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Deaf students demonstrate against inaccessibility and inequity at Ontario universities

| May 24, 2009
Deaf students demonstrate against inaccessibility and inequity at Ontario universities

At a protest outside the Accessibility Services building on Wednesday at the University of Toronto (U of T), students described the inequity and inaccessibility issues Deaf people face at some Ontario universities, as they pushed for policy and budgetary changes to improve the quality of interpreter services.

Rally organizer Jenny Blaser has encountered numerous support problems at U of T. The first year linguistics and equity studies major was forced to drop courses when no interpreter was available. Other times, she said: “Some of the course interpreters have been really lousy. There’s no knowledge or awareness of my needs as a Deaf student.”

If Blaser wants to get involved in on-campus organizations, do group coursework or attend a special event, she needs an interpreter.

Although she’s tried to convince the university that Deaf students need representation, the school doesn’t understand her accessibility requirements. In high school, where Blaser followed more of an independent study program, she didn’t encounter these types of problems.

At one point, she never thought she’d apply to university. But once she did, Blaser didn’t think she’d experience accessibility issues.

Blaser, who is the only Deaf undergraduate student at the downtown campus of U of T (the other three are graduate students), would like to see an interpreter coordinator hired.  “Right now there is a woman who really has no idea what the requirements are for an interpreter,” she said. “It’s her responsibility to hire interpreters but she has no idea what they do.”

That often leaves Blaser on her own to find interpreters – especially for non-academic special events. Two years ago, the university stopped hiring on-call interpreters, requiring Deaf students to find and hire their own. Even though the university picks up the tab, it takes Blaser a long time to find and schedule the right ones.

Outside the Accessibility Services building, Blaser told the protestors, some holding signs reading “No More Barriers for Deaf Students” and “Equity Includes You, Unless You Can’t Hear” that she’s met a lot of  Deaf students who’ve had similar experiences at Ontario universities.

“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “We shouldn’t be going through something like this. They should be changing and improving accessibility services.”

Even though Blaser could have attended Gallaudet University, the world leader in liberal education and career development for Deaf and hard-of-hearing undergraduate students located in Washington, D.C., she chose to remain in Canada. “This is my country and I assume that my country would be here to support me as I become a potential leader in the future,” she said.

“What’s really neat is the students have teachers (at Gallaudet) who are also Deaf. They don’t even need interpreters. We get direct access which is far better. Two people communicating in the same language.”

At Gallaudet, the teachers are able to communicate in American Sign Language (ASL), making it much easier for students to talk with each other as well. Outside classes, students can carry on discussions and learn more from each because they all understood what they were taught during the lectures.

Blaser said she’s had meetings with school officials at U of T. Yet nothing changed. Two weeks ago, she contacted the Vice Provost and still hasn’t had a response. Earlier, she tried to arrange a meeting with the Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences but had no response. The Vice President of Students’ Life told Blaser they’d meet later.

When they met briefly in January, Blaser outlined the problems and was told “that they would look into the matter.” Since then, there have been no new developments.

Bijay Shrethresa, an ASL trainer at the Canadian Hearing Society, grew up in Toronto and encourages Deaf students to attend a Canadian university. But he receives a great deal of emails from individuals “screaming” for interpreters.

He said it’s horrible when Deaf students end up leaving U of T and can’t pursue their education due to a shortage of interpreters. “The potential within the Deaf community is limited because the university isn’t providing interpreters to them,” said Shrethresa.

For Deaf students, accessibility is crucial. They would prefer to attend Canadian universities rather than have a Deaf university established in Ontario.

So what does accessibility mean for a Deaf student like Blaser?

Blaser needs qualified interpreters and, perhaps, real time captioners. As a Deaf individual trying to communicate with her professors, do her studies and book her own interpreters, she is often overwhelmed by the workload.

This fall, 15 students will begin studying at U of T. “We’ll see what kinds of barriers they’re going to have,” said Shrethresa.

Approximately 25 Deaf and hard of hearing students attend Ryerson University, where Ph.D. mechanical engineering student David Fourney said they’re experiencing a lot of the same problems as U of T. “Trying to find interpreters is very difficult,” he said. “I came here for the education, but I need qualified interpreters in my field of study in order to succeed.”

At OISE, however, graduate student Megan Youngs hasn’t had a problem finding interpreters. “Imagine having to drop a course because you can’t find interpreters,” she said. “It just prolongs your education process that much more.”

Youngs added: “You need someone who is qualified to know what the needs are for the different Deaf individuals. At York University they do have an interpreter who’s working as the interpreter coordinator as well. And so she meets with the various interpreters, determines their skill level and places them appropriately.”

“At York University, they have an interpreter coordinator and everything seems to be going well,” said Blaser. “So I don’t know why they couldn’t have one here as well at U of T. It would be really easy to copy what York University has.”

Ph.D. student Ellen Hibbard said the university should understand the huge communication barriers that exist for Deaf students, inside and outside the classroom. Hibbard explained that academic learning comes from being able to dialogue with others. “It’s not just about sitting in a room and listening,” she said. “It’s about discourse, being able to learn from your peers.”

At Ryerson University, Hibbard has had to do a lot of advocating for interpreters in the classroom and in study groups. “It’s much easier to read papers in English when you’ve got the basis of that information in ASL,” she said. “Trying to read English all the time and get my education that way would be impossible.”

That’s because Deaf students aren’t familiar with the spoken word, syntax or phonetics of the English language. The written word is a representation of the spoken language. What people speak and what’s written aren’t identical. Yet Deaf people don’t have the auditory input. So they have to work much harder to develop their vocabulary. It can be a real struggle for some.

If Deaf students receive information in ASL, they are getting it directly in the language they understand and use every day. But if a professor says to look in the textbook at something he’s describing during class, a Deaf student can’t look at the book and the interpreter simultaneously. So it’s a language barrier and a human barrier too.

“ASL is a visual spatial modality of language,” said Hibbard. “If I have to write academic papers, professors have often told me that I need to improve my reading ability. I’m Deaf. How is that supposed to help me? They tell me to feel my voice, to pronounce the words. They just don’t get it, what it means to be Deaf.”

There are other accessibility issues besides the ones Deaf students encounter in a classroom. Accessing the materials and the professors is vital too. Booking interpreters while trying to complete course assignments adds significantly to a Deaf student’s workload. But having solid interpreter services available reduces the burden.

Experts agree that most student learning occurs outside the classroom, by conversing with others. Without interpreters, Deaf students miss out on that learning experience. They have no idea what other people are discussing.

“When you think about all the things that you miss out on as you try to develop relationships with your classmates, the amount of learning you get is far less compared to others who can hear,” said Youngs.

During her first year at U of T, Blaser’s struggled trying to explain her needs to professors. She’s sat down with them over and over again, both semesters, attempting to make clear what she requires from them. “I should have the material from accessibility services ready to give to them,” she said. “But there’s no package to give to professors.” So Blaser is developing her own package.

Interpreters need to understand the academic terms and vocabulary associated with a Deaf student’s field of study. So an interpreter and a Deaf student must be matched carefully. Booking a skilled interpreter for an entire semester can be challenging because the interpreter has to develop a knowledge of the course materials, the Deaf student’s papers and theories.

“This has been a very old battle for us,” said Youngs. “For now, the university needs qualified interpreters to be interpreter coordinators so as to meet the needs of Deaf students.”

With more Deaf students entering universities from main stream high schools, protestors predicted the problem will worsen over the next few years, unless the inaccessibility and inequity issues are resolved now.

Click here to see photos from the rally

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