Dr. Kathleen Champlin, a PhD in Contemporary American Literature, provides an example of a disabled PhD's career transition in the humanities. She shares with us how her disability impacted her academic and professional paths and how she was able to overcome the barriers.
Kathleen Champlin graduated with a doctorate in Contemporary American Literature from Ball State University in Indiana (USA) in 2015. Currently, she is an online writing tutor with Pearson's Smarthinking and a copyeditor for several companies.
In this episode, Kathleen will provide an example of a disabled PhD's career transition in the humanities. From her story, you can learn how her disability impacted her academic and professional paths and how she was able to overcome the many barriers that came up along the way.
Kathleen will also share how her love for the written word has been a driving force throughout her journey and how she hopes to contribute to a world without ability barriers.
My name is Kate Champlin. I have a PhD in literature from Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, USA. I’ve trained in online college teaching, but I’m currently an online writing tutor and copyeditor. My story is unusual for two reasons: I’m changing careers post-PhD and when I went to graduate school, I was already deaf.
A little background: I started losing my hearing when I was around 18 and lost it completely when I was 24. I’ve got a genetic disorder that makes benign tumors grow (among other places) on both hearing nerves. I was diagnosed in the summer before I started college. I went through about 6 years of college as a person with progressively worse hearing loss and 7 more years of college classes and dissertation work as a deaf person. I also started my first real career search 5 years after I went deaf. My previous jobs had either been assistantships from the colleges that I attended or jobs that I had as a teenager. American Sign Language is a common language in the USA and Canada. I’ve taken classes in it, but I never really learned the language. My preference is written English.
Meanwhile, I’ve always loved English literature classes. I took advanced English classes in high school and signed up as an English major without hesitation when I first went to college. After my senior year, I was invited to teach and earn a Master’s degree at Pittsburg State University. I enjoyed teaching, and I realized that I wanted to teach college classes professionally. I needed a PhD to teach college classes so, at that point, a PhD seemed like the natural next step on my career path. At the time, I’d known for several years that I’d eventually lose my hearing and, by the time I enrolled at Pittsburg State, I knew I was going to lose my hearing within the next couple of years. I reached out and asked several people if I’d be able to teach online classes when I had my doctorate. They all told me that online classes were the future of education, and that there would be a market for online teachers by the time that I got my degree. Unfortunately, the prediction turned out to only be sort of true. I’ll discuss that more when I talk about my career change.
People ask me how I overcame my disability but, the truth is, I have no choice. This is the body and the life that I have, and I have to live the best life that I can with them. I’ve had support from my family, the schools where I studied, and many people that I’ve met professionally, and that’s been wonderful. I’ve had the opportunity to join the workforce after I went deaf, and that made my survival possible.
My first experiences at college were interesting, and my disability only added a little bit of difficulty. I had fairly normal hearing for my first four years of college. For my last two years as a hard-of-hearing person, someone hooked me up with CART captioning, a system where a court reporter listens to classes or conversations and types them on a computer screen. It can either be done remotely through the internet or the reporter can attend the class. I used the first method while I earned my master’s degree and the second method while I got my PhD. There have been times when the equipment or something else failed. One of my captionists got a computer virus an hour before one of my classes, and I had to miss the class. One of my teachers told me that she didn’t want the captioning to disrupt her classes, and I took that as a sign that she didn’t want me in her class at all. So, when she did things like walk away from the CART microphone to write on the chalkboard – which was her way of trying to help me but which actually made it harder for the captionist to hear her – I didn’t say anything because I didn’t think she cared whether I could understand the lectures or not. It took us months to straighten that out. Never talk about disruptions with a disabled student or a disabled client. Ask them what they need instead. In the unlikely event that there ever is a disruption, you can discuss that with them later.
After I went completely deaf, I continued to use CART captioning in my classes. My teachers at Ball State were great about this and also great about making sure that I understood. We’d have entire conferences where I spoke and they typed whatever they needed to say. I also had conversations with people who wrote down their half of the conversation in a notebook. Nevertheless, my biggest problem was isolation. I’d attend workshops and miss out on group conversations or encounter people who were intimidated. People would say “I wish I could talk to you” in the middle of conversations. I also taught online classes (English composition) because I had trouble communicating with the students through CART captioning. There was a slight delay to the captions, so I was interrupting students to ask if there were responses. It got to be a real barrier and online classes eliminated that.
When I went on the market, things got really interesting. After I graduated, I wasn’t eligible for CART, and CART is very expensive. Suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t sure how to request accommodations from people who hadn’t already agreed to work with me. I tried using the notebook face-to-face, and people took that as a sign that I could only teach online classes (which was true but limited my career search). I had phone interviews, and people would get nervous because of the pauses for the captions. I could tell, because I noticed them talking more to fill the silences. I already had one part-time job at that point, but I was afraid that no one else would hire me. All in all, I think many people let the verbal communication barrier become more of a problem than it needs to be. They assume that because I have to ask for clarification or I’m slow to answer, I don’t know the information that they asked for – and that is not the case. I’m fully trained in English, in disability studies (the topic of my dissertation), and in teaching. There is a communication barrier and, because of it, I sometimes let myself sound less confident than I should. I know that people take slow speech and lack of confidence as signals but, if they look around the signals, they find my expertise and my work ethic. That’s true about my value, and it’s true about a lot of other people on the job market with communication issues.
I eventually learned to look for the employers who are willing to do unusual things because of my needs. My audio and captions actually failed in an online interview once. It turned out that, in addition to the problem with the captions, my computer had muted itself without my permission. I ended up speaking my half of the interview while the other person typed their questions. I really, really appreciated their flexibility. I’ve also learned to get people I know to recommend other contacts. A job counselor told me that if you can take people through a typical day, they’ll understand that you can do the job in spite of the communication barriers. He also noted that we (personally, in that conference) didn’t have any communication issues, but that’s because of really great translation software that I recently found on the internet. Finding technical ways to remove barriers is not a perfect solution. Finding people who are open to the idea of disabled employees is.
At the moment, I’m planning a slight career change. Although I enjoyed online teaching, there are budget cuts throughout the college teaching market (at least in the US). I’m not the only one who’s had trouble finding a niche in that market, and communication in the classroom would still be a barrier. Many schools in the US also won’t hire teachers to teach only online classes, and I hadn’t anticipated that when I started my PhD. I found a job as a writing tutor through one of the websites where higher education jobs are posted. That was the job I got before I got my PhD. The tutoring company is owned by a producer of college textbooks, and it’s a lot like working in a college writing center – except that it’s online. So far, it has lasted longer than many contract jobs teaching online classes do in the US. We’re also international. The company has contracts with a few colleges in Australia/New Zealand, at least one college in Canada, and at least one college in the Caribbean.
I find that fascinating, because I grew up in the years before the internet really existed. There really is a global community online now, and it includes amazing possibilities both for hearing people and for deaf people. American Sign Language users can contact each other through Zoom and sign to each other remotely – instead of relying on written communication. People who prefer written English, like me, can send messages through email and also contact people all over the world. Programs like Google Meet include captions, so I can do face-to-face meetings through them. I also recently found a very useful speech-to-text translation software online. It’s called AVA. I use that in programs like Zoom that don’t always generate their own captions and also carry a copy on my phone. It allows me to participate in face-to-face conversations even in daily life. All that took was someone who understood computer coding and understood accommodations. I’ve read that the software was created by a child of deaf adults. They knew coding and also knew about a community need. There are also more remote jobs opening up, along with more chances to contact companies across geographic lines. I look forward to exploring that more in the future. In fact, I’m already beginning to, since the jobs that I’ll mention are all remote and are in very different areas of the US.
In 2020, I applied for a remote internship with an education company based in Georgia (in the southeast USA). The company creates teacher education courses aimed at elementary, middle, or high school teachers – about things like virtual (Zoom) field trips and building robots in the classroom. The idea is that the teachers learn those skills and pass them on to their students. It was unpaid, but it offered practice at social media marketing and more practice at curriculum design. I really wanted that. I ended up proposing a course on making classes accessible for students with disabilities. My boss agreed that the topic was especially important because of the pandemic. In the US, most classes were moving online, and that often meant that teachers who were unprepared to deal with online classes had to manage them anyway. I saw some news stories about students with certain disabilities getting left behind in the mad rush to put school online. That first course led to my boss extending my contract, twice, and also paying me. Later on, since she liked my unpaid work at pointing out small issues with her online courses, she offered a contract to copyedit her first book. It was a great book about grant writing specifically for teachers. In the US, teachers often need to use their own funds to purchase classroom supplies or find funds for projects like building robots in the classroom. My boss also contracted me to check her courses when she moved them to a new website. That meant copyediting but also things like checking formatting and making sure that links worked. Some sources on the internet just vanish after a few years. Have you ever noticed?
Lately, I’ve made contact with another copyediting business in Vermont (which is in the northeastern USA) and with a foundation related to the Indiana School for the Deaf (which is in the Great Lakes region of the USA). I haven’t received any contracts from them yet but, hopefully, they will remember me when they need copyediting work. My dream job is a permanent position in publishing or a non-profit that publishes. I earned a PhD in English partly because I believe that the written word can help to change the world. I still do believe it, and I want to be part of that change – whether that means editing ground-breaking fiction or choosing ground-breaking articles for a newsletter. I look forward to working my way toward that goal.
It hasn’t always been easy. I’ve felt at sea. I’ve wondered if I would ever get a job, and I’ve also felt like the only disabled PhD out there. I wanted to tell everyone else that they aren’t alone, and I am hoping other people will reach out and share their stories. I know disabled people can have major problems both on the career market and in colleges. I’d love to see a world where disability isn’t an issue for any qualified job candidate and where all employers are willing to be flexible. That would mean people being willing to work with my need for written English, employers being willing to hire American Sign Language translators at a moment’s notice (for people whose first language is American Sign), employers automatically assuming that websites must be accessible to screen-readers [which is a software that reads the screen for blind users] etc. That’s a world totally without ability barriers. I look forward to working toward that goal too.