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Pandemic highlights Deaf community’s lack of access to equitable education

By Aidan McClain

Molly Feanny, an international student from Canada, enrolled at Gallaudet University hoping to receive an undergraduate education with a community of like-minded students. But in March 2020, the coronavirus put a halt to her plans.

As the pandemic spread, she and her fellow classmates had been told to leave Gallaudet, a federally-chartered research university in the District that caters to Deaf, DeafBlind and hard-of-hearing students, and go back home.

Across the country, the pandemic shifted the way that educators taught and students learned, but for those at Gallaudet, there were particular challenges to be overcome. To some students, the sense of community at Gallaudet felt like it had been disbanded. That rapid decline of the community was accompanied by the difficulties of online learning.

“[The pandemic] definitely highlighted issues and challenges that Deaf people face with accessibility and communication, especially with limited resources with online learning and limited communication with masks,” Feanny, a Deaf student, explained in an online message.

Virtual learning brought about particular challenges for DeafBlind students — those who may have both auditory and visual impairments — who were used to facial expressions and close interaction as a near-requirement for communication.

Even though Gallaudet provided its students with free laptops and iPads, struggles still arose with online learning.

DeafBlind students often rely on other people for communication and understanding, Feanny explained. These methods include tactile signing and lip reading.

“Especially if they need accessibility in education or attending virtual/physical events, using interpreters with masks or through Zoom is not completely accessible because the Deaf person can miss a lot of information,” Feanny wrote.

As Sarah Honigfeld, an education policy specialist at the National Association of the Deaf and a Deaf adult, explained, a lack of accessible language can cause Deaf students to not understand the curriculum being taught.

Another critical issue that the pandemic created was communicating with friends and family from back home. According to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Hearing Disorders, more than 90 percent of Deaf children are born to hearing parents, meaning it’s likely that the parents have had no experience with American Sign Language.

When parents learn that their child is Deaf or hard of hearing, doctors often recommend the child get a cochlear implant and learn how to hear and speak so they can have a “normal life,” Honigfeld explained in an email.

“This is an entrenched system that is very difficult to disrupt,” Honigfeld wrote.

Yet some students, like Feanny, consider themselves lucky to have a family who knows how to use sign language.

Access to peers who use the same language is crucial for the language acquisition needs of Deaf students, according to Honigfeld.

She explained that barriers to language acquisition can impact students’ progress when they do find themselves at a Deaf-centric school. These barriers can include the lack of an accessible language at birth or the lack of information awareness.

“By then, the critical time frame for children to acquire language has passed, and then schools for deaf students find themselves having to provide remedial education and to support additional needs for those delayed/deprived students,” Honigfeld wrote.

Students at Gallaudet have access to student success coaches that help them transition into the university and find success in both their academic and non-academic lives.

Rachel Bass, a Deaf adult, is one of those success coaches, where she helps students through empowerment approaches and provides them support in an inclusive environment.

A part of the Gallaudet community since 2011, Bass has experience helping students navigate the at-times stressful world they live in.

“... my goal is to promote a sense of belonging while fostering a supportive and inclusive environment for these students to thrive and succeed through their college experience,” Bass wrote in an email.

She believes in creating an accessible and inclusive educational experience for all students. As a part of this philosophy, she educates others on how to make content accessible for DeafBlind students — whether on social media or via Zoom.

In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, all universities are expected to provide accessible education to their students, Honigfeld explained.

But even for a Deaf-centric university like Gallaudet, and with a fall-back plan of online learning in place, the pandemic created unforeseen challenges and highlighted key issues that Deaf students still have to face to receive an accessible education.