One of the first things you may notice when you arrive at RIT is that it is a melting pot for the unique; nerds, art students, engineers, computer science geeks, and international students have made the campus their home. Each of these groups has their own language; Some have thorough conversations about XHTML and Unix, while others go on about engineering projectiles or proper photo techniques. You can tune most of them out if they’re not in your circle, yet it is always hard to miss the people who move their hands around crazily at each other.
Who are these people? Well, RIT is home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), the world’s first and largest technical institute for the Deaf. Monroe County, in fact, has the largest deaf to hearing ratio in the country. With nearly 1,500 deaf students on campus and plenty more deaf faculty and staff, RIT is known to be “Deaf-friendly.” Here is a guide, created by a Deaf student, to help you become Deaf-friendly and understand this silent culture.
Inside the Deaf Community
The Deaf community is home to a variety of diverse subcultures. Although united by a common ground, much of this diversity isn’t immediately apparent. Faced with communication barriers and different philosophies of integration, nearly every deaf person has a unique experience.
Known as hard of hearing, some of us are born with a little more hearing than others, and are able to learn how to speak. However, many of us are profoundly deaf and cannot speak at all. While most deaf individuals learn both Americal sign language (ASL) and speech growing up, it is not uncommon to be raised to only speak and not learn sign language at all; these individuals are known as the oral deaf.
The majority of deaf people use ASL to communicate with each other. ASL is recognized as an official language; it has linguistic components, and everything else except a written language. Today, ASL is the third most offered language course across America’s schools.
Before college, some deaf people choose to go to Deaf (residential) schools, but today the majority is mainstreamed in public schools with support services. Despite the various difficulties, many deaf people do not feel isolated or limited by their struggle. Some, like myself, wear hearing aid devices such as cochlear implants, but others try these devices to little avail. Even so, those who come from Deaf schools tend to be more culturally and socially involved with the Deaf community.
It is a fact that many deaf people do not have the best English skills. Parents often do not find out when their child is born that they cannot hear. As a result, many trail behind in education due to late language development. While children usually learn a language from hearing others speak, deaf children lack the access to this type of incidental learning like. This, however, does not mean that we’re dumb — we made it this far, and are capable of taking the same classes you are.
In the end, it is important to remember that we lead very normal lives. We party, go to classes, have jobs on campus, and go to the gym just as you do. It is only our culture and methods of communication that are different.
Deaf on the Social Front
When surrounded by a significant number of deaf people for the first time, many hearing people might not be used to the “deaf noises” we make. Obviously, deaf people cannot always hear themselves, and they do not always know the appropriate sounds for their surroundings. So, don’t be creeped out if a deaf person laughs out loud in silence — they are most likely laughing at some signed joke. If a person slams a hand on the table, it is not a sign of anger; rather, they are probably animating a story.
Sometimes our hearing aids will give off annoying feedback; if you politely let us know you can hear it, we will thank you for saving our hearing aids’ battery life. There are a lot more deaf noises that you will discover — don’t make fun of them. Get used to them because you will be hearing them often over your next few years at RIT.
Maybe you will find yourself staring at a group with their hands flying around. Yes, sometimes that can be considered rude, but occasional glances are okay.
You can help to bridge the communication gap between deaf and hearing, even if you don’t know sign. Try writing your thoughts out. Whether on paper, a cell phone or a computer screen, this is a quick and effective way to converse with a deaf person. Also, depending on your location, you may be able to find an interpreter.
But before you jump straight into conversation, remember that deaf people have different personalities. Some will be sociable, while others will be uninterested in talking to a hearing person. Don’t be offended. Also, keep in mind that not all deaf people learn the social graces of the hearing society and may appear to be blunt or rude without intending to be. It’s nothing personal; just try to keep an open mind.
But how do you actively go about meeting your Deaf schoolmates? If you’re one of a lucky few, you might not need to look any further than your dorm floor. If you are fortunate enough to live on a mainstream floor with other deaf residents, you will have a better opportunity to engage and socialize with Deaf people.
If you are interested in ASL or learning about Deaf culture, there are many opportunities for you to become more aware or involved with the Deaf community.
Those on hearing floors may want to check out No Voice Zone, an open group that meets every Wednesday. Both hearing and deaf students are welcome. It is a great opportunity to learn sign, get to know Deaf people and meet other hearing people interested in ASL.
Getting Involved Academically
Although some classes at RIT are delegated for hearing or deaf students only, many are mainstreamed. When you’re in class you might see some interpreters or C-Print (captioning) computers propped up at the front for deaf people. If you’re enrolled in one of these mainstreamed classes, don’t take over the front seats; these are typically occupied by deaf students. Be mindful of us as we need to have a clear view of the interpreter or the C-Print.
As deaf people must concentrate on what a professor or interpreter is signing, many of these classes require a notetaker. Generally this is a hearing student who will take notes for any deaf students in the class. Any student with a GPA of 2.5 or higher is eligible to be a notetaker.
A select few may find a more academic interest in the Deaf culture itself. For these students, RIT has a variety of options. If you’re shopping for a major and Deaf culture has piqued your interest, look into NTID’s ASL-English Interpretation program, located in the school of American Sign Language and Interpreting Education.
But those with a more casual interest are not left out of the loop either. Before graduation, everyone is required to take an Arts of Expression class, and taking an ASL class fulfills this requirement. Several classes of varying difficulties are available each quarter, and first and second years are given priority in registration.
Finally, don’t be shy. We don’t bite. All we ask is for you to keep an open mind about our culture and community.