McDaniel welcoming to deaf community

By Rachel Hooper

Deaf students at McDaniel face some extra challenges, but differences do not set them apart from the life of a typical college student.

Undergraduates at McDaniel are unlikely to meet this unique group of students unless they enroll in ASL classes. Ginny Odierno, who is an economics major with a minor in American Sign Language, was first introduced to ASL at McDaniel through her roommate and a friend who were involved in the First-Year Seminar taught in ASL.

Joining her friends at deaf events sparked her interest in deaf culture. Odierno now resides in the ASL house with seven other hearing undergraduate students. As the name implies, the residents of ASL house choose to use sign language instead of speaking.

A deaf graduate student, Marie, also lives in the ASL house and serves as language model and enforcer of the use of ASL. Enforcement, however, seems to happen more out of respect, said Odierno. “We have to remember to do it, because if we don’t, then [Marie] has no idea what’s going on and…she’s just then really left out,” she said.

Marie is in the master’s program in Deaf Education and wants to become an elementary school teacher. Living with the group of aspiring ASL students gives Marie a unique insight into some of the differences between her hearing friends and deaf friends on campus.

“The only difference is communication,” said Marie. “Some of my hearing friends…sign exact English, and it’s much different from American Sign Language…they don’t use a lot of facial expression, where my deaf friends certainly do.”

As a deaf student, Marie appreciates that all her professors at McDaniel sign, that her classes are small, and that people are supportive of one another. In contrast to her previous school, Valdosta State University with 10,000 students, she finds much less racial and ethnic diversity than she is used to. Marie does not feel there is any difference between being deaf or hearing at McDaniel. She said, “I work hard, just the same as the other students in my classes do.”

Marie also described her experience as a deaf student. “I do believe I work harder because English is my second language,” she said. However, she does not let her struggle with English separate her. “Really, I don’t see any differences myself,” she said. “I can’t hear, that’s the only difference I notice. I don’t let deafness bother me at all; I don’t let that inhibit me from doing anything.”

Mark Rust, coordinator of Deaf Education, explained that McDaniel has a distinctive graduate program being that is the first program to advocate the bilingual approach to teaching deaf children. The school has attracted a number of deaf students and teachers to the campus. Rust calculated that there are 43 graduate students in Deaf Education. He noted that the hearing students are in the minority in the department, with 31 deaf and only 12 hearing students.

Linda Casserly, coordinator of Interpreting Services, works with the deaf students on campus by arranging for their transcribing and interpreting services. Since McDaniel is primarily an English-speaking campus, deaf and hard-of-hearing students make use of these services for class notes, meetings, and special events. Besides the graduate students, she knew of three undergraduates also using the services. Casserly has worked with hundreds of students since she took her position in 1988. According to Casserly, the number of Deaf Education students increases in the summer, when deaf students who are already teaching come to McDaniel from all over the country.

Another graduate student in Deaf Education, Jessica Schmidt, came to McDaniel after spending five years at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She described the difference between the two schools this way: “Gallaudet is a large, large deaf community, it’s a Mecca…you always see deaf people around and here that’s not the case.”

Schmidt acknowledges some extra struggles. “My English is not wonderful, it’s my second language.” She said she has to make sure her writing is well-edited before she turns in her papers.

What does Schmidt do for social networking? Does she use MySpace, Facebook, AOL Instant Messenger, or text messaging? “All of them” admitted Schmidt, who also wishes there were more going on at McDaniel.

“Here there isn’t much in the way of actual events,” observed Schmidt, so she will often travel to D.C. to socialize there. “They have DPHH [Deaf Professional Happy Hour],” said Schmidt in describing the D.C. social scene for deaf students. “They’ll have a football game or sports at Gallaudet.”

Schmidt also denied being limited by being deaf. “I don’t view it as a negative identity either, I think it’s a positive thing,” said Schmidt. “I think it’s helped me improve myself as a person.”

Professor Eddy Laird, who has taught in the Deaf Education department for eight years, has some insights into the deaf student experience at McDaniel as compared to Gallaudet. Laird, a graduate of Gallaudet, feels that there is a big difference between attending a school where deaf students are in the minority instead of the majority.

“Language access absolutely is a big difference. Here you have to work around interpreters,” he said. Laird further compared McDaniel’s program, “this is more access to an English-speaking community, and in order to do that you need interpreters.” He feels that having to use the transcribing and interpreting services on campus may be a challenge. “But as far as coming to classes,” said Laird about the graduate program, “all the teachers sign.”

So what entices a deaf student like Schmidt to come to McDaniel? She said for her, it was because McDaniel has the only program with a practicum in the bilingual, bi-cultural model to teach deaf education.

“Sometimes…people think deaf people can’t go to graduate school, or can’t do this or the other thing,” said Schmidt. “That’s not true; we’re the same as hearing folks. We just can’t hear; that’s the only difference.”