Conformity’s Labor & Tips to Make Poetry Events More Accessible to People who are D/deaf or Hard of Hearing

The book cover for Kenji Yoshino's "Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights." The cover is gray with subtle yellow and blue text, and the left half of the face of a person with light skin and short dark hair.When I was leading anti-bias retreats at the University of Richmond, I also founded a campus-wide book discussion series focused on justice issues. One year, we discussed Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, by Kenji Yoshino. The book explores ways different groups are pressured to conform and “cover”–or tone down–characteristics that aren’t part of dominant cultures. One section of the book I return to often includes lists that describe what “covering” looks like for different marginalized groups. For women, Yoshino includes two lists, stating women are uniquely pressured to both cover and reverse-cover, to simultaneously conform to traditionally-defined “feminine” and “masculine” standards of behavior.

So many of the items on the “masculine” list resonate for me: I do not cry; I am ambitious; I am individualistic; I am self-reliant; I am told I am exceptional, not like a typical woman.

As well as the pressure to exert “feminine” attributes: I wear makeup; I am cheerful; I am understanding; I am yielding; I express vulnerability. I perform housekeeping functions…

Yoshino’s lists suggest that for women, the very idea of competence is a balancing act. One I’ve spent close to three decades trying to perfect.

In 2014, that balancing act became more complicated. I began to experience escalating bouts of chronic pain from fibromyalgia, and extended periods of severe hearing loss from Ménière’s Disease. The juggling act came crashing down. There were tears–at work, no less. Self-reliance went out the window, and I certainly didn’t feel cheerful.

It was a crisis for me. At home, though supported by a husband inclined towards non-traditional gender roles, I felt a sense of failure. I was in too much pain to handle housekeeping, so he, without a second thought, took lead on chores that I’d come to believe were my responsibility. At work, I fell short of “masculine” demands I’d been conditioned to equate with professionalism and strength. Instead, an uncomfortable level of vulnerability became necessary. Though buttressed by my Split This Rock colleagues, my self-confidence, caught in a web of cultural expectations that gave less weight to “feminine” traits, was sinking.

In this new reality of living with disability, how was I to appear “capable” when operating in my full ability demanded disclosing what I could not do? The very act of asking for or needing help from others in a culture steeped in individualism gets painted as a deficit, a weakness.

That there’s a cost to be paid for not meeting certain standards of behavior is not new. Growing up, I was taught that being Black meant I would need to work at least twice as hard as white people in order to attain any level of success, that extra labor is required for me to excel. And I could not afford error, or anything less than excellence. This carried over into my understanding of womanhood.

And perhaps that is where the knee-jerk reaction comes from–the one where I pretend to understand what people say even when I don’t. It’s one place the layers of cultural demand intersect, I believe. Being Black, being a woman, having a disability–I am taught through unspoken norms how to make myself small in order to look out for other people’s comfort. I’m taught not to make a fuss about the contortions that are required of me, not to ask others to accommodate my needs, to stay silent even as my right to equal access is compromised.

This shift in my life uncovered privileges I once held as someone who identified as able-bodied. Back then, I never really needed to worry about access to verbally-communicated information, or whether I could adequately connect with people I care for, or whether I could be a full participant when attending my favorite poetry events. Telephones weren’t intimidating. I could be assured I would understand what was said on the line no matter what sort of phone I was on. When leading meetings, I never needed to turn over the reins to a colleague because the only method of communication was auditory. I could attend a movie at any theatre and not wonder if they would have assistive listening devices that function properly and staff members who give a damn if they don’t. I never depended on the generosity, consciousness, or budgets of others to ensure I could fully understand what was being said on stage and around me at poetry events.

And I didn’t carry the level of concern for my safety that I do now, when I consider what might happen if I ever miss hearing something said to me by a police officer.

Identifying as able-bodied meant there were particular ways in which I felt included, connected, safe, valued, ways that just seemed “normal.” It required no effort on my part for me to enjoy these perks. And isn’t that what these cultural demands boil down to? A safeguard for the “norm” as defined from within dominant groups?

In real ways, my survival now depends on disrupting the sense of “normalcy” I once enjoyed. “Toning down” the demands of this body would condemn me to a life of severe isolation and dehumanization.

Last year, I navigated the world for the first time by requesting accommodations. Accessibility offers such relief! During conference calls, I had a remote caption writer on the line typing up everything that was being said so I could follow along. At several events, captioning service was provided for me on site. I brought my own assistive listening device to poetry readings, open mics, and slams and was able to hear everything that was said into the microphone directly through my hearing aids.

It was great, but with each of these situations, I still carried so much of the burden to make life accessible. For me to attend any event, it is hardly ever as simple as deciding to go, then going. It requires research, contacting someone to find out what accommodations are available, disclosing health information, making requests and following up on those requests, charging my equipment and bringing my equipment, etc., etc., etc. It’s exhausting.

And here is yet another intersection. This unequal share of emotional, intellectual, and actual labor is so common among marginalized folks, so familiar as I look back on that childhood lesson about how hard I should work to be seen and valued in society.

When I applied for a 2016-2017 Spoken Word Immersion Fellowship from The Loft Literary Center, a rare opportunity for spoken word poets to receive artistic support for a community learning project, I dreamed about what it would take to shift that burden.

The spoken word community is where I first found my voice as a poet and a sense of family among artists. I missed that. So, I proposed reaching out to poetry event organizers in DC to share best practices for making their gatherings accessible, to invite them to rethink structures, policies, and practices currently in place. My proposal was, to my excitement, granted.

As one effort in implementing the project, I drafted a list of tips for making poetry events more accessible to people who are D/deaf and hard of hearing, and posted it to Facebook, inviting readers to offer feedback to improve the list. I’ve shared the list with the organizers of events I’ve wanted to attend and it’s been received well. That’s been a source of hope, when others enter the work with me.

There is a story that’s told often in diversity work. It’s about a giraffe who invites his friend the elephant to his house. The house, of course, is made for a giraffe. The elephant struggles amidst its tall, narrow doors and hallways. Our society is much like this when it comes to disability: a house that’s been specially built with the able-bodied in mind. We can do as the giraffe did to the elephant, and put the responsibility for making things better on the people who are most negatively affected by society’s limits, or we can get busy remodeling the house.

Let’s remodel the house.


A Few Tips for Accommodating People who are Hard of Hearing or D/deaf at Your Poetry Event

The following document is reprinted with permission from the author from her original Facebook note.

  • Ask if people need accommodation on your registration or sign up form. Do your best to fill each request and offer a sincere apology if you are not able to provide an accommodation. Let the person know what you’ll do in the future to ensure accommodation needs are met.
  • Let people know who to contact to request an accommodation on your promotional materials, website, and social media pages. Include an email and phone number. If you’re able to, designate a particular person to be in charge of accessibility issues and offer that person’s name as well.
  • Make printed copies of any prepared comments, instructions, writing prompts, or poetry that will be shared. This allows the person to read along as things are said and is especially helpful in the absence of other accommodations such as interpreters, CART service, or listening devices. A BONUS: Make a couple of the hard copies in large print on white paper and they’re also helpful for people with low vision!
  • Can’t make copies? Use Technology! Load the documents on a tablet or two for people to check out. You might even provide a link to a shared folder where the documents can be found so people can access them via their personal tablet or other device. (ANOTHER BONUS: Format your documents appropriately and they’re also helpful to people who are blind and use screen readers.)
  • If the event is a reading of poems from a book, have one or two copies of the book available to offer to anyone who might need to read along. Announce that this is available at the beginning of your event. Be sure to let people know where/how to return the book to you at the conclusion of the event.
  • Provide an interpreter or transliterator. If you hire American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters or Cued speech transliterators for your event, be sure to include it in your event PR so people know it’s an accessible event. If you’ll be providing an interpreter by request only, you’ll need to find out if your attendee(s) know ASL and/or Cued speech so let folks know how to share that info with you.
  • Provide CART service. Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) service provides live captioning for people who are D/deaf or hard of hearing. CART writers can be hired to work on site or remotely. Remote CART service requires a phone line, access to the internet, and a computer or laptop screen. Some providers can offer a set up where captions are displayed on a large screen that they provide for all to see. Otherwise, only the person for whom the service is being provided has access via a tablet/laptop. When being used remotely for an event — especially with groups of 8 or more people or events where people are not sitting together at one table — it helps to use a conference call phone system with multiple speakers or a phone connected to a dynamic omnidirectional microphone so the voices of everyone in the room can be heard by the CART writer.
  • Consider including on-screen simultaneous projection of poems. Ask that your presenters send you the poems they’ll be sharing ahead of time so you can project the poems as they are read.
  • Reserve seats near the front of the room. This is helpful to do for people with many different types of disabilities or chronic pain conditions. Also, seats should be reserved for interpreters, transliterators, and/or CART writers.
  • Share what accommodations are available at the start of your event (i.e. printed copies, reserved seats, book copies). Additionally, you might welcome anyone with a streamer mic (a Bluetooth mic that streams sound to the wearer’s hearing aids) to bring them to the “stage” area. The mic would sit on the podium or be worn like a lapel pin and passed from speaker to speaker so that its owner is able to clearly understand what’s said.
  • Use a microphone in large group or noisy settings. Often at poetry events, someone will feel their voice is loud enough to forgo using the mic. They will ask the crowd if they can be heard. No one will object. Please do not put people in the position of having to speak out in a crowded room to ask that you use the mic. Survey after survey has proven most people are terrified of public speaking. Assume someone in the room needs sound amplified.
  • Ensure your event participants and speakers understand how to use the podium and microphone effectively. It may be helpful to offer tips when communicating event details, such as reminding them to speak directly into the mic, project, and ensure the microphone is positioned near their mouth. Every microphone, of course, is different so if your event requires a run-through, consider providing a sound check so each event participant can stand behind the mic and be shown the best position for them to speak behind it.
  • Provide listening device(s). Using a microphone is also helpful in that microphones allow for the use of listening devices. A listening device connects to the sound system, allowing people who are hard of hearing to listen to what’s said at the microphone directly through their hearing aids or a set of headphones. If your event takes place at a theatre, it’s likely your venue has these available for attendees. Otherwise, you can purchase them online.
  • Repeat questions and comments from the audience, especially when there’s no microphone being used by those audience members. You may also want to repeat anything that’s said when there are other sounds present. For example, if a speaker’s comments elicits laughter from the audience, whatever is said during that laughter, may need to be repeated.
  • Minimize background noise when possible. It is extremely hard to understand speech, even with hearing aids, in rooms with lots of people talking at once or music blaring from a sound system. Consider not playing background music, or at least playing it softly. Hearing aids and assistive listening devices can make sounds louder not clearer.
  • Identify alternate quiet space for break out discussions. If your event involves small group work, make sure there are places that are quiet where people who are hard of hearing can meet with their groups separately. Otherwise, all of the discussion from the other groups in the room will make it extremely difficult for hard of hearing people to understand what’s being talked about within their group.
  • Build your community. Build relationships with people, groups, and organizations within D/deaf and hard of hearing communities — not just to recruit event attendees but to expand your awareness. Include D/deaf and hard of hearing poets as featured artists at your events. Collaborate with people that are D/deaf and hard of hearing and groups that represent their interests. Market your event via social media group pages designed for D/deaf and hard of hearing people. Intentionally promote your event to D/deaf and hard of hearing communities so your accessibility efforts are maximized.

Other Things To Know

  • Hearing aids and assistive listening devices make sounds louder not clearer.
  • When speaking to someone who is hard of hearing:
    • It helps if you are facing them and for your mouth to be in clear view. Be mindful not to cover your mouth while you speak.
    • Be mindful of how fast you speak. Slow your pace down a bit and try not to cram your words together. Enunciate but don’t over-enunciate unless requested to do so.
    • It’s helpful to check in periodically by asking if the person heard what you said.
    • Try not to get frustrated by being asked to repeat yourself.
    • Be willing to write down what you’re trying to communicate if the person has trouble understanding you.
    • Sometimes, especially for people who wear hearing aids, the issue is clarity, not volume. Ask which is helpful before shouting.

Suggestions for improvements of this list are welcomed! Send them to me at poetcamishajones [at] gmail [dot] com. THANKS

Drafted by Camisha L. Jones in support of her 2017 Loft Spoken Word Immersion Fellowship, made possible by a major grant from the Surdna Foundation by the generous support of Loft members. More on Camisha’s project.

Gratitude to the following people whose wisdom helped in refining this list: Beth Seetch, Ellen McGrath Smith, Raymond Luczak, Minal Hajratwala, Katherine Howell, Sarah Katz.


CAMISHA L. JONES is the author of the poetry chapbook Flare (Finishing Line Press, 2017) and a recipient of a 2017 Spoken Word Immersion Fellowship from The Loft Literary Center. Through both, she breaks silence around issues of invisible disability as someone living with hearing loss and chronic pain. Her poems can be found at Button Poetry, The Deaf Poets Society, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Typo, Rogue Agent, pluck!, Unfolding the Soul of Black Deaf Expressions, and The Quarry, Split This Rock’s social justice poetry database. She is also published in Let’s Get Real: What People of Color Can’t Say and Whites Won’t Ask about Racism (Stirfry Seminars & Consulting, Inc., 2011). A fellow of The Watering Hole, Camisha is Managing Director at Split This Rock, a national non-profit in DC that cultivates, teaches, and celebrates poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change. Find her on Facebook as Poet Camisha Jones, on Twitter as 1Camisha, on Instagram as 1camisha, and online at her blog. Photo by Naji R. Copeland, Sr.