Deaf is the sound: UA Deaf community strives for accessibility, education

CW / Jake Stevens, CW File, Photo Illustration CW / Kylie Cowden

Aaron Bonner

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He reaches up to cover their mouths and get them to understand when speaking can’t do the trick. Schafer is profoundly deaf, incapable of identifying speech and only able to hear loud noises in a specific decibel range.

“When there’s the challenge of me being uncomfortable or them being uncomfortable, often I will take the role of being uncomfortable because I’m the minority, and I will try to say, ‘Hold on one second’ or write or gesture, and they’ll see my body language change and see that I’m working overtime trying to figure out what’s happening,” Schafer said.

At four years old, Schafer began losing his hearing. Starting with a lack of comprehension, it quickly became an issue that he had to address. He had difficulty understanding his teachers and classmates or getting involved in classroom discussion, which often led to 
in-school consequences.

“They would send me to the principal’s office or send me to detention, that type of thing,” Schafer said. “After a while, I think they figured out ‘Oh, okay, I have hearing loss,’ so it was very interesting because it was prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and so it was very interesting how the school wasn’t prepared to address a student with hearing loss and accessibility for sign language and visuals.”

He wore a hearing aid on his left ear to help, but after a while, the hearing in his left ear fell away, leaving it profoundly deaf. His right ear has only residual hearing within the 90dB-120dB range.

His elementary school offered little help, mostly relying on sound amplification and lip-reading, which Schafer said didn’t work for him. At the time, interpreters were not required, leaving Schafer with no options other than using small groups, notes with classmates and picking up information through reading. After seeing the frustrations Schafer went through, he and his family moved to Jacksonville, Illinois, to allow him to attend the Illinois School for the Deaf.

He learned sign language to help him communicate outside of simply reading and writing. He attended many universities from Gallaudet University, the University of Illinois at Springfield and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he achieved his masters in alcohol and drug counseling and educational psychology. In August, Schafer found himself at The University of Alabama, where he is currently going for his doctorate in the school of psychology.

“It was an interesting experience for me, going to different universities with different approaches to hearing loss and different attitudes in relation to accommodation,” Schafer said. “You have to teach all of them different approaches because every deaf person is unique and individual. Then the idea of transferring to a different type of language from writing or spoken to something that was visual using handshakes, proximity and space to convey meaning and transferring between the two languages.”

While Schafer has only been at the University for a few months, he said that compared to other universities, The University of Alabama still “has a long way to go” to make the campus more accessible. Rachel Thompson, director of emerging technology and accessibility for the Center of Instructional Technology, has been working with the Office of Disability Services and students to improve the campus.

Thompson has worked to help bring captions to televisions in public areas, such as the dining hall and classrooms. For teachers showing videos, she said the best course of action, regardless of whether or not a student asked, was to turn on the captions to allow for a better understanding.

“We also now have captioning in the stadium, which is awesome, and people who need it can get an assistive listening device in the classrooms,” Thompson said. “So any class on campus, there will be an assistive listening device for students that have a need for that, and they can hook it to their own hearing devices and it will help them, especially if the faculty member wears a microphone.”

Currently, The University of Alabama does not offer American Sign Language courses outside of an Honors College course. Thompson said there have been discussions within the campus administration to add more ASL courses and even interpreter training programs.

“A lot of my efforts are more focused on the broad picture, so what is the university doing as a whole doing to help make sure we are inclusive,” Thompson said. “One of the things that we do that you may have noticed, is that the university has a lot of digital signs now. Those are incorporated into emergency alerts, so if there’s a tornado warning, that can appear on the digital sign instead of just an audio announcement.”

This form of accessibility was one that Schafer had addressed with Thompson in the past, proposing a more visual alert system with different lights for each type of emergency. One of the major challenges during an on-campus emergency, he said, would be to put his trust in others’ judgment and intentions to let him know if the situation is all clear.

Thompson works alongside Darrin Griffin, an assistant professor in the Communication Studies department. He is also a faculty advisor for DEAF Hands Speak, a student organization focused on bridging the gap between the hearing and deaf communities.

“If [a hard-of-hearing student] wants to attend something, there’s technology, amplification devices and text captioning live, so I would say that those students are fairly accessible to content,” Griffin said. “I don’t think that’s really an issue right now, and I think people are aware of those types of things, but on the flip side, a student who identifies as deaf culturally and uses American Sign Language, the University is not acceptable for a lot of different reasons.“

A lack of awareness of deaf culture and the fact that many students simply don’t know sign language were just two of the reasons, Griffin said, that campus life could often be a challenge for deaf students. Griffin is a CODA, a child of deaf adults, though he considers himself in the peripheral of the community. He said “no person can represent an entire group of people” and the fundamentals of creating a more accessible campus was to come in with an open mindset.

“Whether it be someone who has needs for sight or sound or physical access, that person should dictate what they need and other people should be open to helping and finding a way to make that happen,“ Griffin said. “That’s the basics to me –– the person themself should dictate their own needs, not someone else.”

Schafer is hopeful that more deaf students will attend college, with future programs and courses to help pave the way.

“There’s a lot of potential in research in nonverbal communication and deaf culture,” Schafer said. “The University of Texas just received a grant, a large grant, for researching that, and maybe UA down the road can take advantage of a similar type of situation.”