Deaf students face unique challenges

When Jeffrey Zuckerman ’10 gets a call on his cell phone, it is almost always a wrong number. On the rare occasion that the caller is a friend, he tells them to send a text message instead and hangs up.

Zuckerman, one of three deaf undergraduates at Yale, cannot understand speech over a cell phone because he depends heavily on lip reading to understand those around him. Like the other two deaf students, Campbell Garland ’09 and Amy Zwanziger ’09, he does not use sign language. Instead, he has a cochlear implant, a device that stimulates auditory nerves inside the ear with electrical impulses to approximate the normal hearing process. Zwanziger said that although she has an implant, she depends mostly on a hearing aid she uses in one ear, while Garland relies on a combination of both technologies.

Yale’s three deaf undergraduates, including Jeffrey Zuckerman ’10, above, in class with his interpreter, use both sign language and oral communication in their classes.
Gang Chen
Yale’s three deaf undergraduates, including Jeffrey Zuckerman ’10, above, in class with his interpreter, use both sign language and oral communication in their classes.

All three self-identify as deaf, but they said that because of their dependence on oral communication, many deaf people who rely entirely on sign language — a group often referred to as manualists — would not consider them true members of the deaf community. The rift between oralists and manualists has received national news coverage lately in the controversy over the appointment of the next president at Gallaudet University, a liberal arts school for the deaf and hard of hearing. Gallaudet’s board of trustees decided Sunday to revoke their appointment of Jane K. Fernandes in the face of protesters who argued that she was not “deaf enough.” Although Fernandes cannot hear, she was harshly criticized for not having learned sign language until age 23.

Alina Engelman EPH ’07, the only deaf graduate student at Yale, cautioned in an e-mail against making judgments on either side of the debate. She said she uses both sign language and verbal communication in different situations, and the decision to use one or the other is a personal choice.

Garland remembered one time in high school when she went to a deaf teen club in her area, and all but two people there refused to talk to her, she said, because she does not speak sign language. She said she finds the rift within the deaf community hurtful, and that one of her favorite parts about Yale is that she feels such distinctions do not matter here.

“[Manualists] tend to exclude people who are oral, and I don’t get that,” Garland said. “I’m deaf, but I’m not really a part of the deaf community … I came to Yale to meet all sorts of people, and I don’t want to be limited to one kind of people.”

Part of belonging to the Yale community is adjusting to a world designed for people with hearing, and Zuckerman, Garland and Zwanziger all said one big adjustment comes inside the classroom.

The students use different combinations of technologies to help them function during class. All three pay other students to take notes for them, and Zwanziger and Garland both give their professors a microphone that transmits over a radio frequency to their hearing aids. During lectures, Garland and Zuckerman both rely on a system called CART, in which a professional stenographer records everything the professor says. In section, Zuckerman also has an interpreter, who silently repeats what everyone in the classroom is saying so that he can read her lips and follow along with the discussion.

Gary Jaffe ’10, who is in a Directed Studies section with Zuckerman, said the only effect he sees from Zuckerman’s deafness is the added concentration it takes to understand him, which he said means students focus more in class. Jaffe said that he does not find the interpreter particularly distracting, and that although he had trouble understanding Zuckerman the first few days of class, he adjusted to his speech relatively quickly.

“The only way that I can see change specifically is that when Jeff’s talking there’s a focused hush over the section,” Jaffe said. “There’s no real negative effect.”

One of the biggest obstacles the deaf students mentioned is learning a foreign language. Although Zuckerman said he has not run into problems, Garland said she is taking Latin because she finds it too difficult to follow someone speaking in a language other than English. Zwanziger said that while she entered Yale interested in French, she felt that the department did not show particular sensitivity to her circumstances, and she has since started taking Hebrew.

Julia Prest, director of undergraduate studies for the French department, said that while she is not familiar with Zwanziger’s particular case, the department’s policy is to try hard to accommodate all students with special needs.

“There’s certainly no policy in trying to drive people away,” Prest said. “If it happened that way, it should not have … It would be good if we talked about it more in the department. We, in theory, want to do what we can.”

Zwanziger’s Hebrew professor, Ayala Dvoretsky, said she has made a few minor adjustments to her teaching — for instance, making sure Zwanziger can see her lips when she is speaking, and allowing her to do spoken language assignments in person instead of recording them as a file online like other students — but that Zwanziger’s deafness is not a major presence in the classroom.

“These accommodations are just so minor that they are really insignificant,” Dvoretsky said. “It just took some level of understanding of what goes on.”

The University makes sure that deaf students have the academic facilities they need through the Resource Office on Disabilities. Director Judith York said that while three deaf undergraduates out of over 5,000 is still a relatively low number compared to the national proportion of functionally deaf people — estimated at about 2 to 4 out of every 1,000 — the number of deaf students at Yale has been increasing in recent years as part of a larger trend that can be traced back to the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which were all adopted within the last few decades. The laws, which ensure that certain services and educational opportunities are provided to people with disabilities, have increased the integration of disabled people into regular society, York said, and disabled children who grew up with this support are now entering mainstream colleges in larger numbers.

“Our current generation of students have been supported by special education services … since birth,” York said. “Potentially, we are seeing more students with disabilities now than ever before.”

The increasing popularity of cochlear implants for deaf children throughout the 1990s and into the present has also played an important role in enabling deaf people to integrate with their hearing peers, a process known in the deaf world as “mainstreaming.” Although the sounds transmitted by a cochlear implant are highly mechanized — Zwanziger describes it as “beeps that get funneled into your head” — they allow even those who were born profoundly deaf to communicate orally with their hearing peers.

The three deaf undergraduates at Yale said their peers have been very understanding of their deafness, and none said they feel being deaf has had any impact on their social life. Garland said she feels a sense of community with Zwanziger and Zuckerman, stemming from their shared disability, but that she appreciates being able to have a diverse group of hearing friends at the same time.

Zuckerman said he has found Yale’s liberal atmosphere means “nobody looks twice” at someone out of the ordinary, and he has had no trouble fitting in — although he has faced a few misconceptions about deafness. Some people try to speak so slowly he cannot read their lips, he said, and for the first few weeks of school whenever he told people he was deaf they would assume he communicated using sign language.

“They would say, ‘Oh I’m sorry, I don’t know how to sign,” Zuckerman said. “So I would say ‘It’s okay, I don’t know how to sign either.’”

Taryn Flock ’09, who has been Zwanziger’s suitemate since they were freshmen, said she has picked up habits to deal with her suitemate’s deafness that are now so natural she does them with everyone, like making sure she is looking at whoever she is talking to. She said Zwanziger’s deafness can sometimes lead to minor miscommunications.

“Most of it is just little comments getting siphoned off,” she said. “They just sort of disappear.”

Zwanziger said problems like the ones Flock described come with being close to someone who is deaf. Most people at Yale are very understanding of her disability, she said, and she does not feel it has a negative effect on her social life. But she recognizes that having a long-term relationship with a deaf person can be difficult, and she said her friends sometimes get frustrated when, for example, they constantly have to repeat themselves.

Zuckerman said his only problem with how his fellow students deal with his disability is that sometimes they can be too sensitive to it.

“That’s the only issue that I’ve ever had, that sometimes people are afraid to ask me a question,” Zuckerman said. “I’m never afraid to answer.”

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