This post is dedicated to all Deaf and disabled academics who fight the struggle of time.
Back when I was a graduate student, a deaf professor remarked to me, “It isn’t being deaf that’s the issue, it is all the time that it takes!” After several weeks of working on interpreter arrangements for a series of talks I’m giving in the near future, the truth of this hits home once again.
In the midst of my current time crunch, I have received several emails that have English and ASL versions. While my preference is always to get the message in the initial language delivered, when that is ASL, I find myself turning to the English for expedience. Some of this is because English is my first language, but it also is because I am a very fast reader, and can read an English text in a fraction of the amount of time that I use watching an ASL video text.
The reasons for this may not just be related to my native facility with English and my non-native facility with ASL. I can do this in other languages (German and Spanish) though not as rapidly, and not as well, but far faster than I can process ASL video text. So it seems to me that this may be a matter of modality, rather than language. Perhaps if I were fluent in one of the sign-writing systems, this time differential would disappear.
My friends who are born blind and use Kurzweil (or similar) text to speech readers have the ability to speed the reader up and process speech at a much faster rate than natural conversational rhythms (about 120-150 words per minute). Television and radio commerce pick up this pace to 160-180 wpm; auctioneers rattle off their patter at around 250 wpm. For someone like me, who struggles to speechread nervous philosophers reading papers full of syntactically complex sentences at (I’m guessing) somewhere upwards of 180 wpm, these comprehension feats seem like super powers.
Then again, I’m perhaps too easy to impress — upon getting my current hearing aids last summer, which have the ability to communicate with each other and thus allow me to determine the direction of sound for the first time in my life, I felt as though I’d gained a super power, or at least, I did for a few seconds, until I realized that this fell right into species typicality.
I don’t know whether my born deaf or ASL native friends are able to speedview ASL videos and process these at a rate similar to what skilled speedreaders can do, closing the gap between the time it takes to rapidly process written English against rapidly processing ASL. I suspect that the features of ASL videotext work against this.
Consider: with written English (or any language) one can view a page of text at once. That’s a big chunk of information. Now, contrast that with a sped-up video. It seems to me that at some point, speeding up the video results in a deterioration of signal (whether auditory or visual), and consequently, impacts comprehension. (I know this is a matter of empirical data, so perhaps someone can point me to some resources here — I’m capable of googling, of course, but don’t have the background to assess the *best* work in the area, and am skeptical of using H indices and the like as proxy.)
Modality matters, in more ways than one, for the Deaf academic. And, I suspect, also for other disabled academics who are not accessing written text visually.
I’m not sure how this impacts the writing system of Braille. I know that Braille uses shortcuts that enable the reader to read faster, but I wonder whether this may point out not just the difference of modality, but of perception in conjunction with modality. It may be the case that readers of visual written language have an advantage over readers of tactile written language, since the eye may be able to take in and process more rapidly than the fingers. I am thinking here of the ability, once again, of the eye to take in chunks of information, and what I assume are the constraints of the space available on the fingertips to take in information at a similar rate. It seems (and again, I’m ignorant) that the very motion of running one’s fingers horizontally against text would be less expedient.
I’m a speedy reader; always have been. (It’s a family trait that goes back at least 5 generations back that I can tell.) I have used speed reading as a disability accommodation strategy since I was a kid in elementary school before I had the label to put on it. At the beginning of the school year, I would read through all of my textbooks during the first week or so, then would use that information as scaffolding for retrieving more information. At that time, in the pre-internet days, this meant checking out library books on those subjects. Read faster, read more, was how this hard of hearing kid stayed on top of things. Lucky me, to have a librarian mom who could appeal to other librarians to bend the rules of book checkout limits.
This strategy worked very well for classwork; horribly for popular culture.
As part of my hard of hearing kid social strategy, I became a voracious reader of the newspapers that came into our home, skipping the business section for the arts and culture section. The problem was that other 4th graders weren’t reading Robert Hilburn’s views on music in the Los Angeles Times, but listening to Dr. Demento on KMET. Most of them also didn’t have parents who played Respighi and Tjader; as the oldest child, I didn’t have the benefit of siblings to cue me in to this uncoolness. (I’m still paying that price, but in the academy this ignorance becomes cachet of a sort.)
The point I started with was about the limited resource of time that constrains Deaf and disabled academics in unique ways in the academy. Some of us figure out strategies that allow us to compensate for the time-suck of disability advocacy in the academy, not all of which can be addressed by universal accommodations, although some can, including advocating the practice of placing interpreters everywhere one might be needed. Yet, this disregards something very important about interpreters and deaf academics. (Let me note that I have yet to see a Deaf academic advocating for this practice — we know all too well the potential impact of such a practice on our careers.)
I cannot imagine outsourcing interpreter selection to a disability support staff person who knows nothing about the content or norms of academic philosophy, and cannot understand why this would be a better system. Contrary to popular opinion, even highly skilled ASL-English interpreters are not fungible. (There are lots of reasons why this is the case that I cannot go into right now.) This and other misconceptions about signed language interpreting are what drive my current research leave project — a monograph on signed language interpreting ethics that also dips into epistemology and ontology. So at some point in the future, you’ll have the opportunity to learn my views.
Note: for blog readers in Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, the lack of a plural in ‘epistemology’ and ‘ontology’ is *quite* deliberate, and signals to philosophers my analytic training. It doesn’t mean that I am unfamiliar with the discussion of the terms used in plural. Nor does my analytic background mean that I am hostile to pluralism in philosophy. 🙂
I recognize that all academics make choices that determine how our time is used, but my point here is about the system advantage accrued to non-disabled academics. These people are advantaged by current systems and structures in academia — this impacts those of us who are disadvantaged because we are measured on their yardstick of time consumption, not ours.
When women faculty started entering the academy in larger numbers, they challenged the time penalty of the tenure clock for women faculty who bore children during the tenure track years. The constraints of the biological time clock exacerbated this problem. Some institutions responded to this temporal inequity by offering parental leave and the option to stop the tenure clock. Many still do not.
Disabled academics don’t have a big life event like childbirth to mark the temporal impact of disability on our academic careers. The multi-vocality of disability doesn’t help, either, nor does the highly variable nature of the time expended. So this is a harder problem to address that doesn’t come with an easy solution.
As an illustration, a few years ago I gave talks at two universities in the same town — one was a state school with a limited budget, the other an Ivy League school with an annual budget exceeding that of many countries. Interpreter expenses for each talk came to about $180.00, which included prep time prior to my talk.
Now, the time involved for me in locating and vetting (domestic) interpreters is pretty similar across the board — some locales may take me a few hours more because I’m less familiar with the interpreting community, but I can usually predict how much time to set aside for that. What I cannot predict is how much time to spend on dealing with the universities or other academic organizations. In the case of the two universities mentioned above, one took 3 emails to resolve (my detailed request, university response and confirmation, then my response) and the other took close to 200 emails. Contrary to what you might think, the wealthy university was obstructionist; the impoverished state university, expedient.
Now, consider not just the time involved in emailing, but the research involved in getting information about the institutional budget and institutional structure; looking for allies, including other deaf academics who had worked with this institution; looking up institutional policies and law (state and federal); plus consulting with lawyer friends and academic friends about what to do.
Consider the lost hours of research time that a R1 university inflicted on my career. Now multiply that by countless other instances. It is far more common to accumulate a count of double digit emails in disability accommodations discourse than it is single digits; triple digits are not that unusual, and occur more in my experience than single digit rounds.
Consider also that I have written documents that detail, in one single-spaced page, my interpreting needs as a deaf philosopher, and the time that it took to craft this document — a timesaver now, but it only saves me time in locating the right interpreters, not in fighting the institutional bureaucracy over whether it is obligated to pay, and if so, which budgetary unit should pay.
Consider also that I was untenured, the Ivy invitation was a feather in my cap and would signal to the tenure and promotion committee that my work was valued outside of my own institution, and that filing, or even threatening to file a Department of Justice claim against the institution could damage my career and reputation, possibly irreparably.
Disabled and Deaf academics who agitate against injustice injudiciously don’t get tenure.
In one regard, I am very lucky.
My academic appointment is at an institution, Gallaudet University, that has a critical mass of Deaf academics, probably the largest concentration of such anywhere. It is a place where all of my Deaf faculty peers, and many of my Hearing faculty peers, as well as our academic administration, know the impact of disability advocacy accommodation time on deaf academics, and especially on Deaf solitaire academics, who are sometimes the only signing deaf academic in their discipline in the world.
Midway through my tenure years, as I grew more frustrated by the impact of building infrastructure in my discipline as a Deaf solitaire on my research time, I successfully argued to my administration and my department that the work I was doing to educate my professional peers (and their institutions) about their legal obligations was a necessary condition to my participation in the research activities that were required for my tenure. I argued that my time spent on these activities (e.g. the toll of 200 emails when three would have sufficed), should count as part of my research output. I also successfully argued that in cases where I could not participate because of time running out due to institutional obstruction (not my institution, but other universities and conference organizers), that my institution should pick up the tab of my interpreters so that I could participate and not be penalized due to my status as a signing Deaf academic, even though the primary responsibility to provide accommodations rested with the institution hosting the event, not Gallaudet University.
And yes, figuring out what the problem was, and how to articulate it also took up time. Just in case I wasn’t successful, I also made sure that I would exceed the research activity metrics using the yardstick set by my institution based on Hearing academic norms.
Back to time and Deaf academics…
In this age of analytics and metrics and the evidence-based university, we can point to some things (like the number of emails) as a measure of the impact on the Deaf or disabled academic’s time. We can, if the evidence exists, also point to the difference in the time spent on accessing information (the currency of our realm), whether it be the ability to take in chunks visual information more rapidly than other modes or the inaccessibility of written text for people with print disabilities or the lack of captioning on videos for us and our students. (Auto-captioning doesn’t cut it.)
We can look at the norms of the academy and the standards for tenure, which are predicated on the able-bodied, Hearing academic — not so unlike the tenure path before the notion of stopping the tenure clock for first maternity, then parental leave, arose. And then we can ask ourselves why it is that Deaf and disabled academics are so few in our academies.
I began my post with a dedication; I would be remiss if I didn’t end with an acknowledgment of thanks to the dozens of academics Deaf, disabled and Hearing, who have supported the hidden labor of Deaf and disabled academics everywhere. Thank you!
Updated to fix a mess of typos. I think I got them all?