Friday, March 27, 2009

Deaf student at Columbia University asks for less isolating experience

An essay in the Columbia Spectator by Blair Sinsimer, who is a Barnard College sophomore.

I am the typical college student. I work hard, study hard, have great friends, but unlike most of my classmates, I’m deaf. I have been here at Columbia for two years, and in those two years I learned how Columbia’s academic system works for people who need disability services.

I don’t view myself as disabled—I never have. I am fully functioning—I eat, sleep, listen to Stevie Wonder, and mentally spaz out during midterms like every other student here. Yet I need accommodations to attend Columbia. Legally, Columbia has done everything it is required by law to do: It provides me with accommodations, but that is all the University does. The rest of my experience, specifically my social
experience as a deaf person at Columbia, is up to me. As a result, I have experienced the problem of isolation in and outside of class.

The University, because of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, is required to provide its disabled students with every accommodation possible. I have found that Columbia is very successful in providing these services, with not one, but two Offices of Disability Services between the Columbia and Barnard campuses. The offices provide me with sign-language interpreters, who attend every class with me except for Italian, as they themselves do not know the language. My experience in Italian class exemplifies the isolation that I experience daily. I rarely converse with the members of the course because I do not have that special backup—a person interpreting everything the other students say—so I make it easier for myself and say nothing, to save myself the embarrassment of misunderstanding another student. This shows how crucial my interpreters are for me, for my daily routines, and even for my social life.

Without them I am completely thrown out of my comfort zone. They are a part
of my life—this is ordinary for me, though my situation may appear extraordinary
to the Columbia population. Important as this accommodation is, I do not have interpreters 24/7. I am actively involved in the New York deaf community, but I
find that the social accommodations for deaf people at Columbia are seriously lacking. When I asked about the deaf community here, I was steered toward CU Signs. Though I respect CU Signs for promoting deaf culture, spreading its enthusiasm for learning American Sign Language, and rallying for ASL classes for undergrads, when I visited the club’s meetings, I felt like the only Mets fan in a room full of Yankees fans. Yes, we are both enthusiastic about deaf people and ASL and deaf culture, but there is a distinction between the members of CU Signs and me. That is, I am actually deaf, and fluent in sign language, which makes me an extreme minority here at Columbia. Many hearing-impaired students read lips but do not sign. In fact, I am one of two people that I know who is a deaf undergraduate able to sign. Because I have always had high expectations for myself and for others, and I think that Columbia could do more for me in fostering a less isolating environment, I am looking for a deaf community that celebrates deaf people and their culture with the enthusiasm to spread acknowledgment and understanding.

Being deaf is isolating. Also, being one of a few signing deaf students at Columbia doesn’t help matters either. But I don’t resent Columbia for my isolation. I don’t resent anyone. Deaf people are not flooding the streets of New York. Most of the students here have never interacted with a deaf person before. It is not anyone’s fault that he or she doesn’t understand what deaf culture is, or why I have sign language interpreters. That is the way the world is. In an ideal world, Columbia would be a school where I can both sign and speak, where everyone not only understands my situation but also applauds it, where my teachers call on me in class without trepidation, and where my friends are proficient in sign language. But that is not reality, and I’ve learned long ago to take what I can get.

So rather than dwell on the problem of deaf isolation at Columbia, I want to raise the question: What can we do to make things better, not just for me, or other deaf students, but for everyone?

I suggest exposing everybody to deaf culture: the University can promote it during orientation, when we all experience the culture shock of attending a school in this giant melting pot we call New York City. Or we could even open the discussion on what deaf culture is by creating a panel of both deaf and hearing experts on the subject. We could invite the National Theater of the Deaf to perform here. We could support more deaf poets or deaf artists or deaf writers. Or we could even join CU Signs in its efforts to bring ASL to undergraduate students. In fact, why focus only on deaf people—why not expand the discussion to all people with differences? I
challenge Columbia University to explore these options, for they are endless. I
have learned that the world could be a better place, but only if you make it one.