I burned and skidded hard last week regarding deaf accessibility — one thing after another, multiple events, multiple people, no safe “home” to relax in. It’s like running off the battlefield and coming home and taking off your armor only to have your family and friends come up and punch you in the face. At some point, you just don’t take off your armor, don’t let down your guard.
Every day, for over a week, I pulled myself away from burning out, accepting that just functioning — sleep, eat, pray, sleep, eat, pray — was sapping all my energy right now, and that it was ok to prioritize not-breaking-down over “getting real work done.”
I did not burn out. I’m proud of this. The storm’s not done, but it’s getting better.
I mustered up the courage and internal resources to reach out to friends. It’s a hard thing to reach out when the very thing you’re suffering from is a struggle to connect and communicate — you could just be setting yourself up for another blow, another frustration. And I’d like to say that it is wonderful having friends who study speech/hearing sciences and can translate your frustration into validated intelligibility, friends who study linguistics and have been the struggling-to-understand outsider in a room of native speakers of a different language — friends who make you homemade pasta and feed you tea and muffins and San Pellegrino and set up the chairs and lighting so you don’t need to strain to understand just that one conversation — because those few hours are enough to remind you that yes, this exists; yes, you belong within humanity; yes, this is what it’s like to live inside that sort of space and community, and this is how it can and should be. This is possible.
I also got some really, really good advice from other deaf academics for the first time (another side effect of reaching out was unexpectedly being introduced to a wonderful group of these people). I’ve summarized/synthesized their advice below, and placed my responses inline.
0) It sucks and we’ve been there too.
Thank you. This is so, so helpful to hear. My hearing colleagues almost never say this when I talk with them about accessibility, but I need to hear it before jumping into solutions-brainstorming. If I don’t, my subconscious keeps hearing “and it’s your fault and you should just try harder,” which makes me believe it and feel all sorts of guilty that I’m not, y’know, trying hard enough.
1) Consider only attending events where accessibility has been set up, and don’t feel guilty; there are tons of opportunities.
I may be able to do this for some (nonacademic) venues where I’m now invited to speak (instead of trying to persuade people to let me speak). None of them are accessible, but I can set accessibility as a condition of my attendance/speaking. The tricky part will be not having that “count against” other things I can negotiate (for instance, “we can pay for an ASL interpreter or your plane ticket, but not both”).
2) If you want to bring accessibility into a non-accessible venue because you’ll be attending it for decades, recognize it’ll take 3-5 years of work for them to “get” it. Build networks and allies and push your institution for flexible pools of funding for smaller events, especially during this transition time.
The two major academic conferences in my field (and the few outside it I may want to regularly attend) definitely don’t “get it,” so I think I’m in for a long-term project. I wonder how I can make this work visible and get credit for it.
3) Slow down. You’re carrying a workload that would crush any grad student, deaf or not.
I really didn’t want to hear this one, but you’re probably right. I think I need to know this isn’t a “lower your expectations because you’re deaf” thing, and that people would say the same things to a hearing student. My whole life has been full of people telling me I can’t do XYZ because I’m deaf (and being wrong), so I’m… hypersensitive to any statement about limitations, and need to stop myself from constantly trying to empirically disprove its truth value. Sometimes it’s true. It’s just hard for me to tell what’s true.
4) Delegate aggressively to the DRC (disability resource center) on campus; you and they need to calibrate that they’ll set up this stuff, not you.
This was a wake-up call. Thanks. Email sent and at least one conference’s worth of stuff delegated. I’ve never seen anyone “at my level” interact with interpreters, captioners, disability centers, etc. before, so I have no calibration for expectation for that interaction outside my own experience — and it is super-helpful knowing that I’m not “supposed” to do all this setup.
I will say I appear to be a weird first-case for a lot of things for my university, so they do legitimately need to ask me for a lot of details more often than not — but I need to recognize that as the exception rather than the rule (even if the exceptions are far more frequent than the rule right now).
5) Recognize the rhythms of the academic year for faculty — which are different than for students — and plan your workload accordingly.
The rhythm-differences between faculty and student life surprised me this year, so thanks for pointing that out. October’s definitely a crushing month for my discipline, and I’ll need to watch and plan for the rest. I’m glad I have a 3-year postdoc (starting next year) to do that in, which also gives me 3 years to get conference access set up before I do… whatever I do next.