This is Part II. Part I is here.
[This post is quite long. If you want to skip the personal waffle and go straight to my recommendations for how you can help make academia more accessible, click here.]
It is quite difficult to prepare yourself for something unexpected. I am generally a proactive person; however, the first year of my hearing loss was marked by a misguided stubborn pride in my own independence.
Throughout my PhD, in addition to experiencing mild to moderate hearing loss, I also went through periods of acute, although temporary, severe hearing loss (caused by perforated eardrums) and an increase in the severity of my tinnitus. Obviously I sought medical assistance and I informed the university and my supervisors of the situation, but I failed to grasp that as a result of my hearing loss, things would be different.
I felt that I should still be able to do all of the things I could before – and when it appeared that I couldn’t, I simply stopped doing them. I do not recommend this route. It took me at least a year to recognise that because things had changed, I would have to as well. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do everything I could before… it was that I couldn’t necessarily do it in the same way.
The biggest turning point was probably when audiology provided me with hearing aids. This is itself is a huge adjustment and although I still don’t get on with mine all of the time, I would be absolutely lost without them. Hearing aids provided me with the confidence I needed to realise that I would benefit from being more honest with people. In gaining back some of my independence, I was more willing to give some of it up. And thus, I became my own advocate.
I registered with the university disability services. First and foremost, there were practical considerations from their point of view I had never considered, such as: Can you still hear a fire alarm? (For those curious, yes, I can.) Secondly, they were able to inform me of the options for support available. As a PhD student who works from home a lot of the time, much of it wasn’t required, but it is nice to know that the assistance is there if I need it. I will probably request some considerations for when I have my viva. Finally, and most importantly, they were able to answer questions and offer advice.
For example, my supervisors knew about my hearing loss, but no one else in the Department did. I spoke with the other PhD students that I sometimes shared a workspace with and explained to them my situation. Which is essentially, I can still hear, but not as well. I have hearing aids that help, but they’re not perfect. If you’re speaking with me, make sure you have my attention first, otherwise I may not actually be listening. But what about other people in the Department, did they need to know? We came to the decision that if I felt it was important they knew – for example because of meetings together – I was comfortable enough to tell them myself, although disability services could have arranged it for me.
And, just like that, in one meeting with disability services, I realised that I would be able to explain to other people what assistance I might need in order to be successful in my academic pursuits. I won’t pretend that it’s always easy, but because I am able to advocate for myself, it is my hope that by sharing some of the experiences I’ve had it will encourage people to consider accessibility, whether it’s for themselves or other people.
Obviously what I am going to cover below isn’t exhaustive and it isn’t exclusive to academia or archaeology. And although I am only speaking based on my own experiences as a PhD student, a lot of the recommendations I make can be applied to other situations that may be relevant for undergraduates and masters students who have more classroom and laboratory based learning.
If you are somebody who organises meetings, please consider the layout of the room. A round-table (or even square table) is best. This makes it easier to see everyone, so when different people contribute to the meeting, I can follow the discussion. Hearing aids are only one part of adapting to hearing loss, I rely a lot on being able to read your lips and see your facial expressions. In addition, try to make sure that people don’t speak over one another. It can be extremely difficult to follow a conversation when multiple people are speaking at once. The same applies for seminars, workshops, etc.
The single biggest issue, which is really a conglomerate of many small issues that I have come across, are related to lectures and conferences (mostly because in the past three years this is the majority of my interaction with other academics, excluding of course the internet). I have been to some conferences that were amazingly accessible and others that were appallingly so. Instead of singling people out, I thought I would just write some general recommendations – for both organisers and individuals.
I make a point of requesting an induction loop for every conference I attend. Even though I will say it’s okay if you don’t have one… it is not okay if you don’t have one. You should have one. For those of you not in the know (which is pretty much everyone) an induction loop is essentially technological witchcraft. It allows a hearing aid user to have sounds that are played through a sound system (microphone, computer, etc) sent directly to their hearing aids.
While I may be up on requesting one be available, if you are organising a conference you should really be checking up on this regardless – both that they are available and that they work. Estates or computer services will usually know what you’re on about, even if you don’t. If you do the leg work and include “Induction loops are available.” in the conference information packs, this means those people who aren’t so outspoken will still know that they can make use of them. You can think of it along the lines of, “This building is wheelchair accessible.” if that helps.
Now, in addition to making sure you have an induction loop and that it works, you also have to make sure they’re used correctly. Don’t worry, this isn’t difficult, however it is often overlooked simply because people aren’t aware. If an induction loop is available, hearing aid users can only pick up sounds that are played through the sound system. This means all of the speakers must use the microphone.
Sometimes presenters will say, “Oh, it’s okay. I’m loud enough, I don’t need the microphone.” Yes, you do. Because that is how an induction loop works. Therefore, it the responsibility of the session chair or the conference organisers to remind people that they must use the microphone. This goes for those presenting – and those asking questions. If you’re taking audience questions, you should have a roving microphone. If this isn’t possible, make sure either the session chair or the presenter repeats the question before answering it.
Sometimes a smaller lecture theatre won’t have an induction loop or even a microphone. Usually you can get a portable loop system in this instance, but let’s pretend you haven’t. I always make sure that I sit close to the front in lectures and at conferences, with an unimpeded view of the speakers. This allows me to see their faces and read their lips, which yes, I still need to be able to do even if there is an induction loop. However, this is absolutely crucial if there isn’t. But, sometimes sitting close isn’t enough, because sometime presenters like to foil my best attempts to help myself (probably not intentionally, but sometimes I do wonder).
If you are presenting, please don’t cover your mouth. This is a common nervous compensation and it may make you feel more comfortable, but it makes it impossible for me to follow your lecture. It not only reduces the volume of your voice by blocking the sound waves, it also obscures my view of your mouth. On a related note, please, please, please don’t look away from the audience. I know your slides are very interesting, but resist turning around and looking at them while you speak. The wall your slides are projected onto will suck up all of the sound waves you are producing and I can’t see through your skull. If you do this, I will very quickly turn to Twitter to subtweet about you and then read, not necessarily more interesting things, but things that I can at least understand. I’m not sorry about this. I may be sorry I am missing out on your research. I don’t know, because I don’t know what it’s about, because I can’t hear you.
Speaking of slides… okay, I know we have a massive problem with too many words, but sometimes just the opposite can be a problem for me. If you have zero words on your slides and I haven’t managed to hear everything you said, despite you doing everything in a super accessible way, sometimes a few key words can help me out massively. Just as reading your lips and seeing your facial expressions can help me to follow a lecture, sometimes a single word on a slide is enough to give me the context I need to decipher everything else, that until that point was gibberish due to the fact that my brain, which is processing your speech, is exhausted.
Which brings me to a very important point: listening is incredibly demanding. Even more so now, I find. A day of paying attention to presentations can leave me absolutely shattered, which means that at the evening conference events, you may have to be a little more patient with me as I often find I will lose concentration a lot more quickly – and that is usually in the already difficult atmosphere of a lot of noise, people talking over each other, conversations from all directions, etc.
Now, many of you may be thinking, “Yes! I totally agree with you. These things are really annoying.” This is where I point out, or gently remind you, that although you may find the above things frustrating, for me they are limiting factor. If people don’t consider them, it leaves me almost entirely unable to participate in one of the most important areas of academia. Following the above recommendations will improve things for you, it will make them accessible for me. I seriously dislike paying massive conference fees only to miss out on what I assume is really awesome research.
There are many other things I could make recommendations on (or that I could relate my experiences of, such as presenting post-hearing loss) but alas, this blogpost is massive. Next time, I plan to talk to you about deafness and doing archaeological fieldwork.
If you have any questions, do feel free to ask, as I am an open book (although obviously not the audio version).