Tag Archives: self advocacy

dark skinned woman with bright head scarf and hearing aids looks tot he right at the title of her blog post

Art of Accommodations in the Workplace for Hard-of-Hearing Employees

— Dr. Latisha Porter-Vaughn

As I have not yet advanced in my career despite completing my Ph.D., I continue to seek opportunities for career development. For most people, including deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, a college degree increases their employment opportunities, economic benefits, and success in the workplace. However, disabled folks are persistently underemployed, meaning that their skills are not being used in the workplace.  I have worked for the same academic institution for 32 years with most of my work in secretarial support, even though I have applied for administrative positions that would better match my education credentials. My lack of advancement in the workplace can be attributed to several factors, including a lack of disability awareness, inadequate accommodations, and non-inclusive behavior. COVID-19 provided administrators with a better understanding of the types of accommodations that can improve work performance and enable professional growth for employees with hearing loss.

Let’s begin at the beginning. In 1986, after graduating from high school, I moved from Hamilton, Ohio, to live with my sister in New Jersey. However, my life experienced a turning point. Although, I was not diagnosed with hearing loss as a newborn, only a few days after living with my big sister, she noticed something was wrong with my hearing. The big sister did what any big sister would and had my hearing checked. I learned that my entire life, I have been reading lips to understand conversations due to sensorineural hearing loss.

How was my life before the hearing loss diagnosis? 

Attending college has always been my dream to enable me to climb the corporate ladder to the boardroom. I struggled academically from the 4th grade until high school, so I hesitated to take college preparatory courses. I needed help to excel despite studying and completing my homework. When I took English tests, I misspelled words and needed support. During the lecture, I needed help understanding math concepts. Hence, instead of prepping for college, I pursued vocational education to acquire office skills, such as typing and stenography, which were in demand at the time. Shorthand could have been more efficient, while typing and stenography were fast. My stenography assignments and tests were always incomplete, and I earned low grades, negatively affecting my attitude toward my teacher. I understand now that the teacher was not at fault. Because I was unaware of my hearing loss, I didn’t know I needed accommodations. Despite facing academic challenges, I remained persistent, kept believing in my dream, and received my Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 2008.

Was 1990 the right time for accommodations? 

The 20th century saw some laws aimed at improving accessibility to employment for Americans with disabilities. On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. As a civil rights law, the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, such as jobs, schools, transportation, etc. (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990). What does this mean for me? In the workplace, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for an employee with hearing loss to perform well on the job. But access also requires administrators to understand disability awareness. Raising awareness fosters an open communication environment and enhances the interpersonal support required to succeed in the workplace with hearing loss. Employers with solid disability awareness recognize that the first attempt at accommodation might not be the best and that you must refine and adjust to various situations. An employer can demonstrate hearing loss awareness by creating a welcoming environment, knowing an employee’s specific hearing limitations, fostering an open communication environment, and having some understanding about the situational nature of accommodations.

Several months later, I applied for a position as a law school secretary. The opportunity to enter higher education was exciting. While I was proud of my 85-wpm typing speed, I knew shorthand would be challenging. When the academic Dean interviewed me, her communication skills were excellent, and she displayed courtesy, competence, and engagement. While I didn’t know this at the time, I needed these attributes in a supervisor who could create an accessible work environment. I disclosed my hearing loss to the Dean, who assured me that it would not be an issue and that the administration would provide the necessary accommodations for me to succeed at work. It sounded great, as I believed it would work. According to the Dean, employers must provide reasonable accommodations under the ADA. What are accommodations? I assumed that if the sound were loud, I would hear it, but that’s not the case – it’s more complex than that. Although I can listen to speech sounds, I can only sometimes understand some words. (See previous TMH post by Sarah Sparks about hearing versus understanding). 

I accepted the job offer. My responsibilities included working with eight faculty members, answering calls, taking messages, and handling correspondence. I sat in a noisy area, and my employer, and I, in our limited knowledge of options at the time, believed that an amplified phone was the ideal accommodation. Although the telephone amplifier made louder sounds, the speech was unclear, and the voices sounded muffled. I advocated to my supervisor about my difficulty understanding speech over the telephone, yet I continued answering the phone for fifteen years. Unfortunately, I received negative performance reviews every year. I realize now that it was not appropriate for me to answer the phone during that time. It is beneficial to have a knowledgeable accommodations office on campus to provide disability support to law school students, faculty, administrators, and staff. That office might have told my supervisor and I about alternative strategies for my work accommodation.

Black woman wearing a head wrap and hearing aids looks away from the camera to signage that guides folks how to effectively communicate with her.
Latisha looks at signage bay her desk that guide folks how to effectively communicate with her. The signs explain that she uses assistive listening devices to transcribe conversations.

Knowing Your Needs

Although the employee must be able to request appropriate accommodations needed to perform well on the job, the success of disabled employees also requires administrators to understand disability awareness and to establish an open communication environment. These conditions enhance the interpersonal support required to succeed in the workplace with hearing loss. Employers with solid disability awareness recognize that the first attempt at accommodation might not be the best and that you must refine and adjust to various situations. An employer can demonstrate hearing loss awareness by 1) creating a welcoming and inclusive environment with open communication, 2) knowing the communication styles and models that work best for specific employees, and 3) having some understanding about accommodations. There are soft and hard accommodations. 

Soft accommodations are: 

  • Face the person when speaking.
  • Talk in a normal tone.
  • Ample-lit room.
  • Talk in quiet spaces.
  • Send the person an email of the time you’ll stop by their desk so they will be aware. 
  • Share an agenda before the meeting, so the employee knows what will be discussed.
  • Understand that the employee may experience listening fatigue and need to take breaks during the meeting.
  • Know that the employee can only follow one conversation at a time. 

Hard Accommodations include. 

  • Closed captioning.
  • CART or live captioning.

I refused to give up on my career and persisted through driven strategies of self-accommodation, self-management, and self-advocacy. 

Dark skinned woman with stylish glasses smiles to the camera. She wears a black shirt and dangly earrings.

Latisha Porter-Vaughn is a doctoral graduate from The University of Arizona. Her Ph.D. published research is “Perceptions of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing College Students’ Work Readiness and Preparation.” She is a research associate with the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes to continue contributing to literature that will help improve education and employment outcomes for students who are deaf or have hearing loss. And a paralegal at Seton Hall University Center for Social Justice. She is a Gallaudet University Peer Mentor for people who have hearing loss. She is also the president of the HLAA New Jersey State Association and chair of its Scholarship Committee. She is the co-founder of the HLAA Essex Chapter and a Deaf Snapshop Mentor of SPAN New Jersey. She has self-published her book “Sounds of the Heart: The Story of a HearStrong Champion Persisting Against All Odds” and is soon to self-publish her second book “How We Hear: A Useful Guide for the Hearing to Understand Hearing Loss—Answers to 10 Questions for the Workplace & Social Situations.”

Conquering faculty meetings (or not…) when deaf/hard of hearing


Making it as a deaf/hard of hearing (HoH) academic can often feel like a game of whack-a-mole. Between research activities, teaching duties, and that large nebulous category ‘service,’ communication challenges lurk around every corner. Some I can troubleshoot fairly quickly— i.e. arranging a classroom so there is walking space between desks and I can approach my students to better hear them (mole whacked!). Other challenges have required a few more tries, but I’ve eventually figured out viable solutions—i.e. belatedly acquiring an FM system was a game changer when it came to group discussions of papers (mole missed, mole missed, mole whacked!). But there is a situation that I have not yet been able to master, even after many, many years: the departmental faculty meeting.

I had less than a passing knowledge of that special faculty obligation that is the Departmental Faculty Meeting when I started out as an assistant professor. I’d heard some friends and my spouse—people who’d gotten faculty positions before me—mention them, usually accompanied by eye rolls. But I didn’t really have any expectations about what these meetings entailed or what my role in them might be.

Cue over to my first faculty meeting as a deaf/HoH faculty in a predominantly hearing institution. I walked into a an overly large room (overly large for the number of people we had) that looked somewhat like this:

A room with chairs in rows, in which a faculty meeting is taking place. Stick figures are scattered throughout, with one twisting and turning her head in an attempt to speech read what is being said by people in all corners of the room.

We were 15-20 faculty seated in a classroom meant for over 40, with everybody seemingly intent in maximizing their distance from all others. After an hour of feeling like a bobblehead as I desperately twisted my neck trying to speech read my department chair in front and my colleagues in all corners of the room, I came to three conclusions:

1. Faculty (who would have thought!) are just like undergrads, and will beeline for chairs in the last rows of a room

2. Important stuff got discussed in faculty meetings (I think I caught some words that sounded like budgets and curriculum…)

3. I was dead meat, because I could not follow anything that was being said

So I went home and cried. My first year as an assistant professor, I cried after every single faculty meeting. Granted, we didn’t have that many faculty meetings back then, but enough to confirm my deep-rooted fear that I was certainly not going to survive this career path. It was clear to me in my first year that faculty meetings were whipping me soundly; if I were keeping score I would call it: Faculty Meetings 1–Ana 0.

Of course the obvious thing to do would have been to ask my department chair to change the setup of the faculty meetings. After all, my colleagues knew I was hard of hearing and relied on hearing aids for communication. But I was terrified that if my department caught whiff of how much I struggled to hear, this would sow doubts about my competence as a teacher and doom my tenure prospects. Besides, although I had a long history of self-reliance, I had zero experience in self-advocacy. Among my many thoughts were “What in the world falls under the ‘reasonable’ umbrella in reasonable accommodation?” and “oh, wait, I’m not a US citizen, does the ADA [American with Disabilities Act] even cover me?” (I still don’t know the answer to this one).

Towards the end of the academic year I found some courage to request CART (Communication Active Real Time Translation) for a final retreat-style faculty meeting. The captionists were to sit next to me and type out all discussions. My chair knew about the CART, but I (foolishly) didn’t alert the faculty. At the beginning of the meeting, a colleague expressed discomfort about the presence of unknown people in the room (the captionists). Though an explanation brought a quick apology, I felt marked. Added to the captioning time lag that at times jarred with what I could hear, I scored another loss: Faculty Meetings 2–Ana 0.

A transmitter with an omnidirectional microphone placed on a table.

My second year brought a new department chair, a tiny increase in self-confidence, and also an increase in the frequency of faculty meetings. Aaagh! I finally resolved to approach my chair and request that faculty be seated in a round square table format during meetings so that I would have a better shot at speech reading. Simultaneously, I acquired a new FM system and a transmitter with an omnidirectional microphone — a forerunner of the one pictured here. I would place it on the center of the table and voila! OK, so it wasn’t quite 100%, and I was still missing most of the banter and jokes, but jumping from 50 to 90% comprehension (These are completely unscientific numbers. Naturally, there’s no way for me to ever tell how much I’m missing; my estimate is based on my confusion level at the end of meetings) felt wonderful. This was it! I was going to nail this faculty thing! New score: Faculty Meetings 2–Ana 1!

Then my department grew. 

Schematic of a conference setting in a hollow square format.

Okay, I get the fact that department success is gauged in part by growth. And yes, improving faculty-to-student ratios is always a good thing. But growth meant that in order to sit all of us in rectangle we were now sitting like this:

Ummm, with a gaping hole in the middle, where is microphone transmitter to go? I started putting it next to me, but of course this makes it much less likely to pick up voices from those sitting farther away. I considered going back to CART, but at this point I had had my first kid and often had to rush out of faculty meeting before the end in order to make it to daycare pickup; I couldn’t bring myself to subject others to my sometimes ad hoc schedule… so I muddled along and considered this round lost. New score: Faculty Meetings 3–Ana 1.

A Lego knight with shield, sword and helmet. It is pretty happy that no faculty meeting can hurt it now.

Fast forward a few years—the department kept growing. We were now meeting in a large room that combined my two meeting nightmares: square table arrangements with a central hole AND faculty sitting in rows (we no longer all fit around the square). Even worse… recall that faculty are just like undergrads….most actively choose to sit as far away from the center/front of the room if given an option. So much for our “round table.” 

I started to cultivate the attitude recommended by some of my hearing colleagues… faculty meeting, bah, waste of time, place where people go to hear themselves talk, nothing happens there that couldn’t be solved more quickly through email….bah! OK, so attitude was my new weapon armor. By my calculations we were now at this score: Faculty Meetings 4–Ana 2. Ha! A comeback!

Schematic of a conference set up that involves chair lining up the perimeter of a room, as well as table set in a U-shape, with a peninsula in the center also lined with chairs.

A few years later, further department growth and another new chair. But I told this one about my difficulties following discussions whenever we sat in rows. Alas, we were now too many faculty to sit in any sort of rectangular format that would fit in a room. I had started in a department with around 20 people and we now had more than 50! To maximize my visual contact with faculty in a room, we came up with this pretty funky rectangle with peninsula shape. Ummm… perhaps we can call this score: Faculty Meetings 4–Ana 3? We would have patented this design, but there were two problems. The perimeter of the room (around the rectangle) still had to be lined with chairs in order to have enough seating should everybody decide to show up. And see observation #1 above: faculty are just like undergrads. This means that people prefer to take the perimeter spots before they take any rectangle spots. And it turns out that people prefer to STAND IN A CORNER of the room before taking ANY of the peninsula spots in the center. New score: Faculty Meetings 5–Ana 3.

So we get to where we are today. I catch myself wondering how traitorous it is for me to dream of a smaller department while also cultivating a blasé attitude towards faculty meetings so that I release myself from feeling obligated to try and follow the discussions. In a way, this outcome is an anthesis of what a blog post on thriving in academia with deafness should be. Over a decade of trying to find a solution for a way to participate effectively in what should be a routine part of faculty life has led instead to something that resembles an arms race and I have no solution to offer. At the same time, however, this post on getting by in academia with deafness portrays pretty effectively the reality of trying to adjust to shifting communication settings as a deaf/HoH academic. I hesitate to sound as if I’m advocating “managing” as opposed to “thriving” when it comes to facing the fluctuating demands of academic life, but sometimes, while we’re whacking those moles, “managing” is what we can do.

Pandemic addendum: I wrote this post before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, never imagining the ways in which my faculty meeting odyssey would be upended yet again. The thought of meeting in-person with 40-50 colleagues now seems so distant, and new “moles” have appeared in our now virtual faculty meetings (ahem…thinking here of all those who choose to speak with their zoom cameras OFF). Yet I’ve also picked up some new management strategies in the interim… For example, Michele’s recent post points out some of the silver linings for deaf/HoH academics in working from home. And from Paige Glotzer’s profile I’ve now learned of the existence of Catchbox throwable microphones; if when life returns to normal, could this be my new faculty meeting strategy? I can’t wait to see