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The Challenge

I’m a lip-reading scientist: here’s how I can discuss science with you

By The Challenge

Supporting deaf and hard-of-hearing researchers requires thought and planning from colleagues, but science benefits greatly, says Denis Meuthen.

In 1986, when I was 18 months old, paediatricians told my parents that I had profound hearing loss and would remain unable to speak, and that I’d have to spend my life living in an institution for disabled people. But even at this young age, academia affected my life. Instead of accepting this prediction, my father, Ingo Meuthen, a haematologist and oncologist, found international publications that described how to train children like me to lip read and speak. Thus, instead of learning sign language, I eventually became able to lip-read and speak both German and English.

Many disabled children face rejection by the general populace. This can motivate them to work particularly hard to gain acceptance and acknowledgement later in their life1. My primary-school teachers, for example, warned my parents that my disability meant I was unsuitable for higher education. But, thanks to my parents’ support and my reliance on textbooks over teachers, I graduated from the University of Bonn, Germany, with a degree in biology. Immediately afterwards, I remained at the university to pursue a PhD in evolutionary ecology with a focus on phenotypic plasticity, while intermittently working at odd jobs outside academia, such as writing for newspapers and taking part in science communication through public exhibitions.

My applications for jobs outside academia are regularly met with disdain by interviewers after they realize that I can’t take phone calls. This is never an issue in academia (see ‘Tips for supporting hearing-impaired scientists’) — I find my colleagues readily adopt alternative methods of communication, such as writing text messages or speaking face-to-face so that I can lip read.

The keen visual perception that partly compensates for my hearing impairment meant I gravitated towards observing animal behaviour in my academic studies. Evolutionary ecologist Theo Bakker, my PhD supervisor, and his student Timo Thünken used one-on-one communication to mentor me. They sometimes wrote down words that were difficult to lip read.

Some parts of academia are less inviting for lip readers like me. If unaddressed, these can become a bottleneck in the careers of hearing-impaired researchers2, and thereby constrain the academic diversity that benefits science.

Group-meeting issues

Regular group meetings, meant to foster scientific exchange, are still a challenge for me. I can’t follow discussions with frequent switches between speakers. It helps that nobody judges my performance or expects me to be fully informed afterwards.

Supervisors of hearing-impaired researchers can compensate for this problem by designating someone to take meeting minutes and e-mail them shortly afterwards. After earning my PhD, I took on a postdoctoral position at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. Here, I learnt that it is harder to lip-read native English speakers than those who had learnt it as a second language, perhaps because the latter had invested more time into consciously learning pronunciation. However, the welcoming nature of my supervisors, evolutionary ecologists Douglas Chivers and Maud Ferrari, was not spoilt by this fact, and the academic freedom they gave me allowed me to perform a large-scale research project on how the environment that parents live in affects the development of their offspring.

I’m always fulfilled by teaching and mentoring students, but classes in which students consecutively present their work to develop their scientific communication skills are more challenging for me. That is because lip-reading is a mentally strenuous activity. In such classes, having additional teaching staff on hand to intermittently take over while I recover is helpful.

Both attending and presenting at conferences, at which attendees are expected to follow conversations across large auditoria, are another challenge. Lip-reading over long distances is impossible. At first, I avoided giving talks and instead chose poster presentations to present my research; in this format, personal close-up communication is the norm. Later, I learnt to inform listeners about my disability and requested that they ask questions in person following my talk. Alternatively, questioners can come to the stage, or session chairs can repeat questions while standing next to me.

As a conference attendee, even while sitting in the front row of a talk, I face difficulties in lip-reading when speakers stand far away, walk back and forth or turn their backs to the audience. It helps when session chairs remind speakers to stand close to the first row and to face the audience at all times3.

Masking and virtual comprehension

Shortly after returning to Germany to take on another postdoc position at Bielefeld University under evolutionary biologist Klaus Reinhold, the pandemic hit. Suddenly, everyone started wearing masks. This made lip reading impossible. Also, all meetings became virtual overnight. During virtual meetings, technological limitations prevent verbal comprehension by hearing-impaired researchers4.

Meeting slides containing bullet points or other written text are informative and my main means of comprehension. I often find myself lost when speakers show a series of animal photos to showcase their research while verbally conveying their findings: the slides might be beautiful, but they lack the scientific information I need. Because such non-informative slides are widely used and following scientific discussions in virtual settings is daunting owing to a host of technical challenges, I am reluctant to pay to attend meetings when I could instead spend the time on my research. At the same time, by not participating, I worry about missing out on discoveries and that my own research will become less visible to the scientific community.

Live expert transcription during virtual conferences would alleviate these issues, but it is financially challenging because the frequent set-up of meetings and how often they’re rescheduled would require on-call transcription services. My hopes for the future are pinned on further development and widespread integration of automatic captioning technology managed by artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, all of the tools I’ve tried so far haven’t been able to deal with scientific parlance effectively.

For now, I mainly engage in scientific discussion through written communication and rare one-on-one meetings without masks while following pandemic guidelines. In these uncertain and difficult times, I have no choice but to rely on the willingness of my peers to accommodate my needs and to continue their support — even when opportunities for scientific exchange are limited.

These methods of support certainly require additional effort, but, taken together, their potential pay-off is huge. Many challenges that disabled researchers have to overcome throughout their lives foster the development of above-average problem-solving capabilities with creative outside-the-box thinking, which we can share with the entire scientific community.