The college un-experience

Deaf at NU are frustrated with policy on interpreters

By Jenna Russell, Globe Staff, 4/15/2002

WWhen Kathleen Collins transferred to Northeastern University from an all-deaf college in New York last fall, the culture shock was jarring. Her new school was huge and urban and, along its sprawling walkways, her conversations in sign language made her a curiosity.

The school provided interpreters for all her classes, but her social life has not been so easy.

Last month Collins abandoned plans to attend a Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority meeting because no arrangements had been made for an interpreter. By the time she realized the oversight, all the school's interpreters were booked.

''I find it very frustrating,'' said Collins, speaking in sign language translated by an interpreter. ''I feel I have to fight for everything. ... I can't relax and have a regular college experience.''

Last month, the student government at Northeastern demanded changes in the way that interpreters are paid, hoping to make it easier for deaf students to get involved in campus life. As more deaf students enroll at ''hearing'' schools (already, the students number 25,000 nationwide, according to the National Association of the Deaf) colleges like Northeastern can expect increasing pressure to fulfill their legal obligations beyond the classroom.

''Social learning - discussion in a cafe, discussion with a professor - shouldn't be considered incidental,'' said Ruth Bork, director of the Disabilities Resource Center at Northeastern. ''It's part and parcel of what you come to college for. It contributes to your growth, to figuring out who you are.''

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, colleges must provide ''reasonable'' accommodation to the disabled in both architecture and policy. For deaf students, the greatest need, and expense, is for interpreters, whose bills for a single class for one student can run in excess of $1,000 per semester.

For most deaf college students nationwide, the most important battle is still for classroom access, said Mary Vargas, an attorney with the National Association of the Deaf.

''Students are very busy, and in some cases, it's the first time they're having to advocate for themselves,'' she said. ''They have to fight for access to the classroom first in order to stay in college. Access to social activities, for some students, is the second battle.''

Northeastern has a reputation as a fairly deaf-friendly school. Its 30 to 40 deaf students, many of whom are part time, are a tiny fraction of its 13,700 undergraduate enrollment but large compared with many mainstream hearing schools, Bork said. By comparison, Boston University, with a slightly larger student body, has about half as many deaf students.

''We don't recruit ... but there's a very active grapevine in the deaf community,'' Bork said.

Besides providing interpreters for classes, Northeastern offers text telephones on campus and light-signal fire alarms in dormitories. A longstanding degree program in sign language and interpreting enhances interaction between deaf and hearing students and faculty.

In class, interpreters may sit in front, facing the class, or shadow a pacing professor, so deaf students can cross-reference words, expressions, and body language. During class discussions, teachers are asked to build in extra pauses, so that interpreters can keep up and deaf students can contribute.

Deaf students' struggle

to be part of community

Classes and dormitories aren't the sum of the college experience, and when it comes to extracurriculars many students say they share Collins's frustration.

Dare Oyedele, a deaf junior, said he keeps to himself after class and on weekends, focusing on homework. He served as a student senator last fall, an experience he calls positive, but as president of the Deaf Club, he struggled to interact with other student groups. Last month he missed a mandatory meeting for co-ops because organizers forgot to reserve an interpreter. He tried playing intramural basketball, but found it too hard to communicate with his teammates.

''I don't really feel like part of the community,'' he said.

''I would say most deaf people who come here don't come for the social life,'' said Collins, who transferred from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Both students acknowledge that in some ways life would be easier at an all-deaf college, but said they weren't willing to sacrifice the breadth of opportunities at a school like Northeastern. Collins, an international relations major, wanted the chance to study abroad. Oyedele, a computer science major, was atttracted to the school's co-op program, which offers workplace experience.

Frank Bowe, an education professor at Hofstra University and consultant to the National Association of the Deaf, said it's common for deaf college students to feel they're missing out on campus life. Complaints are most common from freshmen and sophomores, who tend to arrive from high schools where their needs were anticipated, he wrote in an e-mail.

''The rules are different'' in college, requiring students to ask, in advance, for what they need, Bowe explained.

At Northeastern, interpreters for classes are arranged by staff members weeks in advance, when deaf students submit their schedules for the coming quarter. By contrast, extracurricular groups are responsible for scheduling and paying for interpreters themselves if deaf students are expected to attend an event. Hosts reserve one of five staff interpreters, or a freelancer, at the resource center in the basement of Dodge Hall and are billed for the service.

Because of the steps involved, last-minute requests are tough to fill, a fact that deaf students understand but still resent. A hearing student ''can decide to attend at the last minute,'' Oyedele said. ''We have to plan everything in advance, and in some ways, it feels unfair.''

Cost has also been an issue, particularly for student groups with limited budgets. Interpreters are paid $15 to $40 an hour, depending on their training. For longer events, multiple interpreters may be required because the physically taxing shifts must be limited. If a deaf or hearing-impaired student doesn't know sign language, a stenographer may be needed instead.

The university's student activities office has $5,000 a year to spend on interpreters, according to Richard Schwabacher, the student government officer who has proposed a new funding system. This year, $3,000 of that money was spent so Oyedele could serve in student government. When the $5,000 is gone, administrators have kicked in another $5,000 in recent years. Schwabacher doesn't expect that money to stretch to the end of the year.

He wants the university to make it easier for groups to get interpreters by creating a single interpreter fund that everyone can access without delays. The joint fund was first proposed 10 years ago, but was never established.

''I don't presume to know how it should be set up, but it needs to be done,'' Schwabacher said. ''A lot of times people don't know where the money's coming from.''

Donnie Perkins, Northeastern's dean for affirmative action and diversity, said the university will cover the cost of interpreters when departments or student groups can't. At the request of Northeastern's president, Richard Freeland, Perkins is looking at setting up a centralized fund.

Northeastern's deaf students haven't taken their fight as far as those at the University of California, Berkeley, where deaf students have sued for better access to extracurricular and other events, in a case expected to go to trial this summer. (The university maintains it has met its obligations.)

At Northeastern, the students say they're encouraged that people are talking about change. In the meantime, they're channeling their energies into classroom learning.

''My vision is that someday, deaf and nondeaf students would be involved in activities together,'' Oyedele said. ''But the main reason I'm here is ... the academic experience.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 4/15/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.