Small comic strips from my first time in a deaf-accessible hotel room

I don’t think I’ve uploaded these sketches before. They’re over a year old, but they capture (in rough drawings) my reactions to the first time I encountered a deaf-accessible hotel room. Click to enlarge.

(I’m writing text descriptions of the panels in an attempt to be accessible to screenreaders too, since this is something I have failed at in the past.)

1st panel: “I’ve been deaf for 25 years. This is the first night I’ve ever lived in a fully accessible space. Here’s what it looks like.” (Image: hallway view of yelling coming from inside a hotel room, with a housekeeping staff member looking at the door, perplexed.)

2nd panel: “AAAAA!” (Image: happy yelling coming from a cartoon Mel, waving her hands at a door knock sensor. The door knock sensor is labeled with an arrow as “door knock sensor,” and Mel is labeled with an arrow as “vibrating with happiness.”)


1st panel: “That’s right! It looks a lot like joy!” (Image: Mel continuing to yell in happiness, beside the door with a thought bubble saying “Someone could knock on my door AND I WOULD KNOW!” and a caption saying “The lamp flashes when the door is knocked.”)

2nd panel: (Image: Mel continuing to yell in happiness beside a phone and TTY, with a thought bubble saying “Someone could call my room AND I WOULD KNOW!” and a caption saying “The lamp flashes when the phone rings.”)

3rd panel: (Image: Mel continuing to yell in happiness beside the bed with a vibrating pillow alarm clock, with a thought bubble saying “I can USE THE ALARM CLOCK in this room!”)

4th panel: “Oh, right. That’s because it IS joy.” (Image: Mel continuing to yell in happiness in the room, with a thought bubble saying “My presence has been forethought!”)



1st panel: “In my 27 years on this planet, I’ve seen a lot of it. I’ve stayed in countless places – couches, hotels, guest rooms, basements, suites…” (Image: a Mercator-projected map, with significant chunks of most continents highlighted in red to represent the places I’ve travelled.)

2nd panel: “They’ve all been spaces for hearing people. So I’ve pretended to be one.” (Image: a younger Mel stares out the window of a 2nd-floor dormitory. An arrow pointing to the window says ”The dorm room I was stuck in when my friends all moved to a different building. I had to stay in the one with a flashing fire alarm.”)

3rd panel: “But now I’m unexpectedly in this space. For 4 days, this is my room. Mine.” (Image: Mel with thought bubble saying “Wait. This could exist in my home too. This could… I could…”) “The possibilities excite me.” (END)


Near-peer advice from 1st-time engineering education researchers

For future engineering education / qualitative research methods students of mine, here’s some quick feedback from the 1st-year Purdue ENE PhD students who’ve just presented their first research projects. (“What would you tell next year’s students?”)

  1. Data collection takes longer than you think.
  2. Frustration is educational, and the experience has been deliberately designed so you’ll experience it.
  3. Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.

I think #2 will be particularly relevant to when I teach my methods courses. It’s not frustration for the sake of making you frustrated, folks. It’s frustration that’s part of this fumbling-around-in-the-unknown that research is, and part of learning how to be a researcher is learning how to sensitize yourself to — and deal healthily with — frustration.

Last summer’s Zambia reflections

Originally published in May 2013 on the Purdue SLHS Zambia Trip Blog, but I also wanted to have this here.

This is a mixed reflection on events from the past week as a whole, rather than one on a specific day.

I never thought I’d be on the other side of an otoscope. Growing up with a severe-to-profound hearing loss (ototoxic drug, age 2; my audiogram plummets into no-response territory around 1kHz) I was always the kid in the booth raising my hand, the one pulled out of class for speech therapy, the one peppering the audiologist with questions and getting in trouble for disassembling my hearing aids with eyeglass screwdrivers (it turns out first-graders aren’t supposed to adjust their own hearing aids, but nobody had told me that). 2 decades later, I’m an engineering grad student, the sole non-SLHS team member in Zambia, surrounded by 13 speech-and-hearing folks whom I can pepper with questions for two weeks. Somewhere, my tiny-child self is grinning like a maniac.

Except right now I’m staring at a variant on my tiny-child self. A 5-year-old is sitting on her mother’s lap, demanding in a nasal bellow that I blow more bubbles for her; I can’t lipread any consonants in her speech. Most of the other children in the pediatric HIV center have passed, but this time the OAE screen is blinking that the girl’s cochlea isn’t responding properly; she’s failed the hearing screening. I listen as Dr. Krishnan and the other students briefly counsel the mother about following up with the local audiologist (the only one in Zambia). I wonder what the mom is thinking. The door clicks shut. “That’s how old I was when they found out,” I tell my classmates as we prep the probe tips and elephant puppet for the next kid. “That’s what my speech sounded like when I was in kindergarten.” Later, on a sunset walk, Dr. Krishnan will tell me that telling the parents is the hardest part, that they cushion the blow by spacing the tests a week or so apart to “get more detail” and to “check again,” so that there’s time for the realization to sink in and they can start to address the big unknown: what’s going to happen to my child? The ADA doesn’t exist in Zambia.

Another day. We’re at a deaf school, one of only 4 in the entire country. Students swarm through the courtyard, the little ones signing wildly, sloppily, semi-grammatically, thwacking shoulders and waving hands to get each other’s attention. They see me and break into a flurry of questions: DEAF-YOU? HEARING-AIDS, DEAF-PEOPLE-IN-AMERICA? BUT-YOU-SPEAK! And then a sign, a tapping of the nose with a hooked finger, that I don’t recognize. It’s our second visit to a deaf school, so I’m used to the irony of being our primary interpreter (it turns out that ignoring one’s interpreter from 2nd through 8th grades still leaves you with a reasonable ability to communicate in sign). I ask one of the teachers (many are deaf as well) what the mystery word means. “White-person. They never see deaf white person before.” I see the kids miming kung-fu moves – I’m also the only Asian for miles around – and laugh: “I’ve never been called a white person before.”

One teacher and I get into an extended conversation – Zambian sign is close enough to American that our rapid fingerspelling can bridge the occasional gap – and as we speed up (HOW-STUDENTS-BECOME-DEAF? MANY GET-SICK, MEDICINE DESTROY HEARING. AH, ME TOO, BEFORE-WHEN SMALL CHILD, 2 YEARS OLD IN AMERICA) I stop simcomming, I’m just signing, and my classmates are blinking at us in incomprehension. The teacher is asking me questions, amazement on his face. You’re in college? — No, I finished, now I’m getting my engineering PhD.  — They allow you into college? Deaf people in America go to college? — Yes, there are even Deaf colleges where the classes are all sign language, no interpreters. I’m sorry my signing is poor, I studied in hearing schools… — How? Amazing, to see deaf person doing PhD, someday they open brain to find out how you did this, that deaf person can go to university, we are so happy to see you, to see it is possible for deaf person to do this…

Small bits of smouldering lava are crumbling inside my chest, frustration at the great unfairness of the world. Thank God my parents immigrated to America, and for a thousand other tiny coincidences that allowed me to become who I’ve become. If the best education and career I could aspire to had been the things I’ve seen in Zambia for deaf folks, I’m pretty sure I would have been a high school dropout; why waste effort trying when the highest you can go isn’t very far off the ground at all?

I abruptly realize my classmates have no idea what we’re saying, and attempt to translate; they’ve been great about relaying things to me on noisy bus rides, in thick crowds, when I’ve turned around and don’t realize someone is speaking, etc., so I’m trying to return the favor. I relay the signed conversations in our evening debrief meetings: kids arguing, teasing, joking – for the first time in my life, I’m the only one who overhears (er, oversees?) and understands these side conversations, instead of being the only one who doesn’t. Some side conversations are just kids being silly (“They’re going to stick injections in our butt!” “You’re a big crybaby!”) but others are more sobering: after getting thresholds for a high school girl, I signed to her that her hearing was better than mine. YES, BUT YOU IN AMERICA, she replied. I NEED SIT IN THIS CLASSROOM, TOO FAR-AWAY TO HEAR. I looked at the metal roof and concrete walls, which turned the place into an echo chamber, and couldn’t reply; I’d recently whispered to the professors that the lighting was too dim to lipread, that the noise was painful, and that I was going to take my hearing aids off and go outside and sign with the students because at least there I could communicate. If some of these kids got hearing aids, I told them, they would have an awful time with the acoustics; turn the lights up, get some books or fabric in there to muffle the din, or nobody will wear them.

It’s these kinds of things, I think, that have been my contributions to the team; I’m less clumsy with an otoscope now and can operate an audiometer at lightning speed, but still ask basic questions nonstop. (What are inner hair cells? So the auditory nerve is embedded in the basilar membrane? No? Oh. What’s a morpheme?) But I’m also the first non-hearing classmate most of the Purdue students have had, and I tell them about that: how my hearing aids can’t noise-cancel the crowd at the mall, how I’d thought I wasn’t understanding the first graders we were testing because I couldn’t hear (it turns out that they actually weren’t speaking English), how the tiny visual cues (shoulder shrugs, eye glances, finger twitches) made it easy to cheat on audiograms, how the ADA doesn’t magically make all jobs equal-access, how people still speak to you as if you were mentally challenged when they see your hearing aids or hear your voice. Why I sometimes just don’t care about trying to listen because it takes too much effort. Why I’d shunned assistive services from high school all the way through college (“…you may not believe me here, but it was easier to go without them.”) I’m a stickler for lipreading during meetings: use a talking stick, one person at a time, face me, face me, FACE ME.

It’s been good to get their questions too, because I take so many of my coping skills for granted. How do I pass my classes? (I read extra textbooks during lecture time.) How did I learn to speak German? (Books and a very patient German grad student who coached the inaudible consonants into my muscle memory.) Why did I like getting pulled out for speech therapy as a kid? (I couldn’t understand group conversations in the classroom, so quiet 1-on-1 time with the therapist was often the most adult conversation I had in school that week.) I apologize to them on behalf of all the future difficult kids they’ll ever work with (“we’ll think of you when we get those kids, Mel”). I ask them to please, please explain things to their patients, feed their curiosity, push them towards possibilities they may not have considered. I don’t have the emotional endurance to be a clinician, but they do – I watch them work patiently with these kids day after day – and I’m glad we’ve got these sorts of people going into the profession.

Oh. And on the engineering side, I’ve now got sketches for portable audiometers and VRA setups and other things that would make good projects for EPICS teams… but that’s another story for another time – perhaps next year.

How to play Speakeasy Secret Santa

My cousins, friends, and I played Speakeasy Secret Santa last night, at the suggestion of my brother Jason. (Edit: The game was invented by our cousin Mark.) It was fun. Here’s how it works:

  1. Go to a speakeasy with at least 4 other friends. (It doesn’t need to be a speakeasy, technically. But it needs to have a wide variety of good drinks, and speakeasies do. Also, alliteration.)
  2. Everyone pitches their IDs into the center. One person shuffles under the table and hands everyone an ID (also under the table, reshuffling if someone gets their own ID). You are the Secret Santa and will order a drink for the person you draw.
  3. Go around the table and have everyone briefly state their drink preferences. (“Sweet and not medicinal.” “I love bourbon.” “Girly drinks.” “l don’t like wine, but I love dark malty beers.”)
  4. Order for your Secret Santa.
  5. When the drinks arrive, go around the table again and read out drink names and descriptions while others guess who the drink is for.
  6. Then go around the circle one last time, with each person presenting the drink to its final recipient.
  7. Enjoy.

Will play again. Also, I learned that my brother really likes bourbon. (And whiskey, particularly of the Japanese sort.) Good to know.

Being deaf is: polled I/O instead of interrupt-driven

By the way, the whole baseline sound-making anxiety thing? It works the other way, too.

I’m an electrical/computer engineer. I like making embedded systems, which are tiny computers that do tasks while responding to the outside world. (I promise this is relevant. Stay with me here.) There are two (basic) ways for embedded systems to handle external input: they can have polled I/O (input-output), or they can be interrupt-driven. This Calvin College page has a nice explanation for polling I/O:

Think of a game where a basketball player is asked to make as many free-throws as possible in one minute, but the clock is down the hall in another room. The player must run down the hall and check if the minute has passed, and if not, go back to the gym and try to make another shot, then run down the hall to check the clock and run back to take another shot. The player spends much of the time simply checking (polling) the clock.

But wait — what if the basketball player can hear? And if the clock has a loud buzzing alarm? Then they’re fine, and can keep taking shots until they hear the BZZZT! that tells them to stop. This is called being interrupt-driven, and it’s such a gift — I’m stunned how much my hearing friends take this for granted. They can keep shooting basketballs, all the time. They can go right about their business, confident they’ll know when someone knocks on the door, or their food order is ready, or their kid falls down the stairs.

The deaf basketball player, on the other hand, keeps running back and forth along the hallway. I put in a periodic 1000-millisecond delay into my activity loop to stop and check things.

For instance, I enjoy cooking for friends. My kitchen is right next to my front door. At some point this fall, I realized I was constantly tense while cooking, and caught myself pausing periodically to see if somebody was at the door — because I can hear knocks on that door if I’m next to it, and very quiet, and I’m concentrating really hard. It was a totally unconscious programming loop I’d set up, and it basically said:

  1. It would be rude to let guests wait at the door for more than 30-60 seconds.
  2. Therefore, every 30-60 seconds, I will stop cooking and concentrate really hard! to check if guests are at the door.

I decided this was silly. Most of the time, guests aren’t at the door, so the vast majority of this concentration is just wasted effort.

Now I just prop open my front door if I’m expecting guests, and voila – instant cooking relaxation. (Yes, yes. Safety and heating/cooling bills. There are these tradeoffs.) In the long run, the better solution is getting a flashing door knocker and/or having a kitchen with big windows with the driveway/door within their line of sight (this is what I had last year, and it was marvelous). So, future Mel-home, you are going to have features.

Being deaf is: constant baseline soundmaking anxiety.

I woke up earlier than any of my relatives this morning, and showered in a house full of slumbering Thanksgiving guests. Quietly. Perhaps. I walked very, very slowly to the shower. I put my hand under the tub spout before turning the water on, because I know water directly hitting a hard surfaces makes a loud, loud noise — people have told me so. I closed the door before turning the fan on, laid the toilet seat down slowly instead of dropping it — it’s a constant thoughtfulness.

I have no idea if that was a quiet shower, and I hope it didn’t wake somebody up.

When the world around you doesn’t give you feedback, and the best gauge you have of your own noise level is frustration on the faces of the people near you, then sometimes you tiptoe through the world. It’s like walking near the edge of a cliff with your eyes closed; you shuffle your toe out, tap it gingerly, and then place weight. You walk slowly, and not without a sense of fear.

See, people don’t generally tell you things make noise — they don’t assume you’re deaf (even if they know you’re deaf); they just assume you’re rude. Sometimes they keep quiet about their frustration for weeks, months, even years — it just seethes underneath the surface, and you don’t know. I type loudly during quiet thinking breaks in class, constantly rustle books and papers in the chapel, and make munchy-slurp noises when I eat with gusto. Until my twenties, I didn’t know those things made noises. (Or that people can hear noises from inside bathrooms. Talk about retroactive mortification.) People just sat there and waited for me to figure it out, but I never could, because I’d never heard the things I was supposed to figure out were “loud.”

It’s not that I’m not thoughtful. It’s just that I can’t hear. I’ve learned by rote that many things make noise, and when I’m trying to be quiet (which is often — if I’m in a meeting, class, library, place of worship, or a home where people are winding down for the night), I do my best to monitor all of them. This takes cognitive effort, but it’s what I do to be polite.

I started laughing several months ago when I realized how anxious this was constantly making me. I decided to stop being anxious. This involves habit reversal training, and takes time and effort — y’know, first be aware when I’m anxious, then stop the anxiousness, then start the desired behaviors of muscle-relaxation and so forth… it’s still a semi-mechanical process at this point.

I’m still thoughtful — I’m still careful, I still take that effort — but my baseline expectation is no longer “I am a hearing person!” (which results in feeling like I’ve Failed Humanity by not realizing the microwave beeped). Now my baseline expectation is “I am a thoughtful deaf person!” (who offloads awareness to nearby hearing people who are willing and able to act as my interrupt-switches, and appropriately responds to the feedback she can get) and this is… far, far more relaxing.

(New comic): Mastery (Dreyfus model of skill acquisition) on one page

The Dreyfus brothers developed their model of skill acquisition for the US Military in the 80′s. It describes mastery as the process of increasing one’s ability to independently improvise through a complex environment. Later, Crismond and Adams pointed out that “mastery” (according to this scale) is an unrealistic expectation for a semester-level course, or even a senior undergraduate — 4 years of college will not make someone an expert in their field. “Competence” is a more reasonable level to strive for — basic proficiency that sets a new graduate up to continue learning as a junior practitioner in the working world.

As with the Self-Authorship comic, this was produced for the Purdue Polytechnic Institute (PPI) and is open-licensed and available online (as you can see), so yes — feel free to share this with your friends however you would like.

Mastery (Dreyfus model of skill acquisition on one page)

Can you take over my sponsorship of a special-needs child in Zambia?

Short version: I’m looking for someone to take over sponsoring Deborah, a Zambian child with disabilities who is receiving care from Special Hope Network.

Longer version: Most people reading this blog know that I narrowly missed growing up as a disabled child in the developing world. (I am profoundly deaf, and my family is from the Philippines.) Growing up as a disabled kid in the developing world sucks. There aren’t resources to support you, so you don’t get the therapy you need, and have virtually no chance of being educated. Culturally, you’re likely to be seen as not just a burden, but a shame to your family — your very existence is seen as punishment, clear proof that a close relative has done something horribly wrong. Fathers abandon their families to avoid this shame. Mothers keep disabled children confined inside the house at all times for fear of it. There is no witness to society that your life is worthwhile — that your life even exists. You get an entire society who does not know how to deal with a person with a disability, because they’ve never seen a person with a disability, never watched someone else interact with them with graciousness and dignity.

Special Hope is a small organization that works in Zambia with the most marginalized of these kids — those with severe intellectual disabilities. It started with a family who left their comfortable lives in America and moved to Zambia to work and live as a family — who happens to have 3 kids with Down’s Syndrome. After noticing their kids were the only disabled kids they ever saw outside, they asked around and realized the others were being shut in at home — and decided to minister to those kids. They placed themselves right in the center of the poorest neighborhoods, so caretakers don’t need to spend precious cents on a bus ride. They teach siblings, parents, and grandparents how to do physical therapy with the children at home. They feed them (both the kids and the caretakers). They teach these kids whatever they can learn — singing, dancing, the alphabet — kids who would never otherwise set foot inside a school. These families meet other families with special-needs kids for the first time, and learn that they’re not alone, and that their child’s condition is not divine punishment. Most of all, they witness that these kids and their lives are worthwhile, and that these kids are loved.

I met Deborah during my trip to Zambia with Purdue’s audiology program. She was about 3 years old then, sitting on her mother’s lap — a young woman close to my age. They were fairly new to Special Hope, but Deborah’s mom was joyful at her child’s progress, and determined to learn and do whatever she needed to help her daughter — now that she knew she could do something, which filled her with hope. As I followed them into the physical therapy portion of their day, I remembered a photo of my mom coaxing 3-year-old me through physical therapy after I came out of a 7.5-week coma. And when I got back to America, I signed up and started to sponsor Deborah out of my tiny grad school stipend.

Two years later, my tiny grad school stipend has gotten (significantly) tinier, and I need to taper off my sponsorship — but I didn’t want to just quietly drop and run. So in my letter to the Special Hope folks, I promised I’d try to spread the word and ask if someone might be interested in picking up on my monthly $35 contribution for Deborah. They’re a small organization, and cash flow is crucial — and these folks make every dollar count. $35 gets Deborah nutrition, medical care and physical therapy, school for her and education for her family on how to love a special-needs child, and sets her up to do the very important work of advocating — in her own tiny preschool-child, simple-witness way — for a better world for everyone, including people with disabilities.

If this sounds like something you might be interested in doing, head to the Special Hope Child Sponsorship Page and sign up — let me know if I can help in any way. And thanks for listening.

How To Use Your Design Studio Instructor: a short comic book

Students do not magically know how to work in a studio environment. Asking good questions, knowing when to ask instructors for feedback, figuring out which instructor to ask about what topic, articulating how you need an instructor to help you on a particular topic — these are all learned skills. My intent in these handouts is to start making them more explicit and to scaffold students into mature studio-learning behavior, very, very fast.

I’m experimenting with making hand-drawn handouts for my college-level teaching. Rich Dionne and Davin Huston have been super-gracious about letting me jump in and help coach teams through the PPI design lab’s end-of-term push, and to get myself up to speed on the students — and vice versa — I decided to… draw things.

It occurs to me that these sheets may see more general usage in the future, so here’s the two-page handout — it’s designed for undergraduate (STEM) studio courses I teach. The first page is a manual on “how to utilize the Mel,” including accessibility considerations and a starting list of my skillsets. The second page is a group status check-in document. Feedback/edit-suggestions for future versions is quite welcome. And yes, Olin students, you’ll be seeing this sort of thing if you take any of my classes.

How To Use A Mel-Instructor For Your Studio Design Team

(New comic): Baxter-Magolda’s Self-Authorship Theory On One Page

Self-authorship is an adult learning theory developed by Marcia Baxter-Magolda based on studies of college students. It describes a progression from making sense of your life as “something authored by others” to “something I author and negotiate.”

Below is a one-page graphic overview of the theory produced for the Purdue Polytechnic Institute (PPI). The document is open-licensed and available online (as you can see), so yes — feel free to share this with your friends however you would like.

Self Authorship On One Page

Special thanks to Emily Dringenberg (Purdue University) who introduced me to this theory last year, and Lindsey Vanderlyn (Olin College) for thought-provoking conversations on applying it to computing education.