The Quiet Musings

Attending conferences with a text interpreter

- June 20th, 2018 -

I started attending conferences, workshops, and meetups around 2012 or so. I have been deaf since late 2007. But it wasn’t until three years later that I found out there existed such a thing as a text interpreter. It took so long because doctors refer patients who lost their hearing to get an CI implant. They don’t supply folders and information on living as a deaf person. They just want to “fix” the problem. But that is a story for another time.

With a text interpreter, a new world opened up for me with many possibilities. And even more when I found out that some of the interpreters can also transcribe English. Some of them transcribe English to English, others English to Dutch. This meant I could also attend talks, meetups, and workshops that are in English.

What is a text interpreter and what do they do exactly?

A text interpreter types everything being said for me on a laptop or tablet. For this, they use a special keyboard that makes it able for them to type more quickly than with a regular keyboard. To become a text interpreter you have to get a degree and many hours of training. Plus they need to learn sign language. It’s not an easy job.

The text is not error-less nor an exact wording of what is being said. It’s not ‘smooth’ like the subtitles on Netflix. Because real life is not scripted into short sentences. People talk fast, low voice, several talking at once, etc. There is also the matter of attending a technical talk, say about SVG, Javascript or even CSS. A text interpreter has zero knowledge on the subject and has to make sure I get a comprehensive translation of what is being said.

A lot of speakers at events talk really fast. They pack a lot of information in one talk that needs to be given in 50 minutes. Hearing people have told me it keeps the talk interesting and upbeat. For me, it becomes very difficult to get everything. A text interpreter can’t keep up with all the information. On a normal tempo, I already get the text with a couple of seconds delay. When someone is talking very fast, it gets even more delayed and incomplete.

Right now, it is better than nothing. At Fronteers conference they supply English subtitles for their conferences which is awesome. These are done by a team of interpreters who also have experience transcribing technical talks. This is great for me and other deaf or hard of hearing people. Also for people who are not fluent in English. They can use the subtitles to take in the information at their own pace. I still take a text interpreter with me. Because if there is a connection error to the subtitles screen I miss everything while they work on restoring the connection. At such time my interpreter takes over so I don’t miss everything.

My text interpreter also translates for me during breaks and lunch. When I can’t lipread someone she’ll repeat it to me and use supporting Dutch sign language so I can follow along. She might even type it on the phone if it is too complicated. You could also just use your phone when talking to me, it’s just like sending a WhatsApp, only I’m standing right there! 🙂

‘What is that noise?’

During events, workshops, and meetups I always sit in front. My text interpreter can hear it best from the front and have a clear view of the slides. They also need the room to sit comfortably with the keyboard. As for me, I read body language to compensate for not hearing the tone. I’m tiny, sitting in the back or even middle makes it almost impossible for me to see the speaker or have a clear view of the slides.

Text being transcribed for me during a conference

Obviously, every time I get stares, looks and some people even ask what it’s all about. Which is normal human behavior. We always answer and explain what, why and how. Unfortunately, there have been complaints about the keyboard noise. I have no idea how loud it is. I do know most people are not bothered by it. I have no idea if the people complaining (sometimes in not a very nice way) know that there is a text interpreter in the room. Which inspired me to write this blog to bring awareness to the existence of deaf people or hard of hearing people attending conferences, meetups, and workshops with a text interpreter or a sign language interpreter.

the more accessible events are for everyone, the more knowledge we all gain

I have been informed that some people find sign language interpreters distracting. They have to stand in front to sign to the deaf person. Even tho I don’t use a sign language interpreter, I have been to events with them and have not found it distracting at all. I’m fully aware that they are a necessity for deaf and hard of hearing to participate equally.

It would be great if in the future all events provide text and sign language transcribers, and wheelchair accessible locations by default. I know it costs money, hopefully, companies will be more willing to sponsors these things. After all, the more accessible events are for everyone, the more knowledge we all gain to apply to our work and daily life. A win-win situation for everyone.

Accessible Train Travel

- June 8th, 2018 -

Since I moved to the Netherlands in the year 2000, my main transport mode has been public transport. During my college years, I lived in another city than where I attended school and had to travel a total of 3 hours daily by train with NS and by default ProRail. The past 7 years, I travel for work 4 days a week by tram, train, and metro. Suffice to say I’m a seasoned train traveler. I’ve seen train travel improve, from making them all non-smoker to adding digital screens and an app. Gone are the days of trying to figure out on the yellow boards how to travel.

But for me as a late-deaf person, train service still leaves a lot to desire. Even with the screens in the train and an app. I always have a hard time figuring what is going on when there are train delays. It happens often that the screens in the trains are turned off. When they are in use the only information they show are the stops, current time and eventual time delay. If for some reason the train is standing still on the tracks a long time there isn’t a message on the screen explaining why. The only way to know what’s going on right away, is to hear it on the intercom from the conductor.

And most importantly yet. Safety. NS takes(rightfully so) the sign of doors closing very serious. You can get a hefty fine for trying to sneak in last second between the closing doors.

But I’m deaf, I can’t hear when the conductor whistles for doors closing. In Rotterdam when I get out of the metro sometimes I have about 4 minutes to make it to my train. I’m busy jogging up stairs, navigating the mass of people, checking-in, dodging more people, then going up the escalators to the platform. Even when I see on my watch there is one minute left, it might be less. Once I was just getting in when the doors closed, almost getting my backpack stuck. I thought I still had time left. But obviously, the conductor had already whistled. This could have been a potentially unsafe situation and I could have gotten a fine of hundreds of euros because I can’t hear the whistle signaling doors closing.

It made me think about why there aren’t any visual alert system that the doors are closing? If all doors were fitted with a red light that turns on or flashes, signaling doors closing. I wouldn’t have to stress if I’m trying to catch a train last minute. I would know if I still have time to get in or not. It would be handy too for hearing people who were still too far to hear the whistle but running fast enough that they’d think they still can get on the train.

Train travel would be so much more relaxing, accessible, safe and fun for hard of hearing and deaf people if we had easy access to last minute information and if the doors closing signal is also visible instead of only accessible to hearing people.

Inclusiveness is a Mindset Change

- February 8th, 2018 -

For the past two years I have immersed myself in accessibility, inclusiveness and diversity. As a front-end developer, my focus is of course on websites, user experience and technology. But I’m also a late deaf person. This gives me my own unique view and experience in daily life. When using the internet, doing mundane things like banking, ordering food or interacting with people.

Not a week goes by that I don’t talk to others about accessibility and inclusiveness. With both sides, abled and disabled people. That plus my own experience made me realise that in spite of all the good intentions. Inclusiveness still doesn’t get farther than good intentions.

Inclusiveness in the work field

Being inclusive is not like switching on a light. It takes genuine effort, dedication, empathy and hard work. From both abled co-workers and disabled co-workers.

The mantra is that we need to focus on what people can do well. Focus on their strengths. Give them the tools and space to work at the best of their abilities.

Being inclusive is not like switching on a light.

A disabled person needs to communicate clearly what they need to do their work with success. Abled co-workers need to understand that it takes a mindset change to create an inclusive work environment. It’s not just accommodating the office for a wheelchair. Articulating well for a hard of hearing co-worker. Avoiding putting bags on the floor creating obstacles for a blind co-worker.

It’s about understanding that being a disabled person comes with baggage. It costs more energy to compensate for being, deaf, blind, in a wheelchair or otherwise impaired. Personally, when I’m out of my safe place (home) I’m always on some kind of high alert. At work, social events, congresses, on the streets, etc.

It’s not only negative things that come with a disability. In my case due to being deaf, I’m always solving problems on the go. I need to do this to adapt to a world that is not designed for deaf people. I’m always thinking in solutions.

It appears that many employers and co-workers expect disabled employees to work just like them. Fast, make overtime regularly, flexible to adapt to anything, see the world the same way. While every disabled person has its own unique needs, one should not assume that they can function the same way as an abled person.

Steps to true inclusiveness

There are several steps a company can take to create a truly inclusive work culture.

Approach an organisation specialised in disability. There are many focussed on different disabilities. Most of them have experts that can give guidelines and tips how to make the work environment more inclusive.

Treat employees as they wish to be treated not as you yourself wish to be treated.

Don’t negatively question your employee/co-worker when they tell you about their disability. It takes courage every time to be vulnerable and tell someone about their disability and struggles. Respect that and don’t use that vulnerability against them.

Create an environment of open communication without judging.

Listen to ideas, feedback and input from disabled employees. They have a unique view on the world.

If the team undergoes drastic changes, it’s a good idea to touch base again with everyone about inclusiveness.

The Hospital for Abled People

- December 6th, 2017 -

One would expect the hospital to be the one place accessible to everyone. Unfortunately even in 2017 it is not.

I have been a patient at the same hospital for almost 14 years. Till today it’s still a problem to communicate that I am deaf. Unless I ask the doctors and assistants specifically to email me, they will call me or my emergency contact if something comes up. I can’t be independent because applications and systems aren’t inclusive.

The system that the hospital uses has no field to indicate that a patient is blind or deaf or in a wheelchair. They can’t put in my information that I’m deaf and the primary contact method I prefer is email. That my sisters number is only to be used in case of emergency. That all appointment reminders can be texted to my own number or emailed to me.

Every time I see a new doctor or go in for a test I have to tell them I’m deaf. Because that very important information isn’t next to my name, birth-date and photo.

The system can get my pass photo and identity information from the government system. But yet it can’t handle important patient details that is crucial to know.

Automation, not for everyone

This year they implemented check in computers. Now when you have an appointment, you have to use a touch screen computer that scans your Dutch ID card, Dutch passport or Dutch drivers license. The system will show you your address and contact info and ask you if everything is still correct. It shows you what appointments you have that day. Then it will print out your ticket with a random number and the route you have to be at.

The first thing I noticed when checking in the first time: no privacy. Everyone can see your photo, name and address. I quickly learned to use one of the computers with the screen facing a wall. Months later they finally caught on and added those side screen things that ATM machines have. A small attempt to give one privacy.

I have a suspicion no actual patients were consulted when designing the system and process. For starters a blind person can’t use the check in touchscreen computers at all. They lose all independence and are forced to take someone to their appointments with them or ask one of the helpers to do it for them.

Elderly people who aren’t tech savvy also depend on family members or one of the helpers. It would have been better to use the system and retain the old way of just checking in with humans. This way people can keep their independence and dignity in an already difficult health situation.

Numbers and more numbers

Once you have checked in you get a ticket with a number which is shown on a screen (random numbers) in the waiting room when it’s your turn. No more doctor or nurse that comes to get you. Luckily most health workers still come out to get their patient. But there is no guarantee.

For me as a deaf person it means staring intensely at the screen as to not miss my number. I can’t hear the sound when a new number is shown. When the doctor or lab is running behind I’ll be sitting for 30 to 40 minutes staring at the screen. Instead of reading something to pass time and calm my nerves.

A blind person has no idea when their number is next. There are no braille tickets and the number is not called out. Because of the aforementioned lack in the system to highlight if a patient is blind, deaf, in a wheelchair and/or other. A doctor won’t know to get the patient. Unless it’s a patient they already know.

A couple of months ago I finally asked one of the doctors assistant if it is possible to put in my primary info that I’m deaf. She mailed the tech department for me with that question. She got a standard non answer: “you can add it in the patients file with the rest of their medical info”. Which isn’t the point. This kind of information should be available next to your primary information. Healthcare workers shouldn’t have to click more than once just to find out this kind of crucial information.

Once I got called three times in a row from an unknown number at the end of the working day. I had been to the hospital that morning for a blood test. My gut instinct told me it was the hospital calling with bad results. I had to answer the phone tell whom ever it was that I am deaf, to send a text message.

Turns out my own doctor wasn’t there and when they flagged my results — another doctor who doesn’t know me and did not take the time to read my file, called. They just checked my primary information and called asking me to come right away. Needless to say it was a long anxiety ridden hour while I tried to sort things out which this doctor. Who did not know I am deaf or that the flagged results are my normal blood values.

This isn’t an isolated incident at one hospital. I have been at three hospitals and they all lack accessibility and inclusiveness. It shouldn’t be this hard for disabled patients. It is not that hard for developers to make these systems accessible and inclusive. Having a diverse group of people to test the system can point out all the fallacies. There is no place as diverse as the hospital, because guess what? Health or lack of it, affects everyone.