Interview with Adam Pottle

Voice: On Writing with Deafness

part of the University of Regina’s Writers on Writing series

RW: Your book Voice: On Writing with Deafness is rich with insights—not only about writing but about how your deafness influenced your writing path. As a book editor and a caption editor, I found myself nodding in agreement and recognition frequently.

AP: Thank you, Vanessa. It was a different and, at times, difficult book to write, so I’m happy to read your positive reaction.

RW: I’ve been taking American Sign Language classes for 18 months now, and between school and Deaf social events, I’m learning a lot about Deaf culture—albeit as a hearing person. But even though I know about De’VIA and try to support Deaf talent and so on, I think your book was the first time I’d come across someone speaking about Deaf culture with a sense of nationhood and citizenship. To you, is this a regional thing (e.g., in our case, a relationship with Deaf Canadians) or is it an international state (different sign languages aside)?

AP: Deaf communities are polymorphic. They include so many different dialects and iterations, yet Deaf people around the world unite through the common goal of accessibility and linguistic beauty. While individual dialects and languages may differ, the need to use Sign doesn’t. I’m not sure if nation is the right word, because Deafness extends beyond borders. Nations are divided and divisible. Deafness is not regional or geographical. It’s not bound in one type of body or one specific area of the world. It’s sensual. It’s physical. It’s linguistic. It’s cultural. Deaf communities possess a unique and beautiful character, and Deaf people use their language and their imaginations to eliminate divisions and create connections.

RW: You mention having varying degrees of control, focus, and effort but also being imaginative and creative. You say you’re straddling the hearing and Deaf worlds. And you talk about constructing boundaries, a bivouac, around yourself when writing, in an attempt to ignore outside distractions. Do you think all writers struggle with personal dichotomies and opposing forces, or are they more pronounced for you as a Deaf writer?

AP: All writers of conscience struggle with different forces. Whatever struggles I have are no more pronounced than any other writer’s. The only thing that separates me from most other writers is the way my deafness has calibrated my imagination and the way I think.

RW: The power and interiority of voice feature prominently in your discussion. But so does the role of silence, both as a muse perhaps and as a sociological trigger for discomfort. I laughed when the section on silence listed all the noises that bombard us and ended with “Not to mention fucking people.” I have hyperacusis, and my audiologist chastised me not to isolate myself from noise, but I admit I’m paradoxically uncomfortable with total silence when I’m alone. I agree with you that it can be sacred, but what is it with us and silence? Are we just too afraid of hearing a still small voice? Why can you embrace it for imagination and growth through writing, but people like me, a non-writer, eschew it?

AP: Most of us are afraid of silence because we don’t want to hear that little voice. I’m more comfortable with it by virtue of my occupation and my physiological makeup. My interior voice and I have a strong relationship. I work at it. Most writers work hard at it, I think. I can embrace it because I know what the end product looks like—if I listen to my inner voice, I’m better able to connect with people and ask questions that trigger my imagination and allow me to write stories. That voice is always yammering, questioning, barking. The inner voice is always curious.

The majority of people—especially hearing people—hate silence. They can’t be alone with their thoughts because they’re worried where their thoughts may lead. God forbid they experience a little self-discovery, so they turn to their phones or their computers or their video games. They need to be distracted. And the really frightening thing is that distractions are probably the biggest industry going right now. We love being distracted. People in power love it when we’re distracted because distracted people are easier to govern and manipulate. I’m hyperaware of distractions. We’re in an election year here in Canada, so we’ll have to watch for distractions leading up to October so we don’t end up with Trump 2.0 at 24 Sussex Drive.

RW: You write unflinchingly about suicide, self-harm, euthanasia of the disabled, anxiety, and other things that loads of writers wouldn’t put out there. So congrats on that: it’s really important that we normalize these conversations and own them honestly, as opposed to worrying about squeaky-clean branding.

But I want to bring up another wave of contention (especially in online forums): ableism. You talk about the artistic trope of the self-hating disabled person, disability–inspiration porn posts, and the absence of front-and-centre disability in Canadian (every country’s?) literature, which your PhD thesis addressed. We probably all unintentionally step on some toes with our ableist attitudes sometimes, whether a product of our socialization or our hurried and unthinking society. Aside from seeing the Deaf or disabled or other minorities better and more frequently represented in fiction, the arts, and cultural content, what else do we need to do to educate ableism away? Would writing about it more be effective because we spend a longer time in the consumption of words than we do on a streamed show, for example? I feel like writing would be a powerful vehicle for changing these world views.

AP: We need to recognize that most of us have internalized ableism, and we need to listen to Deaf and disabled people rather than dismissing them. Even in issues as simple as installing ramps, able people think they know better. Able people need to listen to their inner voices and ask, “Do I really know what is best for these people, even though I have no idea what it’s like to live as a Deaf or disabled person?” Pardon me for being crude, but able people need to unfuck themselves, shut the fuck up, and fucking listen.

[Vanessa applauding]

AP: I like your question about what is most effective. Written forms such as books and articles and essays are crucial. With streaming services like Netflix and Crave, films and television shows have become bonbons. We gobble them up, then forget about them. More films and television shows are being produced now than ever before because the demand for content—that is, distractions!—has never been higher. But they’re also more evanescent than ever before. They are much more liable to fade. Back when television had three channels, everyone was watching the same thing, and those shows lived on—and still live on—in people’s memories forever.

At the same time, these mediums reach millions of people, and if you produce it well and show people something they’ve never seen before, they’ll remember it, they’ll absorb its message. Hannah Gadsby’s comedy show Nanette is a great example because she deconstructs the foundations of comedy while she’s making people laugh. She delivers hard truths in that show, things that we need to hear. I remember my jaw dropping open when I first saw her show, then going back immediately and rewatching the important parts and screaming, “Yes, Hannah! You’re fuckin’ right!” She made me question many of my own experiences. Most shows on Netflix don’t do that, but hers did. She’s brilliant.

So the question becomes: How can you market books the way the Netflix markets Stranger Things? That is, as crucial information disguised as a distraction?

It’s a difficult question, a difficult issue. Writing is only as powerful as the people who read and absorb it. It’s a tough time to be a writer because there are now so many of us, and so many distractions, and we’re all clamouring to be heard, and we all deserve to be heard, but nobody gets heard equally, and some aren’t heard at all. There’s only so much time for reading and thinking, and none of us have anywhere near enough time. I can only create to the best of my ability and trust my perspective and my instinct as things that might help me stand out.

RW: Obviously, I was super interested in your take on captions and subtitles! You talk about the barriers they create as well as the doors they open for entertainment, personal, and professional situations. Can I say something a bit heretical here? As much as I advocate for access to and excellence in captioning, I sort of feel like captioning—even more than the broader term accessibility—has become the new shingle that everyone is hanging out to indicate how salable their product or service is. It’s like the feel-good sticker we can easily apply because YouTube autocaptions <insert eyeroll>. If I see one more person recommend a list of companies that produce less-than-stellar captions (and I know because I paid to test it out)… My takeaway from your writing is that, after improved access, your appreciation of captions is more aesthetic and sensual—as you say, synesthetic. But then, you certainly told it like it was with the dissertation defences and the book-festival experiences. How are you feeling about the State of the Caption and, for want of a better word, the politics of captioning right now?

AP: Captions are useful, but like all accessibility tech, they need improvement. People who don’t use captions are often the ones who take the most pride in them: “Look! Look what we have here!” But it’s not a catch-all. It’s a stepping stone. I see a lot of horror movies, and the captioning machine I use at the movie theatre always gives me a headache for the first fifteen minutes. Those little green letters, that long adjustable arm. We need open captions, but because hearing people bitch about them, we don’t get them. The one really helpful thing about these captioning machines is that they’re shaped like maces. The end is really heavy, so if any hearing punk gives me guff, I can beat him to death with it.

RW: Bahaha! And I know what you mean. I wrote about my experience using CaptiView and other assistive tech at the cinema.

AP: I feel like there’s an untapped artistic potential in captions. I was at the Saskatchewan Festival of Words last year, and I had a remote captionist typing from an undisclosed location. Who knows—it could’ve been a serial killer. Anyway, I was in a playful mood, and I said to the captionist, “We should take the captions and mix them up into a poem or something,” and the captionist typed, “Good idea.” Imagine that—watching TV or something and taking captions that are unique—like sound descriptions, or captions where the typist made an error, and combining them all into a long poem. It’d be the next Waste Land.

RW: I love that idea!

AP: But things need to improve. We’re a long way from equitable access. It goes back to ableism: as long as able people think they know better, and as long as they believe their needs are more important, and as long as they’re unwilling to relax their tight little egos, we won’t have the full access we need.

RW: My grandfather homesteaded out West, and my mum grew up in Saskatoon; prairie people are stalwart, perhaps necessarily so. I thought Voice was honest, rattling, and uplifting: very apt for your geographical home. There are insights in it that I’d like to include in my caption editing course because I think hearing about form and function is more effective when it’s given a face—or rather, a voice. Thank you so much for sharing about your writing and how it intertwines with your experiences. It makes a great read for students of writing or accessibility studies, folks in the Deaf community, and the general public.

AP: Thank you, Vanessa. I tried to be as honest as possible when writing the book. And yes, we have to be stalwart when it’s forty below without the windchill.

I’m not sure I agree that most prairie people are honest, though. Prairie people are, by and large, conservative, which means they hide. They hide their insecurities or cast them onto other people. They don’t like talking or rocking the boat—unless of course they’re publicly fantasizing about killing Justin Trudeau or murdering Indigenous people. Many writers on the prairies, such as Tenille Campbell, Louise Bernice Halfe, David Carpenter, Joanne Weber, Anne Lazurko, Brenda Schmidt, and Iryn Tushabe, are all doing crucial work to show prairie people (and really all people) how to be more open, how to be less afraid. I hope my book helps with that. I hope it helps by showing people—especially people who seldom get the chance to express themselves—that their voices are crucial and that what may be perceived as a vulnerability—whether it’s Deafness, mental illness, or disability—may actually be a source of strength.

Adam’s book is on sale as of March 2 through the University of Regina Press and other outlets.

Author photo by Deborah Popovici. Reproduced with permission.

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“Captions Connect People”: Personalizing the Call for No More Craptions!

A cropped closeup colour photo of closed captions on a screen, the text being cut off to prevent understanding a sentence.

Guest Post by Chelsea MacLeod

Do you find craptions funny? Think closed captioning is only for “a few deaf people”? Read what one woman has to say about captions and why they need to be clear and accurate. The changes in her hearing may not be obvious to outsiders, but she depends on captions to engage in the wider world. And although her attitude is positive, she and the other perhaps 10% of North Americans who are hard of hearing or deaf still struggle with alienation, isolation, and missing out on art, culture and communication. Here is Chelsea MacLeod’s story. In the last section, I’ve highlighted her feelings. As an advocate for excellence in closed captioning and subtitling, I’m baffled as to why the Canadian government has failed to enforce the high standards that are legislated and why it has only paid lip service to the deaf/Deaf/hard of hearing. Calls for better quality have been made for 30 years! Accessibility through excellent captions is not an expensive frill: it’s a right that can be addressed and planned for in the post-production budget.

 

If captions are unavailable, I usually pass on participating.

I began to notice a significant change in my physicality and level of hearing in 1996.

I was at an Edmonton Oiler playoff hockey game. We were sitting in the nosebleeds, two rows from the very top. In Edmonton, hockey is extremely popular—it is like the life blood of the city—and the home team was winning. Describing the crowd as wild is a gross understatement. The whole place was electric, in a way that was beyond merely sound. It was an intensely energetic experience, in that I realized I was feeling sound in addition to hearing it. (This is difficult to explain, but I believe this was the beginning of an almost heightened sensory awareness.)

Each time they scored, the noise in the arena was literally deafening. I remember a pop or some kind of release occurring in my right ear over the course of the game, but I didn’t think too much of it. By the time it was over, I was so dizzy and nauseous that I could barely walk out of the arena on my own.

I had no idea what was happening to me. I spent the rest of the night and the next day unable to get off the couch. My whole world was spinning. I couldn’t really ground myself to determine what was up or down. This was my first experience with vertigo and the symptoms of Ménières disease, although I wasn’t aware of it as such at that time.

After a few days, the physical sensations passed, and I went on to normal life. I had periods of experiencing the vertigo off and on again, but I chalked it up to a heavy school and work schedule and simply tried to get more rest to mitigate the symptoms. In short, I was a graduate student with a part-time teaching schedule and various odd jobs, and I was living on coffee and convenient foods. In retrospect, I can safely say my nervous system was completely shot.

Fast forward, almost ten years later. In 2003, I gave birth my daughter. It was a joyous occasion despite a difficult labour and an emergency C-section. Again, I suppose my entire physical system was stretched to the limit. I developed a bad infection in the hospital and required large doses of antibiotics. My recovery period was slow and steady, but I had Chloe, and we just spent our days together getting to know each other with feedings and regular nap times.

Pretty early on, I realized that if I was sleeping on my left side, I wasn’t able to hear her when she was crying. I began a series of testing at a Rehabilitative Hospital in Edmonton where they not only tested my hearing levels but also my balance, coordination, etc.

The diagnosis was Ménières disease. I had 20% hearing ability in my right ear. My left ear also showed some damage, but it was relatively minor. 

At the time, they presented a few options I could pursue that required more antibiotics and invasive surgery. I declined and opted to see what I could do to treat the symptoms naturally. I began an acupuncture and herbal-medicine protocol. I did not notice any changes to my hearing levels, but I did begin to see the effects of addressing certain aspects of my nervous system by way of meditation, diet, and increased relaxation. This seemed to keep the Ménières at bay, but if it got really bad, there was nothing I could do but surrender to it, lie down, and be with my body until the symptoms subsided.

In terms of hearing loss, this is when I began a process of learning to adapt and manage the changes to my hearing levels. I began to lip read pretty naturally. I would turn my head to position my left ear to a speaker or to any sound. I began to listen to music with headphones to direct the sound more effectively. I also began to use closed captions when watching anything. If there were no captions, chances were I wouldn’t be able to watch it. This included going to movies.

During this time, I contemplated hearing aids but felt like I was managing all right without them, and so I decided against it.

Funnily enough, at Christmas 2013, my dad made me promise that I would get some hearing aids. It had always really bothered him that I wasn’t able to hear fully. I put it off for a while and then felt badly that I was not honouring my promise to him, and I booked an appointment at the Canadian Hearing Society. I went in for another round of testing, and it was revealed that I had progressively lost more hearing in my good ear.

I signed up for a pair of hearing aids immediately and, needless to say, they opened up the world to me. I really have my father to thank, as he was the catalyst. Incidentally, the sensory input of sound was so profound to my system that it took almost a full month until I was able to wear the hearing aids all day long. It was like I had to go in stages in order to condition my ears to all the sounds they were able to hear again.

One day in 2015, my partner and I were downtown at rush hour, standing on the sidewalk. I started to feel my balance go; I got shaky and began to hear electrical currents all around me. It was like I was hearing sound emitting from street lights and the air itself. By the time we were in a taxi, I could barely hear anything. My hearing aids could not keep up. It coincided with another Ménières episode, and I thought my hearing might return if I rested. However, after 24 hours, there was no change. I booked in to my audiologist immediately for more testing and to amplify my hearing aids. Without my hearing aids, I was pretty much stone cold deaf. But even with them, I could barely manage daily life.

Also during this time, I saw more doctors, naturopaths, and herbalists. I even underwent hyperbaric oxygen treatment because I had read that, for acute hearing loss, high amounts oxygen could restore hearing loss if it was done right away, as soon as possible after the traumatic event.

The hearing tests revealed that my left ear had less than 20% hearing ability. My right ear had also decreased slightly in ability, but it was now my dominant ear. I remember thinking of the irony of all those years I had referred to my right ear as my bad ear. Now it’s my good ear. From then on, I made a commitment to myself to refrain from talking about my body negatively in any way. I just decided both my ears were good and that they were doing the best they could. 

About a year after that, I began to notice I had become quite isolated, as meeting up with people, socially in restaurants or anywhere it was even slightly noisy, was pretty much out of the question. I think I didn’t notice it so much because I am blessed with a really supportive family and I have a busy and full life. All the same, I felt a need to connect with others and to be comfortable with who I was becoming without feeling shy or like I couldn’t keep up with conversation.

That’s the main reason I wanted to take up ASL. I felt like cultivating a community that was not hearing dependent—where I could communicate freely with others and learn to express myself in a visual way.

As I have progressively lost the sense of hearing, visual communication has heightened and taken precedence. And this brings me to the crucial role of closed captioning in my ability to experience the world around me. I use captioning on every type of media I can. If captions are unavailable, I usually pass on participating. Captions are my way of accessing vital information, art, culture and entertainment.

 

Captions that can’t keep up or that are garbled or inaccurate don’t serve anyone.

 

 

They not only distort the story or message that is being conveyed but also alienate anyone who requires them to receive information. This includes not just words but also sound experiences like laughter or a doorbell chime.

Sensitivity to captioning is the same as having sensitivity to written or oral language. How it is intended to be received by an audience is as important as translation, in order to accurately communicate anything from feelings and ideas to concepts and current events. Captions connect people. They engage a sense of belonging to the wider world and, when done well, captions have the potential to inspire a variety of interests and curiosities, not only those of the deaf and hard of hearing community.

 

While I’ve had hearing issues (Ménières disease, hyperacusis, and tinnitus) for about 30 years and do a fair bit of lip reading in noisy environments, I wanted to share the emotional and practical impacts of craptions and captions on someone with more hearing loss than me. I met Chelsea at the Canadian Hearing Society where we study ASL, and I'm grateful to her for being willing to share her story as a guest post for Reel Words.

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“Good Enough” Captions Aren’t

I recently watched an amateur video about DIY captions. The fellow who made it was earnest, trying to make it easy for the average person to create captions, and I'm sure he meant well. But then he said that although they wouldn't be perfect, they'd be "good enough."

Granted, he was referring to fansubbing movies (which is a topic for another time), but I get the sense that this is a common attitude of the hearing world towards captioning for the accessibility purposes. Would blue and purple traffic lights be good enough? How about food with just a bit of salmonella? I know I wouldn't want to buy a tire with a slow leak.

Captions are used by the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing (Deaf/HoH), second-language learners, university students as study aids, people in sound-sensitive environments, and many other folks.

Many countries, provinces and states have legislated that media must provide video material that is accessible and that captioning be of excellent quality. It's not optional. But very rarely do I see closed captions that meet the required standards.*

Some producers of video rely on automated captioning services or, if they have "the budget for it," a closed-captioning provider. But the latter do not have trained professionals copy editing the files and/or they often don't understand the specialized editing required to meet the accessibility standards needed for users. Anybody can transcribe audio. But caption text has to be rendered readable by humans in 2-second chunks. And by readable, I mean comprehensible so that the entire video context is taken in with ease and appreciation for the content. But that's not what’s getting churned out. (See my opinion about video-on-demand services here.)

I'm tired of "good enough." I'm frustrated by reading about craptions being doled out to the Deaf/HoH. I'm fed up with empty promises about the delivery of accessibility.

When are the Deaf/HoH going to get the quality of captioning they're legally (and morally) entitled to? Why is "good enough" the status quo?

I've written many articles and posts about why captions and subtitles require not just proofreading but copy editing, just as the printed word does. (You can read them here to learn more about the nuts and bolts.) But I'm increasingly interested in making some noise about cranking up the demand for #NoMoreCraptions! As someone who appreciates closed captions (and may later need them more), I am no longer willing to let this slide.

“Captioning should not look like throwing magnetic letters on a fridge.”**

And yet, that's what the CC setting on our screens usually generates because (seemingly) providers don't think the Deaf/HoH are worth the expense of creating high-quality, copy-edited captions. Like other areas being bandaided because of a lack of enforcement or true dedication to creating accessibility (e.g. the wonderful but shamefully needed food banks, Stopgap Foundation, etc.), unedited captions are generally of such poor quality that they're useless and watching TV, movies, etc. is often given up on.** And saying there isn't money for quality captioning comes from an outlook of discrimination.

It's also uninformed. Budgeting for this aspect of production and distribution does not have to be expensive. If absolutely necessary, fine—use automated captioning in some form of AVR (automatic voice recognition). But then turn the rough copy over to a professional to be perfected. It's like writers who say they can't afford any professional editing or proofreading but then complain that no one bought their book: if its content isn't edited properly, readers aren't going to want to slog through it.

Until governments enforce the standards they've promised on paper so that the digital files are accompanied by high-quality captioning, they're short-changing the Deaf/HoH of their right to a huge part of full engagement in modern cultural content.

I'm not. . .er. . .crapping on the DIYer per se. I'm saying his comment is exemplary of the attitude society has towards people needing captioning: if you're not a hearing person, you can just make do with good enough. (And that's audism.)

#NoMoreCraptions!

 

 

*Canada's 2016 CRTC policy can be found here.

**Unattributed comments from CRTC 2008 Stakeholder Consultations on Accessibility Issues for Persons with Disabilities.

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