Q&A: Making Tech Events Accessible to the Deaf Community

"Not many hearing people realize Deaf people have to fight for access on a daily basis."

by The Editor & Chad Taylor on October 28th, 2014

We sat down with Chad Taylor, Queen Bee (aka president) and founder of Linguabee – a Web-based interpreter marketplace – to discuss making tech events accessible, universal design and new technologies changing the way Deaf people interact with each other and the world.

Photo of Chad Taylor.

In general, how do you feel the tech community is doing as far as inclusion of the Deaf community?

We are rarely included. We have to raise our hand and often beg for access if we want to attend events. Just by asking, it comes with guilt and shame because we are then reminded of how expensive access can be – especially when it comes to ASL interpreters. It becomes a catch-22 situation for those of us in the tech community. If we don’t ask for accommodations, we end up losing access to valuable information. If we do ask for accommodations, we are subject to grunts and even disgust: “Oh we have a small budget. They are asking for too much.” So you can imagine why we lose out in interviews; many companies believe it’s too costly to hire Deaf persons, despite what we have to offer. We are a burden because accessibility wasn’t a part of the bigger picture in the first place.

Not many hearing people realize Deaf people have to fight for access on a daily basis. Simply being interested in going to an event or workshop can lead to hours of begging the organizers for ASL interpreters, captioning services, or other tools for access. We are often told it’s not in the budget – in other words – we are too expensive and our presence is not desired.

Here’s an actual story with Twitter Small Business. They were hosting an event called Ignite Marketing Success at the Twitter Headquarters. Some of us registered and got into the event with limited seating. We couldn’t figure out how to contact the organizers to talk about ASL interpreters, so we went ahead and made our request public through Twitter. Frankly, this was awkward on our part because we didn’t want to come across as demanding. @TwitterSmallBiz was quick to respond to our request and asked that we follow them so they could DM us.

Here’s how our conversation turned out:

TwitterSmallBiz: Hi, in regards to your request, we don’t provide this service at our events. However, we can provide the presentation with speaker notes.

Me: Appreciate the offer but presentation notes is not equal access. Can we work together to provide equal access to Deaf people? Workshop is for public, for all, and unlike a foreign language speaker who can learn English, I can’t learn to hear :)

TwitterSmallBiz: We are limited in our resources so do you have suggestions on how to provide this service.

Me: Understand. As an individual, I have far less resources :) Interpreting for 2.5 hrs costs appx $300-400. More n more deaf in tech world. If you can provide equal access in the event, we will sing your praises :) Good PR? Deaf in tech is such a uphill battle getting access. Would love to see Twitter on our side.

[… a good while later …]

TwitterSmallBiz: We are in the process of finding an ASL interpreter for the event. Thanks for reaching out.

Me: Great. Much appreciated. There will be about 5 deaf people attending. Please let us know if you would like help finding an interpreter. 

So, there was a happy ending here. But as you can imagine, doing this for every single event or networking opportunity gets exhausting. We’d love to simply RSVP and let them know we need ASL interpreters – and not worry about coming across as a pain in the ass.

Inclusion goes beyond simply providing accessibility, but it has to start there to level the playing field.

What are the major considerations event organizers need to keep in mind when designing their events to be accessible to the Deaf community?

First, budget for accessibility. Make it a line item every time, whether someone asks for it or not. When organizing an event, we all have to pay for flyers, sound systems, venues, food, and so on…. include accessibility in this list. Make it second nature.

Ensure the venue has appropriate lighting and spacing for ASL interpreters to work. Designate a spot for Deaf people where the speakers and interpreters are clearly visible. Have your greeters be comfortable with approaching Deaf attendants and showing them where the interpreters are.

With more accessible events, event organizers should be able to create contacts with Deaf people in tech and be able to reach out for future events. We also urge event organizations to include considerations for other disabled groups when creating accessible events.

What technologies can be used to make events more accessible to Deaf attendees?

The Linguabee home page, which says 'Keep the conversation going' and has a link to request interpreters.

Technology has changed the way Deaf people interact with each other and the world. We now have access to CART real-time captioning services, ASL interpreters through video relay, and on-line requesting services like Linguabee! We’re starting to see more ASL interpreters using FaceTime to provide virtual interpreting services.

We started Linguabee because of many stories shared in the community of outrageous interpreting costs preventing Deaf people from participating in their fields of interest. One of our founders, Patrick, is an avid mountain biker and he wanted to take a specific first-aid class. In exploring how to pay for ASL interpreters, he was shocked at how much agencies cost and how difficult it was to reach out to freelance interpreters who may be interested in the job. He knew there had to be a better way for the Deaf community to connect directly with available freelance interpreters and a better way to negotiate pricing. He brought this idea up with me — I’m a website and software developer — and from there, Linguabee was born. Now people can easily access ASL interpreters online without the agency mark-ups and communicate directly with both Deaf people and ASL interpreters.

Through Linguabee, you can seek out interpreters who are well-versed in technology and your Deaf attendees can choose their own interpreters if they wish. We want to banish the days of showing up at events, crossing our fingers, and hoping whoever shows up to interpret is halfway decent. Most event organizers don’t know any better and interpreting agencies care mostly about filling jobs rather than the quality of service. Technology like this allows us to cut out the middleman, cut out excessive mark-ups, and make everyone a part of the community.

What are some ways organizers can make sure that interpreters at their events are successful?

One feature of Linguabee is allowing the organizers to share transcripts, presentations, and other key pieces of information with the interpreters and/or Deaf attendees in advance.

Keep in mind that anything that requires continuous interpreting such as speeches or stage performances will also require a team of interpreters. Factor this into your budget. No one wants to see our excellent interpreters (and developers for that matter!) drop out with carpal tunnel syndrome. Linguabee also allows team interpreters to connect before assignments to prepare. Again, the idea is for events to be beneficial to all involved, rather than just providing the minimal amount for access.

Communication is a key part of successful events and accessibility practices. What communications best-practices should event organizers follow?

On your flyers or announcements, announce that your event will be accessible and ASL interpreters can be available. Be prepared to seek out interpreters who are qualified and knowledgeable about the subject matter. Provide a specific contact person and deadline to make it easy for Deaf persons to RSVP and request an interpreter.

Have presenters meet with ASL interpreters beforehand to prepare, and be aware of potential lag times during the interpreting process.

Above all, don’t come into planning accessible events with a sense of pity or contempt— we can feel it. Make it a normal part of planning events, and you will benefit from a wider diversity of attendees.

Further Reading from Chad Taylor: Love being Deaf.