“My goal is to use my experience to help others”
PhD student Cristiano Trevisin has been hearing-impaired since childhood. He’s working to make EPFL more accessible for people facing various barriers.
On the surface, Cristiano Trevisin is just like any other young man. He likes sports, music and traveling, and he enjoys a good laugh. But his life is a little more complicated than it seems. A series of acute infections left him with hearing impairment at just 4 years old. Since then, he’s had to make adjustments in every area of his life – work, play and relationships with others – to account for his disability. “My hearing impairment is part of my identity. In one sense, it’s helped me become the person I am today,” he says. “It’s been frustrating at times, and I’ve faced extra struggles that my friends haven’t experienced. But it’s a question of survival: you have to find ways to adapt and cope with what life deals you.”
Coping is something Trevisin has done admirably. A PhD student at EPFL’s Laboratory of Ecohydrology (ECHO), within the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC), he holds a dual Master’s degree in civil and hydraulic engineering from the University of Padua and the Technical University of Denmark, which he obtained in 2020. In the final year of his Master’s program, he spent a semester on exchange at EPFL and then remained there – and more specifically, at ECHO – for a second semester to complete his Master’s project. He ended up staying at ECHO for his PhD, which he’ll complete next year with Prof. Andrea Rinaldo, winner of the 2023 Stockholm Water Prize, as his thesis supervisor. Since 2021, Trevisin has also been working with ENAC’s diversity office – a role that got him involved in the EPFL Without Barriers initiative rolled out by EPFL’s Equal Opportunity Office in 2022.
Communicating, understanding and adapting
“I’m more sensitive than most to other people’s struggles,” says Trevisin. “I often carry an underlying frustration that only people who face obstacles in life can really understand. But it’s important not to generalize, because everyone’s struggles are different. I absolutely get what hearing-impaired people are going through. But it’d be arrogant for me to say I understand what everyone is facing. I try to be sensitive to the challenges posed by disabilities other than my own. It’s about communicating and being willing to adapt and help others.”
“I often carry an underlying frustration that only people who face obstacles in life can really understand. But it’s important not to generalize, because everyone’s struggles are different.
Trevisin’s own challenges were compounded by the fact that he joined EPFL in the middle of the pandemic. “Zoom meetings can be hard for me,” he explains. “When the subtitles aren’t switched on, when the connection is poor, or when people talk over one another, it can be a real struggle to follow what’s happening if you’re hearing-impaired.”
Trevisin wears hearing aids, but they aren’t a silver bullet. To hear what people are saying clearly, he has to avoid loud environments and rely on his lip-reading skills, which he compares to reading subtitles.
How does Trevisin find life on campus now that things are back to normal? “EPFL is a great place to be,” he replies. “People are very open-minded and my colleagues have kindly made adaptations for me. But at the same time, I don’t let my hearing impairment get in the way, even when I have to give a talk or teach a class to help out my professor. I often find it stressful to tell a room of students that I’m hearing-impaired. And when someone wants to ask a question, I have to get closer to hear them clearly, and then walk back to the front to speak to the whole class. But it’s gotten easier with time. These are just some of the coping mechanisms you have to adopt.”
In his work on diversity and inclusion, Trevisin has seen first-hand the obstacles faced by people with other disabilities. For instance, the visually impaired struggle to read information unless it’s displayed in a way they can access, which is often not the case. “People with reduced mobility also face a number of physical obstacles,” he adds. “Class delegates have told me these students often struggle to take the elevator because it’s poorly signposted or hard to access. There are a lot of stairs at EPFL! That was the architectural style of the time. It’s great to look at. But it can cause real problems for those who have difficulty walking.”
Trevisin is also hoping to raise awareness around neurodiversity: “You never stop learning. If I end up becoming a professor, I'd like to be in a position to help neuroatypical people. I’m lucky to have been able to achieve what I want in life. But for some people, the obstacles are sadly too big. That’s why I wholeheartedly support initiatives like EPFL Without Barriers, which is about reaching out to everyone facing struggles in life, removing the barriers they encounter, and making EPFL fully accessible to all.”
I’m lucky to have been able to achieve what I want in life. But for some people, the obstacles are sadly too big.
Call for contributions
The initiative’s two coordinators describe Trevisin as someone who “cares for others” and “takes the lead,” and they’re delighted to have him on board. “He’s overcome many challenges as a foreigner with a hearing impairment,” says Sonja Moghaddari, a project officer at EPFL’s Vice Presidency for Responsible Transformation and one of the coordinators. “He believes that the path to making our School more welcoming and inclusive lies in raising awareness and taking practical measures.” Fellow coordinator Helene Füger, the EPFL equal opportunity delegate, says it was Trevisin’s idea to issue a call for contributions from people facing barriers at EPFL. As someone struggling with hearing loss, Trevisin is keenly aware of how important it is to listen to others.