Worst Evening Ever

First some background:

I earned a BS in Education and Special Education, specializing in what was then called Mild Mental Retardation (MMR). I took no classes in Learning Disabilities (LD) nor did I take any classes in Emotional Disabilities (ED). My first teaching job was at a special needs school for students with various learning difficulties including MMR and LD. When I was  hired for my second teaching  job, the administration didn’t consider so much at my degree, but at my “experience” and hired me to work with LD and ED students. The administration at my third job did the same and I worked with LD students. My fourth and final teaching position was to work with LD students. Except for the first teaching job, I awoke nearly every morning with the fear that that was the day I would be exposed for the fake that I was. I was sure I was going to be told I had no business teaching children with learning disabilities, having had no official training in that field.

So it was important to me that, when I embarked on a new career after grad school where I got a masters degree in educational technology, I did something I was trained to do. Unfortunately, because I lacked the experience I was not hired at the many places I applied to be an educational technologist. The one company that offered me a job did so, believe it or not, because I’d been a special education teacher. They wanted me to quickly learn all about a new law (Section 508) that was shortly coming into effect mandating, among other things, that all electronic media offered by the government was able to be accessed by the handicapped.

I did everything I could to learn everything there was to know about this law. I never again wanted to be afraid that I’d be found out to be a fraud. I also educated others. I brought back what I learned at meetings and gave presentations to people in my office, college classes and conferences. While I never loved giving presentations, and was always nervous before giving them, I didn’t hate it too much. The audiences were usually appreciative and well-mannered.

A couple of years ago I was asked to take a look at how to make PDF files accessible. I’d worked with them years ago, and declared them to be inaccessible and suggested that HTML be used instead or along with PDF files at all times. The government agency I was working with was insistent and wanted all PDFs to be made accessible. I needed the work and was up for a challenge so I scoured the Internet, asked authority figures, read books, posted questions on email lists and bulletin boards, and picked apart various PDF files to figure out what made them work and how to make them accessible. After a number of months I felt that I knew what I was doing. I was asked to show other folks how to do this so they could help me with the huge task ahead of us — remediating existing PDFs to make them accessible for a large government website.

I talked a few people through the process, but because the work came and went and because the people working with me were assigned more important work, I kept on having to train more people, only to lose them after a month or so. I decided to write down the process so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself. I did so in blog form.

About 6 months ago someone found my blog and asked if I’d help her learn more about this, and perhaps co-present at a meeting she was setting up for an organization she was in. I’d not given a presentation for over 5 years, but was so comfortable with the process agreed to do the presentation which went over pretty well. I felt exhilarated afterward, and glad I’d found a small area of expertise.

The same woman and I arranged to give the same presentation at an accessibility group in DC this past Tuesday evening. I was nervous, but felt more prepared than I’d felt at the earlier presentation. I felt like I knew my stuff. I also knew that there were people out there who knew more than I did in the field. There are always going to be people with more knowledge on a subject — I knew that, but figured that if someone was already well-versed in the subject they wouldn’t feel the need to go.  (Although, truth be told, I did expect to see one person there who I knew was an expert in this field, but judging from his online persona, was not too worried that he’d act superior or anything. He seemed like a likable fellow.*).

The night of the meeting I arrived a couple of minutes later than I expected to and found a rapidly filling room. My co-presenter had mentioned she’d be late arriving, so I set up my laptop, but because my part of the presentation came at the end, I didn’t begin talking, except to a few people around me.

Much of the audience was blind. or had low-vision. I’d discovered this a day or so earlier and was worried about how I’d explain the steps as I demoed them on screen, but figured I’d do okay. Other people in the audience were college students, government workers and a couple of people who’d been remediating and creating accessible PDFs for some time.

My co-presenter’s talk was a little different from the one she gave in January. I was happy to see she left out the 508 stuff, since the room was full of people who already knew what 508 was all about. Since she’d begun late, I was a little concerned that my presentation was going to be cut short. As her talk went on, I mentally cut out bits from my talk in order to fit it into the time we had left. Her slides kept coming, and then I was dismayed to see she was giving the first part of my presentation. As she got into the discussion of PDFs a couple of people questioned or corrected her on what she’d said. I figured that I’d touch on those topics when I gave my talk, and clarify some things. One woman in particular seemed bent on correcting what was being said, and my co-presenter was gracious and said she was glad that woman was there.

Oh, yeah. Then the guide dog started to fart.

Finally it was my turn. I was not sure where I was going to start, but showed my slides quickly — and mentioned that my co-presenter had already discussed this or that. I got into the meat of my talk (with about 20 minutes of time left — and announcements over the loud speaker that the library was closing) and the woman in back had things to say. She said I was completely mistaken in one thing I said — even though I demoed that I did it correctly, was not sure it was necessary. Someone had a valid question about something else and the woman in back said something like, “learn to use role maps”. The next time I looked she was standing up having a conversation with another PDF expert in the room.

By this time, I knew I’d lost my audience. They were tired and the woman in back had completely undermined any semblance of expertise I had. I said, Ok. I guess I’m done. Any questions? People popped up like jack-in-the box clowns. While I put my laptop away a few people crowded around my co-presenter. No one wanted to talk to me. Why should they? I was outed as a fraud.

I did go out to dinner with a group of people from the meeting, and did what any self-respecting adult child of an alcoholic would do. I ordered and drank two glasses of wine in quick succession.

*This person did come to the presentation but was not there for my part. He is a very nice person. I am sure he thinks I have no sense of humor because I was not getting the jokes he was telling — but I was basically a nervous wreck and my sense of humor is often the first to go when I’m feeling nervous.

6 thoughts on “Worst Evening Ever

  1. For what it's worth (likely very little) you don't sound at all like a fraud to me. You sound like a self-taught expert (and even experts are unlikely to know everything). Whenever I go to conferences I am interested in how people point out the limitations in people's research. There are the aggressive and unhelpful ones who sound like the woman in your post, and then there are the ones who phrase things in such a way that the presenter isn't put down in any way but is given helpful guidance to improve their research. They are the ones I respect.

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  2. Thanks IB. It was a very bad night. Even worse than I wrote. I didn't mention the part about me probably insulting the blind man sitting next to me at dinner by asking him the best way to greet blind people.Today is the first day I've not thought about it all day (but also the first day I've not been working on PDF files all day — I guess there might be a correlation.)

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  3. That sounds absolutely awful. I was terrified of speaking in public until I went back to school at 50. That kind of experience would probably set me back quite a few years.

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