Deaf and hard of hearing students need a community on the 40 acres

2013_09_05_Deaf_Meet_Shweta

Shweta Gulati

Lisa Guerra and Rogelio Fernandez converse using sign language at the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Meet-and-Greet event. 

Duggan Baker

Imagine you’re sitting down in class before a lecture. Now, look to your left. Look to your right. Chances are neither of the students on your left or your right is deaf or hard of hearing. There are only 54 deaf and hard of hearing students registered at the University of Texas, a school with more than 50,000 students. Still, you may have seen one of “us.” 

You may have seen a student sitting in the front of the classroom with an interpreter translating the professor’s words to him in sign language. You may have seen a student with a laptop on the desk in front of her, the screen lit up with real-time captions of the professor’s lecture. 

These are the telltale signs. Otherwise, it is rather difficult to discern any difference between a deaf or hard of hearing student and a hearing student. There are no visible signs, other than the occasional glimpse of a hearing aid, a cochlear implant or a conversation had in sign language. The chance that you have run into a deaf and hard of hearing student is about the same as mine, but, unlike you, I’m one myself.

I came to the UT in the fall of 2010 from a public high school in North Houston. I attended high school as the only hard of hearing student enrolled. I thought I would encounter the same scenario throughout my time at UT as well. I was mistaken.        

When I first came to the University, my disabilities coordinator in Services for Students with Disabilities told me there were, in fact, other deaf and hard of hearing students like me at UT. Excited, I asked her, “Where? Who? How can I get in touch with these students?” But to no avail. My coordinator informed me that she could not put me in contact with these students due to University privacy restrictions. Although there were other deaf and hard of hearing students like me on campus, I felt alone because I had no way of contacting them or getting to know them.

Since then, I have had the pleasure of meeting four other deaf and hard of hearing students through my participation in an organization called Longhorn College Bowl.  The College Bowl is a trivia competition put on by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) every two years at its biennial convention. In the spring of 2012, the first College Bowl team from UT was assembled. All of its members, including me, voluntarily signed up to represent the University. 

Throughout all of our practices, the competition and afterward, we became good friends, but I would not have had the pleasure of meeting other deaf and hard of hearing students had I not elected to join Longhorn College Bowl.

Last Wednesday evening, in coordination with the University’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, Services for Students with Disabilities, the linguistics department and members of Longhorn College Bowl, the University hosted its first Meet and Greet for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students. At the event, approximately 20 deaf and hard of hearing students were able to meet face-to-face for the first time and become acquainted.        

This was a monumental step forward in the direction of creating a united deaf and hard of hearing community on campus. Just getting all of these students into one place with one another was an achievement in itself.   

Previously, the population of deaf and hard of hearing students on campus was isolated and fractured, with no sense of community. Last Wednesday’s event was a step in the right direction. There will be similar events in the future in the hopes of reaching the goal of a strong and united community of deaf and hard of hearing students on the UT campus.   

These future events will be critical for the deaf and hard of hearing community on campus. With more frequent events, the number of deaf and hard of hearing students that find a community on the 40 acres could increase dramatically, which could cause even more deaf and hard of hearing students to choose Texas over more traditional deaf colleges. 

It’s hard to imagine how this could be anything but a advantage for UT, where we take pride in diversity. At such a university, it is imperative that deaf and hard of hearing students be included.  

Baker is a Plan II Honors senior from Spring, Texas.