Return To The Wire

Microresidency Explores Adaptive Collaboration Environments


The Olin Library was the setting for a series of events revolving around deafness and access in mainstreamed engineering education.

On the first night of the microresidency, a ring of chairs was set up in the upper level of the library and a variety of resources were put in place to accommodate a range of communication methods; a monitor and microphone were setup for CART—a service which provides real-time captioning.

Two interpreters also attended for those whose preferred language is American Sign Language (ASL). Gradually, the circle was filled by speakers invited to share their stories and other members of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing (HoH) community who had come to hear about others’ experiences, and Olin students who wanted to learn about this unique and diverse group of people.

The speakers, Ian Smith, Sarah Sparks and Mel Chua '07, have a wide range of backgrounds with respect to their experiences of deafness and the ways they choose to navigate it.

They trio began by explaining that what language they use is anything but a simple decision. “It’s a constant decision of what language do I use, with whom do I use it, and what are the implications,” Smith explained. ASL offers full access to what the other person is trying to say, but when it is learned as a second language and relatively late in life it can be a very stressful language to use; using ASL to talk to hearing people means putting trust in an interpreter to convey your words as you intend them.

Voicing makes it easier for hearing people to understand what you are trying to express, but it is not always easy or comfortable for the person who is deaf or hard of hearing. In addition, if someone who is deaf/hoh starts a relationship off vocalizing, the other party will almost always expect them to continue that way. “If I start talking, people expect me to talk and expect me to speech read,” Sparks said. “Personally at this point, I would prefer not to voice any more than I have to.”

Sparks, Smith and Chua each had unique stories about higher education. Sparks lost her hearing late in life due to an inner ear condition called Ménière's Disease; within one year of the diagnosis, her hearing was gone in both ears. Sparks was a professor and her hearing loss introduced unexpected challenges in her classroom. Soon after she became deaf, many of Sparks’ students began playing loud music and games with audio on their laptops during class—taking advantage of her hearing status.   

Smith and Chua both lost their hearing when they were young but when they got to college they both found they needed accommodations to be able to succeed and fully thrive. Smith began using CART; while Chua began to learn how to work with interpreters. In Smith’s case, once he began using CART, he found that when he left the classroom, he wasn’t exhausted or anxious like he had been before. Chua powered her way through much of her college experience, firmly believing that she didn’t need any accommodations for a long time. But in graduate school, friends dared her to try working with an interpreter and, to her surprise, it made a positive difference.

Throughout the evening, Sparks, Smith, and Chua encouraged others to speak up, share advice, and ask questions.  

A “Deaf Pair Programming Experiment” took place a few nights later. Chua and Smith organized this event with the aim of working on a project originally started by Smith: an application that allows people to sign up for text alerts from the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), and allows users to register for updates on stations that they actually use regularly. This event was intended to function as a mini-hackathon, but it was also an opportunity for two deaf/hoh people to find ways to effectively communicate with each other while working on a project.

The two began by explaining the project to the observing students before diving in. Work started with Smith explaining to Chua what he had already completed on the project and where he hoped they would get to by the end of the evening. This process led to a set of interesting communication difficulties. Much of the conversation on the first session focused on the challenges faced by non-hearing people conversing with hearing people, but there are also difficulties that arise when multiple non-hearing people work together on visual projects. Smith had to explain the specific code and coding language; this involved a lot of referencing towards a computer screen.

Due to the visual nature of communicating without sound, trying to talk to one another while also looking at a computer screen turned out to be very difficult.

The pair switched between different methods of talking to each other multiple times. Initially, CART was available and they tried to use this both as a way to communicate with each other and as a way to allow the non-hearing students who were observing to follow along, however this method required Chua to jump back and forth between the code and the document recording the conversation. They also attempted to use ASL, but again had to jump between watching each other and looking at the code.

Both Smith and Chua also voiced the discussion on and off in an attempt to allow the hearing people present to follow the conversation and problem solving process, but when they were really trying to focus, the voicing would drop off, especially for Chua. At multiple points during the project, Chua and Smith would pause to answer questions from the observing students, and eventually the project was abandoned in favor of a discussion about conversational obstacles when you are non-hearing.

The evening may have started as a hackathon, but it rapidly transformed into a discussion of communication. Many of the resources that exist to facilitate communication for those who are non-hearing are definitely helpful, but are far from perfect.

For instance, working with interpreters can be immensely beneficial for those who are deaf or hard of hearing and who are comfortable using ASL, but it can also be a challenge for both the interpreter and the person using the service. For instance, in a classroom setting the words used in class may not have any specific sign or the interpreter may not understand the concepts, which forces the interpreter to get creative and results in both parties trying to understand phrases that seem like gibberish on the surface.

Certainly by the evening’s end, those who  attended came away with an increased awareness of the ways that those who are deaf or hard of hearing navigate living in a world designed for hearing

by Cassandra Brown '16