A sign of the times: The story of deaf students at Georgetown

February 27, 2014

Christina Libre and Noah Buyon

“My first two weeks here freshman year were horrible. I cried every night because that was the first time I had to be in the hearing world 24/7.”

Heather Artinian (COL ‘15) is a Justice and Peace Major. She is a student, an activist, a friend, and a daughter. She’s also deaf, and these memories are her first on the Hilltop.

After Artinian’s initial struggle to adjust to college life as well as the hearing world, she ultimately found a home at Georgetown. “There was one point when I was just sitting in the common room, and people were talking … about football. I was wearing a New York Jets T-shirt … and someone said to me, ‘Oh, you’re a Jets fan? You’ve been really quiet.’ and I was like, ‘I’m Deaf, so I can’t really hear much’ and he said, ‘That’s no problem, my name is Scott.’”

Other non-hearing students relate to Artinian’s arduous search for a community at Georgetown. “It was easy for me to make friends here, but it was very hard to keep friends because it is hard to understand them,” said Nia Lazarus (COL’16). “For me, I had to make sure my friends were the type of people who cared enough to learn how to sign for me. I don’t want to read lips all day long. It’s not ideal.”

Lazarus, along with a growing group of hearing and non-hearing students, has set out to make Georgetown inclusive of Deaf culture. Last spring Lazarus co-founded GU Signs, Georgetown’s only American Sign Language club, which became a SAC-funded group at the end of the 2012-2013 academic year. The group organizes trips to Gallaudet University, the only culturally Deaf university in the world, and sign language lessons, and participates in Deaf cultural events, such as ASL poetry slams at Busboys and Poets in order to raise awareness of Deaf culture among Georgetown students.

“I would like to see more interest in the Deaf community and knowing that it is a community and not just a disability,” said Molly Smith (COL ‘17), GU Signs’ freshman representative.

• • •

Within the deaf community, the word ‘deaf’ can take on a number of meanings. When referring to hearing loss alone, deaf remains lower case. “Deaf” with a capital “D”  or “Deaf culture” refers to the common experience of a self-defined linguistic minority with a unique history and language.

Although GU Signs is the only student group at Georgetown that specifically promotes Deaf culture, Georgetown has found other avenues to engage Deaf culture. Last fall, Visiting Professor Sylvia Onder, who teaches Turkish Studies in the Department of Arab and Islamic Studies and the Department of Anthropology, taught a class called “Culture and Identities” in collaboration with Gallaudet University. 20 Georgetown students and 17 Gallaudet students enrolled in the class, and, as a part of the curriculum, students were required to take a field trip to Gallaudet and participate in group video discussions with Gallaudet students.

Deaf culture has also made its way into the arts at Georgetown. In October of 2011 the University put on “Visible Impact,” a play featuring a mixed cast of hearing and non-hearing students from Georgetown and Gallaudet. The play was conceived and directed by Professor Susan Lynskey and dramatized the social issues facing the Deaf community and the intersection of biology, language, and culture in creating Deaf identity.

“Both Deaf and hearing students created a bilingual diversely-able, cross culturally democratic space,  aesthetic, and model for theatrical and civic practice. They equally shared the responsibilities, challenges, and successes in transforming ‘translation’ into ‘access’,” Lysnkey wrote in an email to the Voice.

In addition, as recently as Feb. 14 of this year, Georgetown’s Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery and the Sign Language Research lab hosted a lecture series on sign language research. Dr. Theodore Supalla of the Department of Neurology, who conducts research on the linguistic properties of ASL, delivered the introductory address entirely in sign language.

“This kind of activity is the first of its kind for Georgetown. The series aims to publicly highlight, strengthen and expand the notable and extensive research contributions made by Georgetown University to our knowledge of sign language history and of Deaf communities,” Supalla wrote in an email to the Voice.

• • •

Beyond exploring different aspects of Deaf culture in faculty research, Georgetown provides several resources and services to support the academic pursuits of its Deaf students as well as students with other forms of hearing loss. In their academic work, Deaf students and students with hearing loss rely on the Academic Resource Center to reserve interpreters for classes and events and to make exam accommodations. The process is often inefficient, however.

“Georgetown does their best to make accommodations for students like me. Whenever I ask for interpreters I get them, but sometimes it’s hard because there will be a last-minute event and I have to let the ARC know in advance,” Lazarus said.

Anne Riordan, advisor for disability and learning skills at the ARC, agrees and explains that these complications often emerge because the ARC works with two external interpreting agencies and, due to high demand, students must submit a request at least four weeks in advance in order to secure an interpreter at a class or event.

Artinian claims that some departments show reluctance to provide for interpreters because no central funding scheme exists to pay for them. “We have no disability center. If I ask for interpreters, it’s through the Academic Resource Center, and it’s a battle, not necessarily with the ARC, but with the departments here because it is all about money,” Artinian said.

“The system we have has been a bit bureaucratic, a bit clunky, and we need to improve it,” Vice President of Student Affairs Todd Olson said.

According to Riordan, in the near future the University plans to increase the number of accessible events on campus by introducing a streamlined process for reserving interpreters for events.

“One of the things I am hoping to try and implement with some of the partners here on campus is having standard language so everybody is required to have language-regarding accommodations on their fliers,” Riordan said.

In addition to issues of accessibility and inclusivity, culturally Deaf students and students with hearing loss have also expressed frustration that Georgetown does not offer ASL courses on campus.

Georgetown students interested in taking ASL must do so through the Consortium of Universities in the Washington Metropolitan Area. Membership in the Consortium allows Georgetown and other member universities, such as George Washington University, American University, and Gallaudet, to share access to library resources, conduct collaborative research, and cross-register for classes not offered at Georgetown.  In the past, students have used the consortium to take a variety of classes including Modern Irish, Interior Design and Caribbean Literature. However, the University does not financially compensate students for their travel expenses commuting to and from Consortium classes.

While students who choose to take classes at other universities through the consortium face challenges of scheduling and transportation, University faculty and administrators feel that the benefits of offering credit for ASL classes at partner universities such as Gallaudet and George Washington University outweigh these costs.

“We could start up an ASL language class here on campus, but we’ve got a consortium university right across town that’s actually a specialist, where you can get all kinds of classes in ASL all different levels and so forth,” Onder said.

“Georgetown takes language instruction seriously; when we offer a language, we want to make sure that we have the resources to offer the language at a quality, level of intensity, and duration consistent with other language offerings on campus.” Associate Dean Sue Lorenson wrote in an email to the Voice. “For this reason, and due to limited resources, our focus must be on languages which have a clear curricular connection to academic departments and programs. ASL does not meet that criterion.”

“It’s something I definitely hope for, but greater awareness for the Deaf community here, connecting with the Deaf community here, having a real teacher of ASL to come—these things take time,” said Timothy Loh (SFS ‘15), co-president of GU Signs. “I don’t know if that’s something we [GU Signs] can really bring about.”

Emma Lance (COL ‘16), who took ASL classes at Gallaudet in the summer and fall of 2013, was unable to register for an ASL class at Gallaudet this semester because the course had no available spots for consortium students.

“Gallaudet needs to give priority to their students first during registration, understandably. This means that I don’t find out if I have a spot in an ASL class there until two days before their classes start,” Lance said. “I’ve gotten to meet some wonderful people because I took classes through the consortium, as well as learn a lot about Deaf culture. However, I think the process of going through the consortium office can seem arduous to some.”

For Lazarus, the lack of ASL classes on campus reflects larger issues facing Deaf students at Georgetown. “We have enough recognition of religious differences, race, sexual orientation, different cultures that we have. We need to have more recognition of the disability culture. We need some sort of recognition of all of us as a whole,” said Lazarus, who identifies as both culturally Deaf and disabled.

Many Deaf people consider themselves a linguistic minority, however, and do not identify as disabled. Artinian, who was born deaf, but received a cochlear implant when she was young, identifies with both the hearing and the Deaf communities and advocates to bridge the gap between the two. “Everyone should have the right to choose if they want to be in the Deaf community or if they want to be in the hearing community. I choose to be in both.”

“I actually see myself in the mainstream community. I know that I am obviously a member of the Deaf community because of what I was born with, but my whole life has been an effort to be a member in mainstream community,” said Benjamin Reiser (COL’17), who was born with hearing loss and chose to use a hearing aid.

The struggle of Deaf students for visibility and accessibility extends throughout the entire disabled community at Georgetown. “We need to just be better,” said Robin Morey, vice president of campus facilities and operations.

Since Morey’s appointment last year, he has set out to change Georgetown’s culture into one of accessibility. As a part of this effort, all the pathways in the Southwest Quad have been repaved, and a student focus group has been created to bring attention to areas of the campus that need to be more accessible. Additionally, construction of the Northeast Triangle and the Healy Family Student Center has been tailored to be conscious of accessibility.

This spring, a working group will begin discussions about establishing a disability cultural center and increasing awareness of the disabled community on campus. “We have made some good starts on some of these issues. … The place where we have some growing to do is in the the public policies and structures,” Todd Olson added.

Disability activists on campus hope that, if established, a disability cultural center will make disabled students a visible campus community. “The disability community has not received institutional recognition,” said Lydia Brown (COL’15), disability rights activist and author of the blog Autistic Hoya. “There is so much opportunity for Georgetown to be a pioneer, to be a leader in actually putting diversity into action and yet the administration has consistently failed to put forward any plan to create a disability cultural center.”

Brown said that she has approached President John DeGioia on several occasions about establishing a disability cultural center. DeGioia’s office failed to respond to multiple emails sent over the course of a month asking for a response to this claim.

“It [a disabily cultural center] will bring voice to the disabled people on campus because right now we really don’t have anyone we can go to. I love Georgetown. They have been great to me. But there is always room for improvement,” Artinian said.

Olson acknowledges that, oftentimes, disability issues have been overlooked. “I think, frankly, we have done better with other diversity inclusion issues than we have with disability issues so far.”

Only three universities in the United States have disability centers. Among this group is the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center, which opened in the fall of 2011. As the center has evolved over the past three years, it has taken on a variety of  roles at Syracuse, including event planning, advocacy, networking, and collaboration with campus partners to create an accessible campus culture.

According to Diane Wiener, director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center, the center has played an integral role in fostering the development of disability culture at Syracuse.

“Yes, it could have happened that this [disability culture] would have happened anyway on it’s own. … Simultaneously, I also think it has to do with the way the center was set up and who peoples the center, and it has to do with the students, most of all, who foment change on the campus,” Wiener said.

Even though the Syracuse Disability Cultural Center has become instrumental in fostering Syracuse’s disability culture, this change came about largely because of student activism.

While groups such as GU Signs have seen growth since its establishment last spring, progress will take a collaborative effort across all communities on campus. “If Georgetown is really going to be open to all kinds of diversity, they have to think about how many students does it take to make a group. Part of what’s developed is hearing students who are interested in ASL are participating in this group,” Onder said.

At Georgetown, other institutions focusing on diversity, such as the LGBTQ Resource Center, came about because student activism called University administrators into action. “We’ve really found over time to work toward the most vocal concern of students that’s out there,” Olson said.

With the establishment of a disability cultural center, students such as Lazarus hope to achieve the one thing that has eluded them at Georgetown—a voice. “Right now we just need a disability center. We can incorporate everyone. We need some sort of recognition of all of us as a whole.”

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Great Combined Effort,
First the campus, the community, city, state, the possibilities are endless.
Never give in, Never give up.

Kathleen Banks

Do you mean only three “disability cultural centers?”