Gallaudet University is the world’s only liberal arts university for Deaf people. It’s a wonderful place, and definitely more accessible for a Deaf scholar than most, but chances are you don’t go there. Most Deaf American teenagers expect to go to one of the thousands of other private and public institutions around the country. In discussions and interviews certain themes about getting through that first week are nearly inescapable but often, Deaf people are isolated in such situations. They don’t have the opportunity to develop the kind of connections with more experienced, older Deaf students; there may not be any. This is part of the reason that a study performed in 1997 showed only 25% of Deaf or hard of hearing students in college in America graduate, whether it’s a two- or four-year program. As a Deaf adult who’s currently working on my PhD, I’ve gone through the process several times, as have my peers. We have a lot to learn from each other. One piece of advice stands out:
Start early. Contact disabilities offices. Contact professors. Let people know you want to be a full participant in the class, so you need X, Y and Z. In 2002, Harry Lang published a study showing most professors know very little about the needs of Deaf people and may not understand what’s happening in their classroom. There are tons of strategies Deaf people use to make the classroom more accessible. The number of strategies grows exponentially when university professors partner with those students and make genuine attempts to differentiate their classrooms. In a 2006 study, Mark Marschark found that services in the classroom can make a world of difference. Strategies like ASL interpreters, Communication Realtime Access Translation (CART), induction loops, microphones, and even slight alterations to how groups work and lectures proceed can have a huge impact, but professors are usually unaware of them. Disability offices and departments know more but since they serve a huge range of needs, departments may not be fluent in finding and providing these services.
Once you’ve started early, what problems tend to crop up? What can you expect?
No services for the first week. This can quickly become a horrible experience. Most college classes explore their syllabus during that time period, and establish ground rules and expectations for the course. Not participating in these early activities can totally throw off a student’s academic experience for the semester. Social opportunities can also become frustrating. Unfortunately, there’s not much research on what services in college are successful, so most of the data guiding this advice is from experience and anecdote. Being prepared for these glitches in service, however, can save you.
Having to explain oneself and one’s needs and communication modes, again and again, to students, college staff, faculty, and administration. Sometimes people become Deaf at birth. Sometimes they use ASL. There’s a huge variety of Deaf people. We are often asked to explain who we are and what we can do, to the point where it becomes our identity as individuals and overall as students! Lang, in the same study mentioned above, points out that the first year of college is the most challenging socially and academically for Deaf and hard of hearing students. Which leads to another problem:
Having to deal with stereotypes and desectionalization. Stereotypes are preconceived ideas about Deaf people, sign language, and speaking. Desectionalization occurs when those stereotypes limit ones vision and understanding of people’s sectionalized identity. We all identify along intersectional ranges of sexuality, gender, race, religion, etc. Deaf people do as well and we have as many languages and perspectives as the rest of the world.
When I was a college student, my first week of the school year was often spent without interpreters. I even recall my administration asking if I could teach fellow students enough signs so that they could interpret for me in subjects we were all just beginning to learn! Now, as a teacher, I have graduating students contact me to tell me the same thing that their participation in college has been limited due to lack of access for the first week. My professors became my best allies while I was a student. They recognized my intellectual ability, thanks to the work I turned in. They helped advocate for me, and between their advocacy and mine, I was able to ensure full access. This happened because I learned, because I put emphasis on “staying ahead of the game,” and tried to anticipate the problems that would appear.
It was a challenge, and I did feel I wasn’t able to fully relax because of that. Where other students were enjoying a class shopping period, I was working with interpreters and professors to make sure communication was clear. But I do think, because of that, my campus community came to respect me and I had an undergraduate college career where I was fully involved in all of my classes and which led to many interesting experiences and careers.
A final piece of advice: if things don’t go well your first semester, learn from the experience. Plan to improve it the next semester. I have had students “give up” after encountering the first or second hurdles, or become so depressed about mistakes and challenges that they forget to try. Every semester is a new chance to get things set up the way that’s best for you.
Lang, Harry (2002). “Higher Education for Deaf Students: Research Priorities in the New Millennium” in J. Deaf Stud. Deaf Educ. (2002) 7 (4): 267-280. doi: 10.1093/deafed/7.4.267
Marschark, Mark (2006). “Benefits of Sign Language Interpreting and Text Alternatives for Deaf Students Classroom Learning.” In J. Deaf Stud. Deaf Educ. (2006) 11 (4): 421-437. doi: 10.1093/deafed/enl013
Walter, G., Foster, S., & Elliot, L. (1987). “Attrition and accommodation of hearing-impaired college students in the U.S.” Paper presented at the Tenth National Conference of the Association on Handicapped Student Service Programs in Postsecondary Education
_About the Author:Joseph Santini has been a social worker and educator in public schools and programs for adult education for the past fifteen years. He has written about education for the New York Times education blog, DeafEcho, a Deaf-oriented political blog, and was most recently published in the Endeavor, the magazine of the American Deaf Children’s Society. He is currently doing Ph.D. research in the area of bilingual education, teacher expectations and institutional infrastructure at Gallaudet University where he works in the Office of Bilingual Teaching and Learning._