Conferences – Including the deaf academic

sign-language-translatorConferences, inclusion, communication support – these are all key words over on twitter at present. Not least because of the International Congress for the Education of Deaf People, where there was a spectacular fail to provide interpreters for deaf delegates, and even when interpreters were provided, they turned out to deliver less than stellar performances (I saw one figure of less than 20% of a talk being interpreted, which is terrible). But this, and other conferences (it is conference season, after all!) are opening up questions regarding conferences for deaf academics. [And by deaf academics, I mean academics who have a hearing loss, and who are academics in any subject, not academics in a field to do with the deaf.]

This is a long blog post, even by my standards, so I apologise in advance for that.

Funding Communication Support

While I think most people agree on a simplistic level – that is, yes, the non-provision of communication support is terrible and Something Must Be Done…. the conversations on twitter and elsewhere in the digital sphere are very revealing. One of the organisers of ICED2015 has taken the time to write down his opinions on what happened at ICED. It is important to note that the original was written in Dutch (Harry Knoors is Dutch) but an English translation is available here, translated by Maartje de Meulder, whose own blog is bilingual (Dutch/English) so it is reasonable to assume that the translation is an accurate one.

[It is important to ask, in the interests of critical questioning, whether Maartje, as a Deaf person herself, allowed (consciously or not) her outrage to impact on her translation of Harry’s words. I do not know enough Dutch to even try to give an opinion on this, but, fortunately, I have access to a person who is a little more impartial in this (my lovely hearing partner) who is fluent in both Dutch and English and who has agreed to read both. I feel confident that Maartje has done a good job in translating Harry’s words but since most of what we (as deaf people) are objecting to is the tone in Harry’s words, it is important to know for sure that the tone in the translation is there in the original as well and these questions should be asked.]

Harry’s blog basically gives some of the background of the organisation of ICED2015, explaining that there is very little in the way of funding behind ICED, that the committee behind ICED choose from a range of proposals for the delivery of the next conference. How the conference is funded is up to the individual organisation delivering the individual conference (e.g. Patras University this year), but it seems that mostly the organisers try to make it pay for itself by charging the delegates just enough to attend and deliver papers, but only just. Harry argues that there simply IS no extra money to pay for communication support, and that simply putting the costs up to attend would mean that people from developing countries would struggle to attend as it would be too expensive, and there aren’t any sponsors other than CI firms available. Harry goes on to suggest that each person – whether deaf or no – takes responsibility for organising their own communication support, much as a hearing person would have to do if they were attending a conference in a foreign country that was being held in a foreign language.

In this sense, the organisation of ICED appears to be very similar to many conferences, international or not, around the world. Most do not have a great deal of money to spare and, like it or not, money IS an issue, that both the deaf and the hearing will have to work together to address in the academic community, worldwide.

What Harry totally, completely, and utterly fails to understand, that is that this is an issue for all people, not just the deaf. His blog is written from the perspective of ‘Us’, and ‘You’, ‘Hearing’ and ‘Deaf’. He doesn’t understand that by excluding deaf people, or excluding their access (to be more accurate), the academic community as a whole loses out because it means that the ideas, concepts, information, conclusions, experiences and emotions of deaf people are removed from the academic community. Imagine a conference about black history, for example, that excluded people from parts of Africa, on the basis that there were no interpreters available for the languages from that part of the world? There would be an uproar – and rightly so. And this does not even address the issue of disability. The academic community is poorer for the exclusion, and that is why inclusion, for ALL, regardless of language or ability, needs to be a clear aim for all organisers and all conferences, regardless of whether they are deaf-orientated or not.

[I think it only fair to say that much of my understanding about these issues has developed through a great conversation between myself and @Laurinegrmo and @mdemeulder – aka Maartje de Meulder, who originally translated Harry’s post. You can read the original conversation thread here – it is, alas, too long to post here.]

Harry suggests that each delegate takes it upon themselves to sort out their own access to communication support. He uses the example of him going to China as a basis for this, saying that if he attended a conference in China, being held in Chinese, then this would be his responsibility. What Harry doesn’t understand is that as a hearing person, Harry has a choice. He can chose to learn Chinese. Granted, it is unlikely that someone would learn spoken Chinese enough to converse on an academic level with a few months notice, but he has that choice. He can choose to hire an interpreter. What Harry doesn’t seem to get is that the deaf largely do not have that choice. Learning a second spoken language, to the point that they can lipread it, is an incredibly difficult thing to do, and many would find it impossible (I know I would, and I am writing from experience in this – I tried to learn Dutch for my partner, but had to give up because there were so many sounds that just do not exist in the English language that I could not lipread). Communication support is not an option and… I don’t know exactly what Harry does in the field of Deaf Education but I am astounded that a person can be involved in that field at all and NOT GET THIS.

Having said all this, I don’t want this to be a blog focusing on the negative. It is too easy to complain about the way the world works and not to attempt to provide solutions.

[and this, in a way, is where Harry really went wrong. That ICED cannot provide funding for communication support is really not the issue. The biggest issue is that they didn’t seem willing to even declare that communication support is necessary, and then go, ‘how do we make this work’? Even just saying ‘Guys, we’ve thought about this, and we’ve come to the conclusion that XYZ would be problematic, for these reasons, and ABC for these. However, maybe we’re missing something. Have you any suggestions?’ The whole piece seemed to smack of ‘we’ve considered this, come to these conclusions, for these reasons, and you have to accept it because of course, we’re hearing and we’re right and you couldn’t possibly come up with something we’ve not thought of!’. But… I digress.]

Much of the issue on funding really does depend on where the conference is being held, and who is holding it, and what kind of conference it is. If it is a large, international conference of, say, medical doctors, hosted by a university, then the chances are that there may be more money available for access than there would be for a small, local, postgraduate conference being hosted by a bunch of volunteers. In the UK, there are options. If you’re working for your university (i.e. as an academic) then Access to Work may fund it. If you’re a student, and the organiser is a charity or it is being done on a strictly voluntary basis, then DSA may be persuaded to fund it (you’ll have to be prepared to argue hard though, as I know SFE is trying to clamp down on institutions using DSA to get out of meeting their obligations under the 2010 Equalities Act). If you’re a student and the organiser is an institution or company, then they certainly have the obligation to make ‘reasonable allowances’ under the 2010 Equalities Act. This is something I’m working through myself at present. There may be other sources of funding. The Snowdon Trust, for example, may be one option, and I am sure there are others – on my to do list is a page with funding information for this kind of thing that may help people seeking funding information and help. Remember too, that organisations that fund, for example, trips for students to get to far flung libraries (one colleague of mine was just funded for a trip to LA!) or pay for conference travel and access may also pay for communication support – its always worth asking if they’d be prepared to chip in. If you explain that you’ve asked everywhere else, that that if you don’t get it, they may as well not send you, then they may say just say yes. As I’m fond of saying, ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get!’.

What is becoming very clear to me is that much of the response you get as as a deaf individual asking for communication support hinges on how you approach them. Conference organisers are human, and rightly or wrongly, often do not understand their obligations under the Equalities Act. While I’m still working with my own disability support unit at the university to develop a strategy for this, at the very least, emailing them with “hello. I’m deaf. Can I have an interpreter? it’ll cost £££” is a bad idea. This triggered what I think may have been a certain amount of panic in the organiser of mine, because they have no idea where to get interpreters or even how to afford them. The current thinking of myself and the disability support unit is that an email more along the lines of “hello. I’m deaf, coming to your conference and need interpereters. Although it will cost £££ there is a fund for this from the disability support unit of your university – if you contact this person on this telno or email address they’ll walk you through what needs to be done to access that fund, and I can book the interpreters if you like.” What this does is to take the pressure off them – give them someone on their side/uni that they can talk with this about (and who can tell them, that yes, they have to do this), a source of money, and an offer to sort out the interpreters myself, so that essentially, they have to do very little themselves. Be prepared to have to do a certain amount of deaf awareness education. I ruefully commented about having to do this for the rest of my life to @Laurinegrmo, who replied:

Mmmmm. Tempting!!!

In terms of what the organisers of conferences themselves can do, especially when they’re flat broke, in terms of maximising income from the conference (which can be used to pay for things like communication support), there’s lots of options. Alison over on twitter suggested that:

And followed it up with a couple more suggestions. Fantastic! Streaming would be a great opportunity to allow people to attend in greater numbers, and with a little forethought, would allow people to be involved from a distance by typing questions to the person doing the talk just as if they were there in person. Even better, with more forethought, the talks could be recorded (like at TED) and made available on a pay-per-view basis afterwards, with their presentation and the surrounding digital media discussion included in this. I recently viewed something like this from my university library, a short presentation on how to check on the citation rate for different journal articles. The screen was split into different areas. One part focused on the person talking, another on the powerpoint, a third on the text from the presenter, and a fourth on questions from the audience. This was a talk that had been given several years ago, and was being made available to try to help students needing this information. If it is possible for my University Library then anyone can do it – and much as I love my library, they’re not world beating IT library providers!

Digital Conversations

This, however, highlights another point about Conferences, that non-academic people don’t really get. Conferences aren’t just about the papers that are delivered, and deaf people need access to more than just that. As Mike Gulliver, currently at the Edinburgh Deaf History International Conference tweeted this morning:

What hearing people do at conferences is to tweet through a paper on the subject of the paper. What you may find is that the conference organiser or dedicated twitter identity for the conference will tweet that so and so is talking on this subject. People will then respond, tweeting their thoughts to what the person is saying, and conversations will spin off that, in a way that is often extremely useful for the people involved, including the person giving the talk, who obviously cannot be involved in the digital conversation while the presentation is going on*. For the people listening to the talk, the digital conversation is useful as it gives them an avenue to provide information, hold discussions. It is an add on, rather than a thing in its own right.

[*for non-academics – For the speaker, questions and feedback about their paper is critical because it helps them to adjust their paper, a paper that is often in the process of being written and revised for publication in an academic journal. Giving their paper at conferences is a way of trying out different approaches to their subject, getting feedback and so on, that make for a better paper – that, all else considered, often make the liklihood of acceptance that much higher.]

But here’s the thing. Although it is acceptable for the speaker to come to the digital conversation afterwards, the deaf person, as Mike noted, is essentially excluded. They can either take part in the twitter conversation, or they can pay attention. Much like notetaking, they cannot do both. At the last (and first!) conference I attended, I settled for tweeting my thoughts in the break – less than acceptable, because as Mike noted:

By the time the paper is over, the digital conversation is done, and all that is left is for the Speaker to come in and thank people for attending, respond to questions and so on. The deaf person who tries to come in afterwards, to give their thoughts on what was being said… essentially is regarded as having missed the bus, and is disregarded. Again, as Mike noted, it makes for a world where:

Bad enough for the individual, lone deaf person at a hearing conference (where it may not be helped that this happens), but for it to happen at a deaf conference? That really should NOT happen.

Again, however, I want to focus on the positive. What to do to counteract this? for the lone deaf academic, there probably isn’t much that can be done, except to press ahead anyway and introduce yourself to as many people as possible, and hope that they remember that you’re deaf and that’s why you’re tweeting after the bus has gone (so that they act, essentially, more inclusively). You could even say as much – perhaps introduce yourself digitally at the beginning of the conference, say that you’re deaf and that you will be tweeting after each paper in the breaks, and ask people to make allowances for this. Be nice, be friendly, and people might surprise you (and even if someone is dismissive of you for it, then someone else may just step in to correct them for you).

At more deaf-focused conferences, however, other solutions may be possible.

Deaf History International are showing the way on what’s possible! VideoTweets now seem to be coming online – this post discusses five ways to do this, and for sign language users, definitely an option.


The other way in which conferences are important is in networking. This is critical for academics, because conferences are the places where you get to know your fellow academics, editors, and publishers. Its a place where you can sound out this idea that you had for an article to the editor of a journal that you think it may be well suited for, without having to go to the nervewracking extent of actually putting your ideas down on paper. Its a place where you can make connections with someone who is pulling together an edited book – and who has heard your paper and thinks the subject is PERFECT for writing up to to be included in their new book! Its a place where you can tentatively talk with a publisher about getting your PhD thesis written up into a monograph. Making those human connections mean that when you chase opportunities up via email or letter, often much later, they can put a face to a name. “It was so good to meet you at XYZ conference, I really enjoyed what you had to say about ABC, I wonder, did you ever use our discussion, where we agreed that this is applicable to that?”  For deaf people, who often find it difficult to network with hearing people anyway, this kind of environment is hell, but without communication support, it is pure torture. I know I found it difficult at my first (and last) conference so far, and networking at places like that is certainly a skill that I have to cultivate – and to learn how to do this better with an interpreter (and not sit there chatting with the ‘terps, as I did!). I have written before about networking (and probably shall again) but what is important is that communication support is available for this, just as much for the paper itself.

If you’re in the position of having to attend a conference without communication support then perhaps the best thing you can do is to make the most of digital media. As I suggested before, making a tweet to the effect of, ‘you’re here, and can’t hear (pun intended) but you’re more than happy to talk with people and your specialism is XYZ’ may help. You might want to add a bit to your official badge (if you get one) about your hearing loss. Remember your body language – its tempting to huddle in a corner, but stand upright, openly, in the middle of the room,, and meet people’s gaze. Tweet about things, so that people have subjects to come up and talk to you about. Often, the deaf issue becomes a real stumbling block that some hearing people can find hard get over. Talk to just one person, so that people can see you holding down a conversation, and that can help to reassure them. Make sure you have pen and paper with you for the inevitable communication mishaps, and for swapping email addresses! (One delegate printed something like informal business cards which she handed out to people she’d spoken to at the last conference, which I thought a great idea).

Delivering a paper

Lastly, if you’re delivering a paper, then there’s several different levels of communication support. You may need someone to translate from sign language to voice for you (you may, like me, be happy with verbally speaking for yourself). Do remember that when it comes to questions at the end, you may need someone translating the questions, but also someone jotting down notes of not only the questions you’ve been asked, but your answers (and no, you won’t remember what you said, I promise you that).If you have two support people, you may want to ensure one of them is used to working as a notetaker as well, and who can take notes while the other deals with the questions.

You should also make preparation for responding to the questions. While this is impossible to completely prepare for, it may be useful to have extra information on hand related to areas that you think you may be asked about. In addition, do remember that there’s actually nothing wrong with saying “you know, that’s a really good question. thank you for asking it and making me think about a whole new direction. Can I take your email address after the talk and get back to you on that?”

Quite often at conferences the organiser will have some kind of method of letting you know when you’re approaching the end of your allotted time (and running over time is a dreadful no no – don’t do it). You may want to discuss with the organiser how best to get your attention and, if they have two sets of signals, like ‘5 minutes’ and ‘time’s up!’, or more, what you want to use for each one. If you’re smart, you’ll be pacing yourself anyway, and have timed yourself as you deliver the paper. There is also the question of extra time, is this something that will be necessary, especially if you have a sign to voice interpreter, given that there is often a small lag in delivery? It may be worth actually asking for that extra time, even if it is only a minute or two.

Think too about the introduction. At the last conference I went to, the papers were split into sessions lasting around an hour and a half, enough time for three people to deliver twenty minute papers each and for questions afterwards. The person leading the session would introduce each speaker. The better, more assured speakers would respond to the introduction, perhaps saying “Thank you very much James, I promise that this year’s paper will be slightly different to the fireworks of last year…” (for example) before swinging into their pre-prepared paper. Obviously, if you have communication support then this will become clear to you, but you may want to talk to the session leader, and ask them what they plan to say, so that you can respond accordingly.

So. there are my thoughts on Conferences. Yes, the deaf and hard of hearing academic should be included. Funding is an issue – but it is an issue for every person in academia, not just the deaf ones. Too often it is regarded as being the deaf issue, instead of an access issue.

In this, the old adage certainly applies – it is not the deafness that is disabling, but the society around the deaf person.

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  1. Pigs can fly » Blog Archive » “Diversity” discourses as a way to deny access – post-ICED reflection
  2. “Diversity” discourses as a way to deny access – post-ICED reflection – Pigs can fly

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