FAQs for conference organizers

I have developed email templates for conference organizers — please see pulldown menu under this section.

Q: I have received a request for a sign language interpreter and do not know where to start — HELP!

A: There are two parts of this request that need to be addressed: how to pay for interpreters and how to find interpreters. I’ll take them in order below. Please note that I am not a lawyer, and this should not be construed as legal advice. I’m simply a deaf academic who has been dealing with this issue for close to two decades, and I’ve acquired a bit of experience with this over the years. I won’t apologize for the slightly snarky tone, because it is my view that 26 years past the ADA, universities and professional organizations should have figured out how to deal with this on an institutional level! Of course, I expect that this may be new to you as a conference or colloquium organizer, and that’s why I’ve written this. I hope the following content will be helpful. Please let me know if you have feedback or questions.


Paying for signed language interpreters:

First, please don’t ask the deaf person if she can get a grant to cover the cost of her interpreters! In the U.S.A. paying for interpreters is the responsibility of the host institution or organization. If you have not already considered how your organization should be prepared to cover the cost of accommodations, it can be overwhelming to figure this out as you are also juggling the demands of planning for a conference. If you are just putting together your conference budget, it is good to think about how you will manage this. Some large conferences tack on an additional few dollars to the cost of registration; others may cut back on some expenses in order to keep the registration costs more affordable.

Do know that if your conference is supported by a university in the U.S.A., the university should have a structure in place to help pay for ADA accommodations. For some reason, many places keep this knowledge a secret. (Go figure!) Some universities have a centralized fund for accommodations expenses — try checking with the dean or provost, since your chair or the office serving students with disabilities may not know about this resource. Other universities decentralize ADA accommodations funding, which means you’ll have to make the request to your chair and go up the chain. Your chair may not realize that this is an accommodations issue that is covered under the ADA and dismiss your request. Be sure to make this point in your written request to the chair. Another possibility is to combine resources, such as finding a cosponsoring department or program at the university.

If this is a public event at the university, they must provide accommodations. You may run into the challenge of ignorant people who will tell you that the university will only provide ADA accommodations to disabled students enrolled at the university (wrong!), or only to disabled faculty and staff employed by the university (wrong again!), but they are not obligated to provide accommodations to visitors (wrong yet again!). Sadly, sometimes these people even work for the university office for students with disabilities.

If you encounter a stubborn or ignorant administrator, you might find it helpful to get in touch with university counsel or risk management. They should be aware that provision of reasonable accommodations per the ADA is assessed at the level of the entire university’s resources, not the department budget. If that doesn’t work, look up the state Protection and Advocacy services on the National Disability Rights Network website. (This latter is pulling out the big guns, but I’ve never seen it not get results! If you go this route, I strongly suggest checking in with the deaf person first, since she may have reasons for not wanting to pursue such an aggressive approach, especially if she is at a junior rank. If you are advocating for my accommodations, this is the point at which you should check in with me.)

If your event is small and has very little funding, there may be other resources available. Professional organizations or learned societies may have resources to help with this (e.g. Analysis Trust). You should also check in with the deaf person to see if she has any additional ideas for alternative funding options.


Finding a Signed Language Interpreter:  (in draft)



Q: I have made arrangements for interpreters for your talk or attendance at our conference, but now other people are asking about interpreting arrangements. Can’t everyone just use the same interpreters?

A: No, you should not assume that everyone will use the same interpreters. A number of different factors go into determining how to best fit interpreters with deaf academics.


Some deaf academics prefer access through American Sign Language (ASL); others prefer transliterated English. This latter uses ASL signs (words) in English word order, with English mouthing, and is my personal preference, since it is extremely rare that an interpreter has the philosophical background to interpret academic philosophy events into ASL. Transliteration requires the ability to hear spoken English (but not necessarily understand it) and reproduce it into signed English. ASL-English interpretation requires the interpreter to understand the content in spoken English and interpret it into another language, ASL, and vice versa.


If I am presenting a talk in spoken English to a mixed audience of ASL and English speakers, my practice is to field questions in the language asked. Questions in ASL get an ASL response; questions in spoken English are responded to in spoken English.


Conference attendees who prefer ASL to transliterated English need ASL interpreters. Audience members who prefer ASL to transliterated English may also need a set of interpreters — you should check with me and the other deaf attendees to see what language I am giving my talk in, and whether that will work for all of us. Please do not assume that it will! By making choices without consulting the deaf people involved, you may be constraining our ability to participate.


Here’s an example: academic conference organizers want to minimize the expense of interpreting services. I get this. One way that they try to minimize these expenses is to avoid paying double; booking one set of interpreters for plenary sessions instead of two or more teams. This makes sense — at an academic conference that does not have any free public sessions, the deaf people attending are very likely going to be deaf academics with the ability to work with the high academic registry of ASL or transliterated English. Not always, but usually. What is problematic is when the organizers ask the deaf attendees to identify the sessions they plan to attend in advance, and then only book one team of interpreters for the breakout sessions that both attendees plan to attend. This means that the deaf attendees must make decisions well in advance of the conference, and do not have the liberty of changing their minds closer to the time of the conference or even at the conference.


Even if both attendees agree on changing the schedule, it is unclear whether these decisions are freely agreed upon, especially if there is a different in rank. The more junior attendee may agree because she is worried about the potential power the more senior attendee holds in the profession — e. g. opportunities to be invited to participate in invitation only workshops, to write book reviews, or contribute to a journal. Even if the senior academic does not work at the junior academic’s home institution, that senior academic may be called upon to evaluate the junior academic in a variety of venues such as grant or fellowship applications, peer review of scholarship, external review for tenure, etc. By not making the process of interpreter selection and scheduling transparent, conference organizers run the risk of limiting the liberty of deaf conference attendees, giving them a second-class status in comparison to able-bodied conference attendees, who are free to pick and choose which events to attend up until the last minute, without any worries about whether their decision to attend a session at the last minute will impact a senior colleague who may be evaluating their work in the future.



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