As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the nation and turned human interaction into a hybrid of disjointed virtual meetings and expressionless masked conversations, a disparity for deaf and/or hard of hearing individuals became apparent everywhere, including on college campuses like The University of Alabama (UA).
Though The University of Alabama does not have a large culturally Deaf population on campus, meaning a population of students who use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary form of communication, there is a sum of students who are apart of the cultural and linguistic minority group.
THE PERCEPTION OF DEAFNESS
Dr. Darren Griffin
“I think generally society tends to think of deafness as someone who’s deaf [and] can’t hear. That’s a problematic perception because there are people who are deaf or hard of hearing who can hear. They can use their residual hearing,” said Darrin Griffin, a UA associate professor of communication studies, a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) and a member of the culturally dDeaf community.
He said what makes a person deaf or hard of hearing is that the person’s ability to access spoken language may not be sufficient for communication. Due to this, they have to use either ASL, an aid, prosthetic, an interpreter or captions to access spoken language.
“It’s not that a person is deaf entirely, but it’s that they need some accommodation to access spoken language,” Griffin said.
This misconception is something Caroline Yuk, a deaf senior interdisciplinary studies major with a concentration in neuroscience, has had to deal with on many occasions.
“I think deafness, hearing loss, really is a huge spectrum,” Yuk said. “You probably know someone in your life that deals with it. It’s not a specific kind of person that has hearing loss; it can affect anyone.”
Yuk has cochlear implants, small complex electronic devices that sit behind the ear along with a piece under the skin and give her a representation of sound to help her understand speech.
Due to these implants and misconceptions, Yuk has had to endure people questioning her identity and make statements like, “There’s no way you’re deaf because you’re speaking, you’re hearing and you’re doing well.”
“If someone is doing well, that doesn’t mean they can’t be deaf; they’re not mutually exclusive,” she said.
According to the Office of Disability Services (ODS), 30+ students are deaf or hard of hearing, and one student is culturally Deaf at The University of Alabama.
Caroline Yuk wears a cochlear implant.
However, according to Amy Hagedorn, the Office of Disability Services’ sensory accommodations specialist, this number is not an all-inclusive representation of the campus. Some students who are hard of hearing may decide not to register with ODS.
Yuk said this in part could be because of the stigma of being deaf or being considered “disabled.”
“I am not afraid to say that I am disabled,” she said.
Yuk said she understands the stigma behind the term and why people, even within the culturally Deaf community, don’t use it. Still, she believes reclaiming the term might help dissolve the stigma.
“I know words have power, and maybe when you say disability, it has that negative connotation, but I think we still have the ability to change that; if we realize that everyone can be affected at any time, kind of like mental health,” she said. “Everyone can feel like they’re disabled because of their mental health, and that’s okay let’s find solutions for that.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF ACCOMMODATIONS AND ACCESSIBILITY IN CREATING EQUITY AND INCLUSION
For people who are deaf or hard of hearing at The University of Alabama, those solutions lie within the accessibility of the university’s content and the accommodations offered by ODS.
“I think the ODS here is fantastic. I think they’re actually one of the best in the country,” Yuk said. “Amy is really great.”
Hagedorn said the Office of Disability Services offers accommodations to ensure that if something is missing from the universal design created for the University by the Office of Information Technology (OIT), students who have a disability get what they need to succeed.
Accommodations can include anything from closed captioning on a video to interpreters.
“I’ve had [a] captionist,” Yuk said. “Like the fact that that’s even an option for people is really awesome.”
HOW FAR ODS HAS COME
Though ODS has made sure that deaf or hard of hearing students’ needs are met, it has been a long journey to this point.
“I’ve worked with Amy for five years now, and we’ve actually developed an effective system,” said Kent Schafer, a culturally Deaf UA doctoral candidate in psychology. “Five years ago, that was a different story. I was the only cultural deaf student that I know of that was using ASL as their primary form of communication.”
Schafer said back then, when he came to the school in 2016, he did have to educate a lot, but as of now, he and Amy have no issues.
Before Schafer’s time at the University, Hagedorn said years ago, in (year), UA had a deaf education program, and there was more of a culturally Deaf community, but that hasn’t been on campus since she was at the university in the 2000s.
“It’s kind of a shame that for a campus this size that there’s little representation of that specific community,” Hagedorn said. “But I just think being that all the things that usually bring deaf communities in aren’t really in Tuscaloosa, and the University doesn’t have programs for those sorts of things, so it’s kind of turned it into a desert on campus.”
ACCOMMODATIONS AND ACCESSIBILITIES MASKED
Regardless of the number of deaf or hard of hearing students registered with ODS on campus, Hagedorn, with Schafer’s informed help, has worked to better and expand the services offered to students. However, when the pandemic hit, students’ needs in terms of accommodations also expanded and changed.
Hagedorn said one issue they’ve come across is that while masks are essential to keep people safe for students who are deaf, hard of hearing or have mild to severe unilateral hearing loss masks are a problem.
Yuk agreed that it’d been a problem for her too.
Members of the Deaf Community and a member of the Office of Disability Services at UA converse in front of Denny Chimes, a beloved landmark on campus in Tuscaloosa, AL on March 10, 2021.
“I will say with everyone wearing masks I’m always hesitant to say, ‘Oh I’m kind of struggling I need help,’ but I have to say that there was this weird type of anxiety I had whenever someone was wearing masks because I always thought that like my hearing is good enough that I don’t have to read lips I can just hear them, but I realized with masks it’s not the case,” Yuk said. “And it’s also not the case with people who have normal hearing too because a lot of communication is actually visual.”
The importance of nonverbal cues was recently highlighted in a randomized clinical trial published on JAMA Surgery, where hospital patients communicated with surgeons who wore clear and covered masks.
According to the results of the study, surgeons who wore clear masks were perceived by patients to be better communicators, have more empathy and elicit greater trust.
The problem of masked communication did not go unnoticed by UA’s Office of Disability Services. To accommodate for this issue, Hagedorn and Procurement Services got together to get black clear paneled masks distributed to students.
Yet after calls from professors and students about the masks fogging up or being uncomfortable, they found that those masks might not be the solution.
Yuk experienced problems with the masks firsthand in her classes last semester. To improve those experiences in the classroom and make sure that accommodations are universally designed and beneficial for all parties involved, Yuk and Griffin have started a project to find a better alternative.
“I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want an accommodation to hinder someone, so when I watch my professor kind of struggle with the clear mask, that’s something I want to improve,” Yuk said. “The other side of accommodation is comfort.”
And as COVID-19 changed the way students interacted with the campus, masks weren’t the only problem deaf or hard of hearing students suffered from; there was also accessibility.
“Before, I felt like I had a chance, but now I don’t feel like I have as much of a chance,” Schafer said.
He said before the pandemic, it was easy for him to coordinate access services. He had opportunities for on-campus awareness, different conferences, etc.Now the pandemic has complicated things.
“[Before] if I wanted to go to the library and get a book, I didn’t have as many boundaries, but now with the pandemic, it’s more complicated for me to get a book. The barriers have increased,” he said.
Schafer said at first there was no visual information to let him know there were new required steps; he would have needed it ahead of time.
“So, I actually learned by failing,” he said. “I made mistakes, and then I had to learn how to follow the new procedures, so that’s where some of the frustrations come in; they increase those frustrations,.”
Schafer said at The University of Alabama he’s also seen his pool of in-person interpreters dwindle because of the liability and risk of COVID-19.
And even though he doesn’t have to go to campus often since he is a Ph.D. student currently working online and in person for two internships, he still has had to work over obstacles in accessibility and accommodates; even if something is online because internet issues can turn minor low-risk issues into high-risk ones during important virtual events.
“It’s a challenge for me to overcome that, and hopefully, there are people on the other side who have good attitudes, and they’re willing to work through it,” he said. “Hopefully they’re not in a hurry.”
Schafer said one of his main challenges has been that people often don’t think about accommodations they don’t need, so he works to make his voice heard while also trying to help leaders recognize that people need access.
“People don’t consider people who are Deaf like me; it’s almost like a reminder that I’m less than another person. I’m not equal to others; I feel disconnected, I feel alienated,” he said.
When he was younger, Schafer said this lack of accessibility and awareness from others made him angry, but now he has grown patient and works to have discussions that help people see the bigger picture of how everyone is different.
Members of the Deaf Community converse on the Quad.
HAVING THE HARD DISCUSSIONS and LOOKING FORWARD
“There have been people who think they can speak for the emotions of others, especially in discussions,” Yuk said. “When, instead, I think that’s a time to listen to other people who haven’t really had their voices heard in that way. You have to be cognizant of what’s happening around you.”
And though those discussions are necessary to create awareness, accommodations and change, sometimes they are hard to have when people don’t know how to start the dialogues.
Griffin believes if these conversations are ever to happen, people should be willing to be wrong.
“If you sit there and you’re so worried about saying something wrong, you may not learn and you may not experience,” Griffin said. “Be willing to be wrong. Obviously, your goal should not be to offend people or to hurt people, but sometimes you’re going to say something wrong and just be willing for someone to correct you or give you a different way to think about it or say something about it.”
Yet, while it is essential to be willing to be wrong it is also essential to know when to just listen.
Practicing sign language, Dr. Griffin and Yuk enjoy a conversation on the Quad in Tuscaloosa, AL, March 10, 2021.
However, she said people shouldn’t be “canceled” for simple mistakes made in discussions; those should be times for reeducation and understanding.
And as these discussions bring awareness to the issue, growth and change are just behind the door, shrouded by the curtain that has been the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schafer said while people are experiencing the pandemic, “this new trauma,” it is essential to start evaluating how this isolation has changed learning styles, how people navigate their feelings/experiences and how to be more empathetic and understanding to one another. While also continuing to write, discuss and bring ideas to the table because that is a vital part of education.
“I hope that in the future, we will develop more Deaf awareness, more Deaf programs, more sign language classes, more interpreter training classes [and] Deaf education,” Schafer said. “If we could grow and expand those programs, that would be phenomenal.”