Deaf geographies, and other worlds.
Yesterday, at the Annual Conference of the Institute of British Geographers (big… BIG international conference, very prestigious), we ran a session on ‘Deaf Spaces, old and new, the challenges of Deaf heritage’. The session drew together participants from academia, the heritage sector and the Deaf community, to discuss the nature of Deaf space and Deaf heritage, its relationship with the built environment, the relationship between Deaf heritage and the heritage industry/sector, and the experience of both deaf and hearing people in navigating within some of those areas.
I’ll share some of the content of the session in another post. But while the event is fresh in my mind, I wanted to thank the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers for their support in getting some of the practical aspects of the session (particularly communication) sorted out.
The session was deliberately set up as a panel (rather than 5 straight papers from the front) to allow discussion. It involved 5 panelists, four of whom were hearing (2 sign, 2 don’t) and one deaf person. So there was a mixture of English and BSL both in terms of the initial presentations, and the discussion.
The RGS worked really hard to find out what we might need, and cover every communicative eventuality. I have never seen such an array of possible amplification systems, all beautifully taped down and tested. The room was only normal classroom size, but within it we had a table set up for the panel, with a tabletop mic placed for each speaker (including the one using BSL), all wired into a mixing desk, with speakers. We also had wireless wandering mics with their transmission systems. There was, apparently, a hearing (t-) loop set up too for use with hearing aids.
The RGS had also hired BSL interpreters from a local agency, and flown another (individually recommended because she was known to our deaf presenter) down from Scotland.
All of this was done efficiently, patiently, and without any objection by the RGS.
We are deeply grateful.
But also slightly embarrassed because, other than the interpreters, we didn’t actually use any of it.
The first thing we did was switch off the hearing loop – as our deaf presenter uses BSL. With that gone, and with the room being small, we no longer needed to use the table-top or the wandering mics. That situation made the table set up at the front for the panel rather obstructive. We sat behind it for a bit… but its requirement that the speakers face away from the front made it hard for (particularly the deaf presenter) to position the interpreters so that she could see both them (in the front row of the audience), and the screen (behind her!).
In the end, we decided that the best thing to do was to abandon the room’s prescriptions completely. Breaking up the nice neat rows of audience chairs into a circle, the presenters came out from behind the table and we just sat, and talked.
This is something that I’ve seen spontaneously happen at other conferences (the AAG in Chicago, for example) where sessions that use Deaf communicative rules collide with the provisions of a conference structured for a hearing audience. It’s no reflection on the conference organisers who often work very hard to provide the accommodations that they do. They should be applauded for their attitude.
But at the end of the day, it does say something that a hearing conference has to work so hard, and make so many changes, to accommodate the (largely auditory) needs that it thinks deaf people might have, and to fit those provisions within its hearing-oriented rooms… when really, the only thing that works (and a much simpler solution at the end of the day) is just to refashion the room as a deaf space.