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RIT/NTID – Deafness Is Not Equal to Sign Language

As an RIT alumna, I would like share with you the following articles about communication access issues at RIT/NTID to better understand that I was not the only oral deaf student who was frustrated there. I find it sad that NTID still forces oral and cueing deaf students at RIT to learn sign language.

My thoughts in this post are not about banishing sign languages. I love learning them just like any foreign languages. I enjoy using ASL with signers and at Deaf events. I also know Russian sign language which is my 2nd language that I used at a deaf school. I understand and respect culturally Deaf people and their pride in sign language. I even learned a lot from them to better understand myself as a deaf person. I have a huge respect for sign language interpreters and their hard work. I enjoyed my time at RIT overall except for communication access issues in mainstream classes and at mainstream events.

I first heard about RIT as a high school student 2 years before I started college. My family and I took a trip there that year and loved it. RIT looked like a perfect place for me as someone who wanted to mingle with both deaf and hearing students and have the best of both worlds. I did not want to limit myself to mingling only with deaf students (like I did in a deaf school) or to feel isolated as the only deaf student in a mainstream university (like I did in mainstream schools). When I got news about my acceptance to RIT, I was excited and looking forward to attending there.

The major challenge for me was my very limited ASL. I had tried to master it for 2 years prior to starting college without luck as I had nobody to practice it with and there were very few books and VHS on ASL. Internet was not common back then. I could learn only fingerspelling and some very basic signs. So it was a very overwhelming and scary experience for me when I arrived to RIT in August for the SVP (summer vestibule program – an orientation program for deaf freshmen that lasted about 3 weeks before a school year started). I felt like a stranger even in a group of signing students who were deaf like me. It was also the first time for me to be away from my family, and I knew nobody at RIT.

There were two groups during SVP that I had to choose from – one for oral deaf students and another one for signing deaf students. I had no lipreading skills in English to fit in the oral group, and I barely knew ASL to fit in the signing group. In order for me to be able to understand classes during SVP, I was provided with a typist that as I later learned was called a C-Print writer. While C-Print is summarized notetaking services, not real time verbatim captioning services (provided by CART captioners), it was a better option for me back then than sign language that I could not understand. It was a great experience for me using C-Print in classes, and I asked to continue using it for the remainder of my studies at RIT where I took most classes with hearing students. To my surprise, I was denied speech to text services and was forced to learn sign language to use interpreters as the new academic year started.

Back then I was not aware of disability laws, of my rights for reasonable accommodations, and especially of Deaf politics at RIT/NTID in terms of communication access – otherwise I would have fought for services that fit my needs. After being told that it would take a year to master sign language I went to my dorm room crying. On top of being overwhelmed with so many new changes in my life as a college freshman, I was wondering why I was denied C-Print and worried about how I would be able to go through classes via interpreters instead of speech to text in English. My new deaf friends noticed how frustrated I was and tried to help me with practicing ASL. One of them even tried to help me by interpreting to me via fingerspelling at some public events during SVP where C-Print was not provided. I’m grateful to them.

I mastered enough of basic sign language during 3 weeks of SVP to be able to have some basic conversations, but it was still not enough for me to understand sign language interpreters in classes with advanced vocabulary who were signing very fast. It was very challenging for me to read their signs and it was not possible for me to interrupt them. There were still more new signs for me to learn. I tried to take ASL classes, but with my 16-credit average course load per quarter, they did not fit in my schedule. So I tried to pick up as much of ASL as I could from signing people (including some hearing signers) at dorm, in cafeteria, and during breaks between classes. Conversational sign language was easier for me to follow as I could stop signers and ask them to repeat or sign slower. It took me a long time to be able to understand sign language interpreters.

Another challenge for me with sign language interpreters was that I had to interpret in my mind from ASL which is my 5th language into English which is my 3rd language and sometimes from English to Russian which is my 1st language. Although I had a good command of written English by time I started college, I still was not fluent enough in that language without having to think in Russian first before translating it into written English or using a dictionary to find right words in English. Think about trying to understand some of ASL in classes and then to write papers in English. Written version is based on spoken English while ASL is a totally different language. If I had used C-Print, it would have been much easier for me to access oral English in classes via the written version that I could understand much better than ASL.

By my third year of studies, I got a cochlear implant and came across an article about cued speech and how it benefits listening practice with a cochlear implant. It sounded interesting to me, and I asked an audiologist at RIT about this. She happened to know cued speech and taught it to me. We used it to practice my listening skills with my new CI. I would have loved to see more cued speech – it is even more verbatim than captions as it also shows how to pronounce words and details of accents. The audiologist introduced me to CI users and native cuers. Around that time there were about 15-20 deaf students at RIT with CI – now the number increased to 360 as of December 2013. I also found out that there were other oral and cueing deaf students who were also frustrated with being forced to use sign language interpreters, and some of them decided to transfer to other universities that offered better communication access services.

As a junior, I decided to request for C-Print again and also for CLTs (Cued Speech Transliterators) and was denied them again on the grounds that I was “fluent” in ASL. I remember being lectured by a communication access coordinator at NTID (who happened to be culturally Deaf) about how awesome sign language is without considering my needs as an oral deaf student. When listening with my new CI in classes, I was confused when trying to follow interpreters who used ASL that was totally different from spoken English used by professors. I was also saddened to find out from some native cuers about how they had tried as a group to request for more CLTs. If they failed as a group, I felt there was no point for me to fight with the communication access coordinator. I also was thinking about transferring to another university like some oral deaf students did, but I couldn’t due to some reasons. So I had to give up my efforts to improve my listening skills with my new CI in classes (that I could have if speech to text or cued speech transliterating services were provided), and I decided to just try my best to access to spoken information via sign language interpretation until I graduated from RIT.

When I went to graduate school at another university, I was pleasantly surprised that the disability office there was more than happy to provide with CART captioning services which are more verbatim than C-Print or Typewell. To note, NTID calls C-Print “Real-time Captioning Services” which is not the accurate description – it also happens at some other universities that refuse to provide CART services and force deaf students use Typewell (similar to C-Print) as discussed in Typewell vs CART or do not provide speech to text services at all as it happened with Creighton University who was sued by a medical student for not providing CART.

The only issue in the graduate school that I attended was that only one CART writer was available and back then there was no option for remote captioning, so there were many times when I had to use sign language interpreters. Now the number of CART writers is increasing. At least disability access coordinators there were more considerate of my needs than at RIT/NTID. Looking back, I was glad that I had mastered ASL by then to be able to benefit from sign language interpreters as a back up when real time captioning services could not be provided. However, I wish I had mastered sign language other way than going through those frustrations at RIT.

Also, mainstream events at RIT had only sign language interpreters. Even NTID plays at Panara Theater were not accessible via open captions on a LED display to oral deaf people who could not understand signing actors or interpreters who voiced for them for hearing people. I had to ask Panara Theater for a script before every play. My graduation ceremony was both interpreted and open captioned in real time on a screen at a stage – it was one of very few fully inclusive mainstream events I remember attending at RIT.

Even now that I’m fluent in ASL, I still prefer verbatim captioning services for most situations and would have used CLTs if I were fluent in Cued Speech and if more CLTs were available. For me, watching ASL interpreters to access spoken English is like watching an American movie with Russian captions or a Russian movie with English captions if I know both languages – meaning may be lost in translation. It may not be an issue if you don’t know the original language, but if you want to access the original language and know it, getting information via interpretation may not feel natural. Even when I attend Deaf events where captioning is provided, I look at ASL signers, not English captions because I want to access an original language as directly as possible.

Sign language would have made sense in past when there were no technologies like captioning, hearing aids/cochlear implants, hearing loops, or other manual communication systems like Cued Speech – but now times are changing. There’s an increasing number of late deafened adults and deaf kids getting and using hearing aids and cochlear implants that benefit many of them. Majority of them do not know sign language or if they do, they use it mostly for social situations. Many learn it later in their lives like me.

Just like it is bad to force signing Deaf people to use voice and lipread against their will, it is equally as bad to force oral deaf people to learn and use sign languages against their will – especially if there are many other communication access options available now that better fit their needs. Also, RIT is a mainstream university where English is a primary language – not like Gallaudet or NTID that are deaf-only colleges where ASL is a primary language. I understand that it’s challenging for NTID to provide communication access services to many deaf/hoh students for mainstream classes and events at RIT, but there needs to be a better solution than expecting them all to learn sign language to use interpreters.

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