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Access, Accommodation, or Retrofit? A Conversation with Joel Bergsbaken

Something big has happened, and you've seen flashes of it. You know it has to do with the number 12, and the colors blue and green. You know people are excited, and that they expect you to be excited too.

When the Seahawks were in the Super Bowl, I don't know how many times I heard the Seahawks mentioned, a thousand times, maybe. A person with hearing loss wouldn't hear any of that. They have to seek out information to figure out what's going on.

We all know that word of mouth travels fast, but what happens to those of us who miss out on that word of mouth? What are they missing, besides the excitement of a local Super Bowl victory, the first of its kind for the Seattle Seahawks?

Of course, many people with hearing differences are sports fans who were well aware of the Seahawks' big win. However, this small example of being left outside of a major cultural event illustrates a larger question that we, as communication access professionals, will find relevant:

What do many Deaf and hard of hearing people miss, and what does our culture as a whole lose when their valuable perspectives are left out of the conversation?

I explore these questions with Joel Bergsbaken, the Program Coordinator of the Bellingham Hearing, Speech & Deafness Center (HSDC), a Washington State provider of technology support, information, and advocacy services for clients who are Deaf and hard of hearing. Additionally, the HSDC provides education about communication to organizations. The HSDC also has offices in Seattle and Tacoma. 

Joel BergsbakenJoel Bergsbaken
Program Coordinator at the Hearing, Speech & Deafness Center (HSDC) in Bellingham

Joel explains, "Tomorrow I’m doing a training at the county on how to communicate with people with hearing loss, and ways that are often counter-intuitive for hearing people."

These counter-intuitive aspects of the communication access puzzle are precisely what I want to discuss with Joel, as he puts it, "helping people understand how being hearing changes the way you communicate versus someone who doesn’t have reliable hearing. Those are just different ways of doing the same thing," he says. "That the majority of people are hearing doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it."

Though TypeWell transcribers often describe ourselves as conduits for information, my conversation with Joel has gotten me thinking about what it really means to provide communication access. What information do we privilege, and what are the consequences of our choices?

"There's a tendency with people with hearing loss to just learn to accept less. That's sort of the message they get from everyone around them too, is that it's their medical issue, no one else should be burdened with their difficulty."

Overheard information is what most people with hearing loss really miss out on.

"So how do we successfully accommodate people with hearing loss?" I ask.

"The challenge for both an interpreter and a transcriber is conveying all of the information," Joel explains. "If there's side conversations in a room, that's not accessible either, and sometimes can be really powerful in terms of how you view the information you're getting. Overheard information is what most people with hearing loss really miss out on. That actually often has a larger impact on their life than the direct communication because you miss out on what's expected of you, what's expected of your peers, what's the etiquette.

"And you also learn subtle things. As hearing people...we take steps to rein in our information so it doesn't get out of control. We often do this by inference. We expect people to infer our meaning, rather than telling them directly. We'll suggest and hint at things to avoid having fingers pointed...We're constantly taking steps to make sure we don't say something we are not supposed to say."

Dialog Bubbles with vague statements

Dialogue by Joel Bergsbaken, Image by Rachel Ballard

Joel explains, "When the Seahawks were in the Super Bowl, I don't know how many times I heard the Seahawks mentioned, a thousand times, maybe. A person with hearing loss wouldn't hear any of that. They have to seek out information to figure out what's going on.

"The thing that interpreters and transcribers need to be aware of is that their service is very valuable but it's a retrofit. It's not an ideal. It's way better than none. It's hugely valuable compared to the alternative, but the ideal is that everyone communicates in a way that's accessible for everybody, so you don't need an accommodation. The hearing majority has designed this system in a way that's not accessible to people. Therefore, we have to retrofit it."

The thing that interpreters and transcribers need to be aware of is that their service is very valuable but it's a retrofit.

"As a service provider," I note, "I know that I can tend to idealize my own services."

"It is a great thing," Joel answers. "You can feel good about [what you do.] What's unfortunate is that it needs to happen to begin with. It's going to seem like this impossible ideal, that everyone's going to communicate in a universal way. That's just the ideal. It's very far off. Is it achievable? A lot of people would say no. That's still the ideal.

"Interpreting and transcribing are the best alternative to that ideal that we have available, and anyone serving this community should be striving to approach that ideal in any way they can."

As my conversation with Joel Bergsbaken comes to an end, I began to think about how educating others about communication differences, and striving for access and inclusiveness, are no small thing. On the one hand, we can look at our work as only providing services for individuals with hearing differences. Or, as Joel suggests, we can see our work as a retrofit that, while not ideal, works with the current system, and allows people with all communication needs to have greater opportunities to work collaboratively, and to celebrate victories together, great and small.

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Rachel Ballard

Rachel Ballard has been a TypeWell transcriber since 2008. She is also a writer and co-parent to two French Bulldogs and a grumpy old cat. Her debut novel, A Long-Forgotten Truth, was published in 2011.

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