Tag Archives: hard of hearing academics

Understanding unfamiliar accents


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.