Tips for Communicating with Teresa

Hello – Thanks for agreeing to meet up for philosophical conversation — I’m looking forward it! As you may know, I’m a deaf philosopher. Given my disability, you may be wondering how we’ll communicate — especially if you’ve seen me working with signed language interpreters at conferences. I hope the information below will be helpful.

In addition to American Sign Language, I also communicate through spoken English and speechreading (what used to be called lipreading). I speak clearly (many people don’t pick up on my hearing loss) and I’m extremely good at speechreading, though this doesn’t mean what most people think it does. Don’t be fooled by Hollywood’s depiction of speechreading or the clarity of my speech – there’s an (sometimes significant) asymmetry between what I can produce and what I can comprehend! Empirical research indicates that the average person with my type of hearing loss understands about 21% of speech without speechreading. Not surprising for a philosopher, I’m reasonably good at induction — when speechreading someone I know well in ideal conditions, I understand about 85-95%.

For obvious reasons, philosophical and academic conversations are more challenging than everyday discourse and getting the content right is much more important! “Mishearing” a comment about the weather is easy to correct; realizing halfway through that I’ve misheard a premise in a philosophical argument is much harder to correct on the fly. One piece of this problem is that I don’t always know immediately that I’ve made an error — sometimes I don’t figure this out until I “hear” a chunk of information that doesn’t cohere with the rest of the argument. (If you’re interested in learning more about my thought process, there’s a detailed but simple example in my Disabled Philosophers blog post). Through trial and error I’m figuring out what works best for me and I’ve developed a short list of communication tips that I email to colleagues before we meet up. I hope this is helpful – please let me know if you have any questions!

Communication Tips: Talking to a Deaf Philosopher

  1. “Warm up” with small talk (nonphilosophical conversation). Speechreading takes a lot of effort up front. When my working memory is focused on decoding the English words (“bat” or “mat”?), there’s not much left for thinking about philosophy. I usually need about 15-20 minutes of small talk to establish a baseline for my speechreading skills before moving to philosophy. This is true even if we already know each other – it takes me about 100 hours for speechreading to become more background than foreground, though it never completely drops out. Given that, I really appreciate a short warm-up — the topic doesn’t matter!
  1. Speechreading isn’t just lipreading– I need to see a person’s entire face! There are different facial muscle micro-movements (that don’t just appear on the lips) that help me distinguish different consonant sounds. (Sunglasses, hats, and facial hair are challenging – trimmed beards and mustaches make a huge difference.)
  1. Familiar context helps enormously. If I can look at a paper draft or an outline beforehand, it’ll reduce the load of speechreading guesswork on my working memory. I have the most difficulty figuring out proper names and non-English phrases. I don’t always know the pronunciation (which can be quite variable even among American English speaking philosophers), but I almost always I know the word as written! (i.e. tu quoque, ceteris paribus, akrasia, physis).
  1. Visual information is great. This means gestures, animated facial expressions, sketching an outline on paper, fingerspelling, etc. (I know both British and American fingerspelling systems, in case that is helpful.)
  1. Good acoustics and good lighting– avoiding backlighting/window glare and background noise are my biggest challenges. Having my back to a corner, sitting next to a wall, or sitting in a booth work best for me!
  1. Walking and talking is a challenge. Speechreading sideways is tricky, and background noise can be a problem. If I’m outdoors, the lack of walls (for capturing vocal acoustics) makes it harder. Plus looking at the road/path/sidewalk and looking away from the speaker at intervals also puts more demand on working memory.
  1. Feedback doesn’t offend me!If I mispronounce a word, or it seems that I’ve misunderstood what you’ve said, please let me know. I prefer to learn (and get it right). Sometimes deaf academics experience this phenomenon: the deaf academic mishears something and asks for clarification (words) and the hearing academic assumes that the deaf academic is ignorant of this concept and is asking for an explanation. I will tell you if it is a words problem or an explanation problem. (Sometimes it is both, but I can’t know that until I understand the words!)

Thanks again for reading this, and let me know if you have any questions.