I read Whitney Hess’ article, Equality and Transparency at Conferences, which made me think and want to share several points. I’ve been planning to write about equality for a long time, and now it’s time for me to speak up.
First, I agree with Whitney regarding speaker compensation that speakers need to be compensated fairly. Speakers have experience and expertise to share and spend time preparing their presentations.
However, one thing irked me in the article is that it seems to focus on equality only for women. It is one of numerous articles I have came across by many women about this issue. What about other marginalized individuals like black people, for example? I see only 3 black speakers listed on the conference website, and none of them were keynotes – which is way less than the number of female speakers. And how many deaf speakers? ZERO. I was interested in speaking at GiantConf and did not get the opportunity.
As a woman myself, I understand issues experienced by women. Yet I’m not just female, but also deaf and foreign-born. Often I feel more frustrated being deaf than being female. It’s frustrating enough for many like myself to just attend any event due to communication access barriers, to say nothing about speaking at them. I often have to explain to many organizers new to deafness about how important it is for me to have full and equal access to communication at their events, and it takes me so much time and energy to advice them for which I’m often not being paid. It’s more than just about picking captioning and interpreting vendors – I make sure that they hire reputable vendors that I recommend to avoid those who are like that fake interpreter in South Africa, for example, among other things. Consulting services are built on my experience and expertise I gained as a deaf person and as an accessibility specialist.
Another thing to note is that many hearing people do not realize how much they take for granted the ease of attending any events and signing up for them at any time without worrying about communication access. Even if organizers are willing to make their events accessible to me, I often need to request communication access services at least a week or two in advance for a small event that lasts a few hours and at least a month or more for a large conference that lasts 1-3 full days.
As a speaker, I would also need to practice my presentation with sign language interpreters at least once or twice before my talk to make sure my signs are translated into English correctly – in addition to giving a rough transcript of my talk to them and to real time captioners in advance to help them better prepared for my talk. Even just giving a rough transcript does not prevent the possibility of words getting lost in translation. Also, when I present, I think first in English (my third language) and then translate it into ASL (my fifth language) from which interpreters interpret back into English words which are not always same as those I originally think in. There are some signs that may mean several things and there are many words that don’t have signs for (plus there are ASL “dialects” in different cities), so I make sure to fingerspell when there are no signs for words or if some signs might be ambiguous. While I can speak and lipread in English, I have oral communication limitations – especially when speaking in groups or in front of audience as not everyone would understand my speech. That’s the reason why I need interpreters to voice for me – even though captioning is my preferred access when just listening to talks or watching videos.
Many non-disabled attendees do not realize how much work I do as an event attendee and as a speaker in helping organizers to ensure that their events are accessible. I’m also often being told by attendees about how brave I am to come because it’s often the first time for many of them to see a deaf attendee and especially a deaf speaker. I explain to them that it’s not because I’m brave but because events that I attend are accessible to me and I’m grateful to organizers for ensuring that. If more events were accessible, more attendees with disabilities would have attended.
I’m grateful for every opportunity to speak at an event and also make sure I’m compensated fairly. It’s challenging because organizers are also responsible to pay for communication access at events – disability laws do not allow them to surcharge attendees with disabilities. Hopefully, the more sponsors learn about how important accessibility is, the more they will be interested in helping organizers with expenses on making events inclusive.
Secondly, I would like to speak about employment. Women often complain about how they are paid less than men. People with disabilities are even more frustrated – unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities are almost twice higher than those with no disabilities. Many people with disabilities are underemployed or work in other jobs than they are interested in, and they often experience discrimination. To say nothing about salary equality. That’s why more of them start their businesses.
Ironically, there were some male managers who treated me much better than some female managers.
For example, one female supervisor I worked for told me right in my face how glad she was that they hired a deaf person, not a wheelchair user because they did not want to spend on building reconstruction expenses. Yet they would not provide me certain communication access services which are also required by disability laws. Also, I was not compensated fairly and salaries were determined by Vice President who was also female. All of my coworkers were female. While I do not know how much they earned, one of them (who started working at same time as me) was threatening to leave due to low salary which made me wonder if I was paid about same or even lower because of my deafness.
Now I’m comparing that female supervisor to a male supervisor for whom I worked at another organization. He made sure that I was compensated fairly and even got the top salary they could afford (which was TWICE higher than paid by that female VP!) and that I had proper communication access. He also encouraged my professional growth by letting me attend conferences. Later I found out that he had a brother who had an amputed leg and experienced discrimination at work, so he wanted to make sure his workplace was friendly to me. I’m very grateful for his empathy and humility. Those are the important attributes I value in a supervisor – regardless of gender.
Not to say that all of my male managers were better than female managers – there were a couple male managers that made and still make me want to cry when remembering my experience working for them. My point is that it depends more on personality than whether you are male or female.
There were other cases when I was marginalized by some hearing women. I also find it sad about how some individuals and organizations do not practice what they preach when advocating for equality. Some examples are when organizers of a recent accessibility conference made their accessibility videos inaccessible to deaf people, and when I was forced to use sign language interpreters instead of speech to text providers when I barely knew any ASL. Those are just a few examples, but there are many more.
I do not know all details of what happened between GIANT conference organizers and speakers. All I can comment is that equality is not just for women. I have no problems with women speaking up about their rights, but I hope that they also realize that not all women are treated equally even by other women and that they become empathetic to others who are also marginalized.
To event organizers: If you are interested in having me speak at your events and/or using my consulting services to make your events accessible, please feel free to contact me – I look forward to hearing from you.