What It’s Like to Attend a Conference as a Hard-of-Hearing Individual

Do you remember the first time you attended an AALL conference and visited the exhibit hall? I do. Let me set the scene: as a recent library school graduate without a job, I was on a mission to network, interview for jobs, visit the exhibit hall, and oh yeah, attend the sessions. As someone who is hard of hearing, I was also stressed about how I would successfully navigate those stressful situations.

First, the networking: much of the networking at AALL happens at random times, like in passing on the way to a meeting, at a vendor-sponsored happy hour, or after an SIS-sponsored roundtable. All of these situations are fraught for several reasons – noise, lack of ability to lip read, and unpredictable seating. Sometimes it’s impossible to find quiet areas to talk; sometimes no seats are facing each other, and large gatherings – even professional ones – are loud. With my type of hearing loss, I have a hard time distinguishing where noises are coming from and I have no doubt that I’ve missed someone talking to me at a conference.

Second, the interviewing: most interviewers will have a pre-arranged room available for your interview with them, but others will suggest meeting in a casual space or for coffee or even dinner. This is problematic because as someone with an invisible disability, I have to decide if I want to disclose my disability immediately to the potential employer. This might mean I say, “I’m sorry I can’t meet for dinner; my preference is to prefer somewhere quieter,” which opens up potential questions that I might not be ready to answer or disclose.

Third, the exhibit hall: the hearing-impaired individual’s personal hell. Exhibit halls are hard to navigate for many people, but when the noise is everywhere all at once, it makes lip reading essential. Some vendors want to meet in the exhibit hall but I have learned that I can’t manage this. When people I know see me there, I hope I am friendly and responsive but if I’ve missed someone calling my name, it’s literally because I can’t hear them.

Fourth, the meetings themselves: repeat after me – no matter how loud you think your voice is, it’s not loud enough for me. The number of times I’ve heard people say they don’t need to use the microphone to ask a question is more than my fingers and toes. While the panelists themselves have and use a microphone (but don’t get me started on AALL charging SISs with AV costs – this is an accessibility issue!), people in the audience inevitably state their questions from their seats instead of using the provided mic. Use it.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t enjoyed going to conferences. I very much enjoy seeing old friends and meeting new ones, attending programming, and seeing new cities. I just worry a lot about how I’ll hear and what I’ll miss and who I will offend because I don’t hear them.

Do you have a disability and want people to know what a conference experience is like for you? Email Mari Cheney at maricheney@lclark.edu to be featured on this blog! 

Research Librarian, Perkins Coie LLP