

My first activation was mostly typical of other adults who have had cochlear implants – voices sounded like robotic chipmunks and high frequencies were like icepicks to my ears. Music sounded like washes and drones of static, like a detuned radio unable to tap into the specific frequencies. The doctors counseled me beforehand that it would take time for sounds to make sense. I understood what they meant, and accepted this logically, but nothing can ever fully prepare for you for how your body reacts to situations of uncertainty. My brain became a battlefield between the unconscious and the conscious, with the dueling synapses lobbing salvos of emotion and logic at one another in their pareidolic attempts to find answers within random patterns.

Here, there's no music here

I'm lost in streams of sound
Here, am I nowhere now?
No plan
Wherever I may go
Just where, just there I am
All of the things that are my life
My desire, my beliefs, my moods
Here is my place without a plan 


– David Bowie “No Plan”

Towards the end of the following summer, the residual hearing in my right ear disappeared, which made me eligible for a second implantation. The only surgery time available was right before Christmas and I had to call my grandmother and tell her that I could not see her again, and that I was sorry. She wanted the best for me and assured me that it was okay. I resolved to make sure that nothing would get in the way of me spending time with my grandmother for the next Christmas. Unfortunately, she passed away before I could do so I could not fulfill her wish to see me graduate. I dedicated my doctoral thesis in her loving memory.

Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees
Time can break your heart, have you begging please
Begging please….

- Eric Clapton “Tears in Heaven”

It took me 2 years, from hearing loss to CI rehabilitation, to get to a place where I could listen to and enjoy music again and have conversations with people in noisy environments.  When I was implanted in my other ear, recovery from was just as rough as the first time, but activation in that ear took a lot less time to program as my brain already knew how to process electrode signals. For a moment, I thought I was hallucinating when music I listened to would pan between the left and right channels. However, I soon realized that I was experiencing life in true stereo for the first time. After so many years, I could finally detect the direction sound was coming from, which gave me the strength to continue with my rehabilitation.

Altogether, I wound up spending 7 ½ years in graduate school with a minimum of papers, which many would consider a death sentence for academia prospects. Still, I forged ahead and secured a postdoc at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and spent several years studying epigenetics in fruit flies. At the time I was applying for grants, several agencies included a section where applicants could explain discrepancies and life events that may have affected their publication record. I detailed my struggles in those sections and sent in my applications. I did not succeed in getting funding from those grants. I remember one of the reviewers remarking how I needed to publish a lot as a postdoc or I would not make it in academia, with no mention whatsoever of the life events that I went through. In knowing how reviewers do not read everything in a proposal, I question if reviewers actually read the documentation section and take into account obstacles that happen in people’s lives. In any case, it was clear that continuing in this traditional academic career path would be nothing more than going through the motions, with one foot in front of the other.

And I'm stuck in a shack down the back of the sea
Oh, and I'm alive and I'm alone inside a sick, sick dream
Oh, is it me, is it me that feels so weak?
I cannot deceive but I find it hard to speak

The hardest walk you could ever take
Is the walk you take from A to B to C

- The Jesus and Mary Chain “The Hardest Walk”

For the majority of my life, I never felt like I truly belonged anywhere. I was bullied by hearing students and adults throughout my adolescence. Those who did not approve of the bullying simply stood by the sidelines and averted their eyes. Perhaps I could have looked back on these times with more fondness if I was more involved with the deaf community. That never came to be, as I was told through the grapevine that deaf members of my family were upset and angry when I first got hearing aids as a young kid; they were even more upset about my decision to get cochlear implants. Cochlear implantation continues to be a contentious issue for many deaf people, who view it as a betrayal and rejection of deaf community and culture. I know now that there are many deaf people who welcome those with cochlear implants, but as a despondent deaf kid coming of age, I felt that it was only a matter of time before I would have been rejected from the deaf community as well, so I rejected the deaf community first.

Instead, I embraced the solitude that my deafness foisted upon me and adjusted my social habits in how I interacted with hearing people, for better or worse. Looking back, this defense mechanism had huge ramifications on my social skills that greatly influenced the future trajectory of my life, including my career. At one time, I thought that science research would be perfect – surrounded by dusty tomes and papers on a cluttered desk, my mind preoccupied with fantastic biology puzzles, and a minimum of human interaction. Of course, now that I am a scientist, I see that this was a pretty naïve viewpoint on my part. I had hoped that academia would be this enlightening, welcoming, and supportive place that I had always imagined it to be. I sacrificed two decades of my life in this endeavor, only to be told implicitly that I wasn’t worthy enough for future consideration as an academic. It was seemingly yet another rejection from a community that I had sought very hard for acceptance from….. 

Hey!
Don't come around here no more
Don't come around here no more
Whatever you're lookin' for
Hey! Don't come around here no more

-Tom Petty “Don’t Come Around Here No More”

or so I thought. I am now an Assistant Professor of Biology at Clayton State University, a public undergraduate institution (PUI) with wonderful and caring faculty and students. I have found colleagues and friends who share my values in building a better STEM for everyone through the Open Life Science organization and the Genomics Education Partnership faculty collective. I am married to the most amazing and wonderful person that I have ever known. I am here now, writing this blog post and telling my story for The Mind Hears. If you had told me five years ago that this world would become real, I would not have believed it. Yet here it is, and for the first time in my life, I am holding on with both hands and never letting go. For the first time ever, life looked a little bit brighter.

My life has been extraordinary
Blessed and cursed and won
Time heals but I'm forever broken
By and by the way
Have you ever heard the words
I'm singing in these songs?
It's for the girl I've loved all along
Can a taste of love be so wrong?

As all things must surely have to end
And great loves will one day have to part
I know that I am meant for this world

- The Smashing Pumpkins “Muzzle”

video with images and music that capture Stephen’s journey

Dr. Stephen Klusza is a developmental geneticist who received both his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Biological Sciences at Florida State University and performed research in fruit fly epigenetics as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As an Assistant Professor of Biology at Clayton State University in Morrow, GA, Dr. Klusza is interested in creating accessible and equitable low/no-cost educational resources and research opportunities to increase accessibility in education for all students. He also serves as the current Chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee for the Genomics Education Partnership and advocates for disability representation in STEM and academia.
@codebiologist

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.

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.


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.

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?

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.