Access the British Sign Language version of this post here.
Attending conferences is all about sharing information, making those contacts which can help you with research ideas, writing projects and so on. This is the ideal. However, whether or not this is actually achieved is very variable, and this is illustrated ably by previous Conference Inference posts which highlight the various kinds of exclusion or barriers that members of particular groups can face (eg. sole parent postgraduates, women and Dalit academics, academics with caring responsibilities, precarious academics).
This post focuses on the experience of signing deaf people (i.e. who use sign language) when they try to access academic conferences. My own experiences as a signing deaf academic are mixed. Some conferences are extremely accommodating, providing sign language interpreters for keynote speakers, floating interpreters for social events and a pool of interpreters for signing deaf delegates to draw from if they want to attend parallel streams (see the upcoming BAAL conference in York St John University for example). Others are less so, and it is left to the deaf academic to book and bring their own sign language interpreters with them to the conference.
In the UK we are lucky that the Equality Act of 2010 can be used to request interpreters to be present at conferences, although for smaller conferences there is always the excuse that the cost of providing interpreters (particularly if there is only one or a small number of signing delegates) is not reasonable, which provides a loophole. Even then, most deaf academics in the UK have access to an Access to Work budget, which can be used to pay for interpreters if needed. However, while interpreters can make sure that deaf people have some access to the conference, this access does not ensure the same experience as hearing conference delegates.
A current research project I am running, funded by the SRHE (Society for Research into Higher Education), is looking at the experiences of signing deaf academics who work in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the UK. This is interesting work, which has uncovered ways in which signing deaf academics can sometimes be seen to occupy parallel but separate spaces to hearing academics. One way of looking at this experience is to use ideas from Henri Lefebvre, specifically his concept of space in The Production of Space (1991). There is the espace conçu of the conference, what is expected and imagined from a conference, like the idealised description given in the first paragraph of this post. But as a deaf academic you are likely to face barriers to accessing these conferences. The actual espace perçu, the lived, perceived experience of the conference by the deaf academic can be very different.
The espace perçu of deaf conference delegates is noticeably different to that of hearing delegates, even though the environment through which they navigate is the same. The conceived space of the conference, that it is a barrier free, egalitarian exchange of knowledge and collegiality, does not always match their lived experience of the event. Disagreements over interpreter provision, fellow delegates who are shy of approaching deaf people, and even outright discrimination, can prevent the perçu experiences of deaf people from matching the conçu expectations.
This not only applies to conferences on an abstract or social level, but also to the physical environment of the conference, where variance in lighting, visual noise, narrow corridors or specific styles of room layout can all have very different effects on deaf and hearing people’s experiences of the conference, due to the different sensory experiences which are emphasised by their way of perceiving the world around them.
Another interesting difference, and one which I am becoming more drawn to as my research goes on, is the different temporal experiences that deaf people have of academic work, and in particular, conferences.
For many hearing academics I have spoken to, their approach to conferences can be one of great flexibility. This flexibility was shown by making last minute changes to their presentations, for example, or writing their presentation on the train on the way to the conference because they were too busy marking to flesh out an abstract beforehand, or spontaneous participation in a panel discussion or chairing a session because a colleague has dropped out, not to mention serendipitous chats in the lunch line which lead to collaboration in the future. This level of flexibility may be difficult or maybe even impossible for deaf conference delegates due to the need for communication to be mediated through an interpreter.
There is a very interesting blog post written by Maartje De Meulder, herself a signing deaf academic. De Meulder’s post is interesting because it emphasises the importance of investing time in prepping and working with interpreters before the conference, let alone the hard work which goes into making sure interpreters are booked in the first place. Interestingly, someone from my own research project had a very similar view. They repeatedly worked with the same interpreters whenever possible, and took the view that they were investing in interpreters, not only financially, but in terms of time and prep. The hope was that this investing, which took the shape of making sure the interpreter was familiar with technical terms and field specific vocabulary and how to translate them from and to BSL, briefing the interpreter on key names and topics in a field, would be preparing them to be as effective as possible at portraying this academic as they are, as a well-informed professional in their field. This investment didn’t always pay off, but it shows that the temporal frame of a conference begins that much earlier for a deaf delegate, with the provision of prep to the interpreter, plus any other ‘investment’ that might be needed.
Not only that, but the rhythm of a deaf person’s involvement in the conference itself might vary depending on interpreter availability, their need to take breaks, and how much of the conference they can afford to attend, as interpreter costs can add up very quickly.
As shown, not only do the spatial experiences of deaf academics differ from those of their hearing colleagues, but it seems their temporal experiences do too. There is scope for a rhythmanalysis (another of Lefebvre’s concepts) of signing deaf academics’ experiences to see how not only cultural and sensory variables influence the structure of their working day, but also how accommodations and support provision which are aimed at providing access can actually influence how deaf people organise their time.
I will be presenting more about this project in the 2018 SRHE Newer and Early Careers Researchers Conference, and if any readers are attending, I would welcome any comments, questions or feedback on any of the ideas covered here or during my conference paper!
About Dai O’ Brien
Dr Dai O’Brien is a Senior Lecturer in BSL and Deaf Studies in York St John University. His research focus is on the experiences of signing deaf people in various contexts, with a particular focus on creative visual research methods and spatial and sociological theory. He is one of the holders of the Society for Research into Higher Education’s Newer Researchers Award for 2017-18 and his recent publications include a co-edited volume entitled Innovations in Deaf Studies: the Role of Deaf Scholars (OUP 2017).
Image credits: first image by Vikki O’Brien, second image by Rob Smalley.