In the lecture course “The Victorian Novel,” English professor Ruth Yeazell GRD ’71 is not the only person at the front of the room emphatically conveying the meaning of Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights.”
Ariel Baker-Gibbs ’11, one of two Yale undergraduates who uses the Resource Office on Disabilities’ support for the hearing impaired and is shopping Yeazell’s course, requests sign language interpreters and notes from classmates through the Resource Office for her lectures. She and Alexis Eaton ’11 use a combination of methods to help them participate in and out of class, including reading lips and wearing hearing aids.
Baker-Gibbs said if she tried to lip-read without an interpreter — someone proficient in American Sign Language who translates courses for students with difficulties hearing — she would spend too much energy trying to figure out what the professor was saying instead of processing the information.
“I have very slight hearing in one ear, and then I wear a hearing aid, and that makes up for a lot of stuff,” she said. “But part of it is that my brain is not used to hearing, so a lot of it is conscious filling in the blanks, and what’s going on. I have interpreters because that saves me a lot of trouble.”
Instead of asking for interpreters, Eaton uses an FM unit, which amplifies what the professor says. Her first FM unit was purchased by Yale. She also owns a computer program called CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation), which transcribes everything the professor says. She added that some of her classmates look at her screen to see a phrase they missed, adding that she finds this annoying.
Both students said being deaf has created obstacles in their academic and social lives, but added that they see it more as an inconvenience than a disability.
SIGNING IN THE CLASSROOM
Baker-Gibbs said she sometimes has trouble understanding lectures in sign language.
“Sometimes interpreters are not familiar with the topic that they’re interpreting, or in science, there’s a lot of specific terminology and visual concepts,” she said. “So there’s a lot of weird mashing up languages, mashing up weird images.”
Still, she said being deaf has not directly affected her GPA.
Yeazell, who directed Baker-Gibbs’ senior essay, said she has not had to change her teaching style or lesson plans to accommodate ASL interpreters.
“There’s a moment when you’re there and you see somebody signing and you’re not used to that,” she said. “But after about a minute or two it seems perfectly normal. I gesture a lot myself with my hands and I assume it must be striking to see people gesturing in different ways. It’s sort of nice to be simultaneously translated.”
Like every other aspect of Yale academics, the professional ASL interpreters who normally attend Baker-Gibbs’ classes have been stalled by the snow this semester. Yale’s Resource Office regularly contracts about four interpreters.
Jill Savarese ’03, who interprets some courses and is responsible for scheduling interpreters at Yale based on students’ classes and extracurricular activities, said she enjoys her work on campus.
“It’s very interesting to interpret at Yale because the students are very engaged, and it’s nice to interpret for students who are very excited about learning and the material is interesting,” she said. “[Signing is] like being a professional fly on the wall, and it’s interesting. It’s like being an ongoing auditor. I don’t do all of the work, I don’t do all of the reading, but I do retain little details and it exposes me to all these different disciplines.”
Hired through the University’s Resource Office on Disabilities, Savarese also runs her own agency, Sign Language Media, and visits other colleges and hospitals to provide interpreting services.
Pat Leo, another ASL interpreter who often works at Yale, said he appreciates the constant variety that working in the interpreting field provides. Although he was once mistaken for a woman by a patient who was both blind and deaf, Leo said he loves the places and people he is exposed to as an interpreter.
“You almost never have the same day twice, which is wonderful because my last job was kind of the same day after day.”
LIFE AT YALE
Both Baker-Gibbs and Eaton were diagnosed at a young age — about two years old — and have lived with their hearing conditions for as long as they can remember. Baker-Gibbs is originally from Canada, and said she chose to come to Yale partly because Canadian schools did not provide as much support for disabled students as American schools must due to the American Disabilities Act.
“In high school, my family experience in Canada trying to get accommodations for me was very difficult,” she said. “We weren’t able to live in the Toronto area for elementary school because the public school board wouldn’t provide interpreters.”
Eaton said she has found social settings more difficult than academic ones. Her hearing aids help her hear low baselines, she said, so she can hear deep things, but “has the worst time ever” trying to understand people with soprano or quiet voices. She said she dislikes having to remind close friends and family of her condition. Oftentimes, she said, friends and family members forget about her hearing disability and whisper or talk too quickly in front of her.
She described a meeting at which she lost track of the conversation after five minutes.
“It just sort of felt like I was sitting back and watching the threads of words flying in the air,” she said. “I could almost see the conversation taking place in front of me and I just couldn’t understand it. That’s one of those times when I feel left out, and I want to give up on my friends because they just don’t do anything about it and it upsets me.”
Despite daily obstacles, both Baker-Gibbons and Eaton remain positive about their futures. Baker-Gibbons currently works at Sterling Memorial Library and spent last year at the University of Oxford, while Eaton studies Chinese and recently spent a few weeks in China.
Eaton said she enjoys listening to music, looking up the lyrics since she can usually only hear the percussion beat, and has started taking more phone calls instead of only texting and e-mailing.
She said she occasionally speculates about how her life would be different if she could hear.
“Sometimes, I do wonder how it would be if I were not hearing-impaired, if I were able to hear like a ‘normal person,’ but for the most part I don’t really think about it that much,” she said. “I’m so used to working around it that it doesn’t really bother me.”