Academe Is Silent About Deaf Professors

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Sep 13 12:49:31 UTC 2006

>>From the issue dated September 15, 2006

Academe Is Silent About Deaf Professors

Recetly media and academic attention focused on Gallaudet University and
its new president, with protesters objecting that the search procedures
and the nominee's management style did not meet the institution's usual
standards. With its short attention span, the media will quickly forget
about Gallaudet. But that institution's singular situation should prompt
those of us in higher education to reflect on the general situation of
Deaf and deaf people in academic life. (Typographic convention
distinguishes between the culturally Deaf, who use American Sign Language,
and people with the physical condition of deafness, regardless of their
communication preferences. I will use "deaf" to refer to both groups.)

Ask yourself: How are your deaf colleagues doing? Is their research
prospering? Are their students thriving? What benefits has your
institution gained from their scholarly work and community service, from
their insights and experiences? Most academics probably cannot answer
those questions because they do not know any deaf academics. There are
only a few of us. My own hearing loss began in my teens and had become
profound by the time I completed my Ph.D. in religious studies at the
University of Chicago.  During my education, I thought of myself as an
academic in training, not as a deaf academic. Only after I got my
doctorate did I realize what a tiny minority I had joined.

Academe has many barriers that exclude deaf people. The barriers differ
from those faced by women, members of racial and ethnic minority groups,
and persons with other disabilities. To explore the importance of hearing
in academic life, please indulge me in the following thought experiment.
Imagine that you are a midcareer academic, tenured, well networked in your
field, happy where you are, but thinking of moving up. You take a summer
vacation to a subtropical paradise. One afternoon you return from a swim
with symptoms of a nasty infection. At the hospital's emergency room, the
doctors tell you that the infection will prove fatal, unless you receive
powerful antibiotics. The drugs necessary to save your life have one major
side effect: They will destroy your hearing. You consent to the treatment
and survive. Later the doctors tell you that you are lucky to be alive.
They write that out for you on a piece of paper because you are now deaf.

Consider what will and will not change in your professional life. Has your
academic merit changed? Your publication record hasn't, nor has your
capacity for conducting most kinds of research. Can you still teach your
courses? Neither your knowledge of your field nor your ability to
communicate it to students has changed. Will the head of your department
and your dean understand that those abilities remain, or will they equate
hearing with teaching ability? Will you? Do you know what new resources
and services you will need, and how to find them? Does anyone in your
university know? Does the university have a budget line for interpreting
or transcription services? How are you going to understand papers and
discussions at academic meetings?

You have your work cut out for you. Do you still want to take on the job
market? Now let's consider someone who entered academe as a deaf person.
In graduate school, she may have had interpreting, transcription, or
note-taking services, but she may not even though they are mandated by
law. Some students are unaware of their rights, or may not want to call
attention to their deafness. Some universities provide interpreters but
not transcription, or vice versa, on the assumption that all deaf students
use the same communication strategies. In any case, the deaf student had
less access than her hearing counterparts, or maybe no access at all, to
out-of-class communication: networking with peers, schmoozing at
receptions, casual or serious conversation with professors.

A deaf person who completes a Ph.D. has met or exceeded the same standards
as a hearing student from the same university, but the deaf person has not
had the same full educational experience. And the deaf person has had to
put out additional effort to get the degree. Then there's the job market.
Should a new Ph.D. reveal his or her deafness in a cover letter to
potential employers? Nobody is legally obligated to do so. Christopher
Krentz told me that he always disclosed his deafness in his cover letters
when he looked for a job after earning a Ph.D. from the University of
Virginia. He was also the only job applicant from his department not to
receive at least one invitation for a preliminary interview in that year.
Fortunately he was hired at UVa, where he now teaches deaf studies and

At first I waited to bring up my hearing loss until I was contacted by
someone on a hiring committee. That choice may mean that the members of
the committee feel deceived when they eventually learn of your deafness;
if you say nothing, others just assume you can hear. But when I began
mentioning deafness in my cover letters, I got fewer invitations to
preliminary interviews at the annual meeting of the American Academy of
Religion. A deaf Ph.D. who obtains a preliminary interview should by then
have revealed his or her deafness. Nonetheless, the people at the hiring
institution may well not have done their homework. The interview should be
held in a quiet room for the hard-of-hearing applicant or the oral deaf
anyone who uses speech-reading and amplification devices and interpreting
and transcription services should be available for applicants who need
them. But based on my experience and anecdotal reports from other deaf
scholars, mass-interview rooms are usually too noisy, and essential
services are not provided.

Beyond the physical barriers are the attitudinal barriers that exist at
the search-committee level. With little or no knowledge of deafness, the
law, or their university's procedures to comply with the Americans With
Disabilities Act, committee members are often worried about hiring a deaf
candidate. They may not know about the modern services and technology that
enable a deaf professor to teach hearing students; they may also be
unaware that the ADA makes it illegal to refuse to consider a candidate
because he or she may need such accommodations. They probably assume,
incorrectly, that their department would have to pay for any
accommodations, so whether or not they ask the question out loud surely
they wonder, "How much would this cost us?" Further, people often judge
someone's intelligence and friendliness based on that person's ability to
respond to spoken conversation. The meetings, dinners, and other group
situations typical of a campus visit put a deaf scholar at a disadvantage
relative to hearing peers. Search-committee members might fault someone
for "lack of collegiality" when the interview format presupposes a hearing

For formal meetings, the committee should provide interpretation or
transcription services. Informal socializing may call for interpreters or
a willingness to use written communication, or simply changing the venue
from, say, a noisy restaurant to a private home. But committees seldom
think about making such changes in the format of campus interviews. Change
begins with the recognition of a problem. Many deaf Ph.D.'s have been
convinced by personal experience that except at institutions that serve
many deaf students illegal discrimination has kept our numbers
artificially low, and that mainstream universities try to channel us into
non-tenure-track or even nonacademic positions, if they hire us at all.
But to my knowledge, no one keeps statistics on deaf Ph.D.'s in the United
States. One early step toward reform would be to collect accurate

That might help rebut the view that deaf people exclude themselves from
academe, rather than that we are kept out. One professor told me that at a
meeting about whether to move a deaf scholar with a Ph.D. from an elite
institution, teaching experience, and an active research agenda from a
contract position to one on the tenure track, a dean dismissed a comment
about the low proportion of deaf people in the professoriate with the
remark, "Deaf people just self-select out of academe." It may be rational
today for a deaf person to choose another career, but that should not
excuse others' willful denial to deaf people of appropriate access.
Another important step would be for universities to develop ADA-compliance
procedures that include teaching heads of departments and other
supervisors about accommodating deaf job candidates. I am not talking
about feel-good workshops with hymns to diversity, but information on the
nuts and bolts of including deaf people who can contribute to intellectual
life. Few universities provide such training for faculty and staff
members; most affirmative-action offices do not include the general
category of disability in their tracking data on faculty and staff

As an informal experiment, I searched The Chronicle's faculty-jobs
database one day this spring, using the keyword "ADA," which appears in
such phrases as "for ADA accommodations, contact. ... " I found "ADA" in
71 of 1,297 listings under 6 percent. That low number fits with anecdotal
reports from deaf academics, members of my professional organization, and
conversations with affirmative-action officers. The ADA so obviously
honored only in the breach requires employers to provide reasonable
accommodations for employees with disabilities, as long as the cost of
doing so does not impose undue hardship on the employer.  For deaf
employees, that means "qualified interpreters or other effective methods
of making aurally delivered materials available to individuals with
hearing impairments." Although the law does not state what layer of an
organization must pay for accommodations, in lawsuits claiming that an
institution has not provided adequate access, courts typically examine
whether the institution as a whole can afford the cost.

Ideally, each university would create a budget line in its operating
expenses for accommodations for deaf students and faculty and staff
members. David Coco, who earned a Ph.D. in space physics and astronomy
from Rice University and was for many years a research scientist at the
University of Texas at Austin, compares communication accommodations to
other things that employees need to do their jobs, like computers,
bathrooms, and lights. Excluding deaf scholars deprives society of their
potential contributions to knowledge. In some fields, like linguistics and
cultural anthropology, deaf academics' personal experiences can shape
their research interests.  And the presence of deaf scholars helps academe
reach its goal of inclusiveness.

Even begrudging compliance with the ADA would be a huge leap forward for
deaf scholars. Of course the ultimate goal is to change the way people
think about deafness so that they judge academic merit independent of
hearing. Several years ago, I chose to have cochlear-implant surgery and
regained a substantial amount of my hearing. It is amazing how many other
scholars now treat me as if I were a better academic, instead of simply
better able to hear. I wish they could see how arbitrary it is to equate
hearing with merit. For that to happen, more deaf scholars have to be
present in academe. Few mainstream universities today have even one deaf
assistant professor, let alone a deaf dean or deaf president. The deaf
scholars are out there, and our numbers are growing. The laws exist to
protect us from discrimination.  The services exist to let us navigate a
hearing world. What does not exist yet is the will to include us.

Rebecca Raphael is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Texas State
University at San Marcos.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 4, Page B12


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