While deaf students are often granted accommodations at colleges, universities, and trade schools, the students themselves carry the burden of requesting those accommodations and following up if they are not provided or do not meet their needs.

However, at many institutions, decisions about when, where, and which accommodations to provide are made with minimal input from the student. Administrators may feel like they have done their work by providing a certain accommodation, but accomodations do not equal access.

This puts deaf students in a paradox: they are expected to take on the outsized responsibility of managing their own accommodations but are kept out of decisions about those accommodations. The result is that deaf students do not always have full access to effective communication, even with accommodations.

“If a student asks for accommodations that are different or more than what their school as deemed ‘sufficient,’ they are often denied or otherwise penalized for speaking up,” said Sarah Brown, access coordinator for the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes.

What is Equitable Access?

Brown and Tia Ivanko, director of operations at NDC, facilitated a Postsecondary Interpreting Task Force on Jan. 14-15 to examine central questions surrounding equitable access — What does it look like? What are current standard practices, and what strategies should professionals consider to ensure deaf students are able to actively participate in all aspects of their continued education?

“Deaf students are enrolling in higher education at a lower rate than their hearing peers. They are graduating at a lower rate, and they are employed at a lower rate,” said Stephanie Cawthon, PhD, director of NDC. “Changing those numbers requires systemic change at multiple levels and a variety of interventions. This task force is one piece of that puzzle, as interpreters are on the front lines every day.”

Systems change is the goal of NDC’s Engage for Change | national initiative, which brings together national leaders in various fields to identify barriers to #DeafSuccess, and work together to find solutions. The Postsecondary Interpreting Task Force is part of that initiative.

“Coming here for this is one of my highlights of the year,” Octavian Robinson, a member of the task force, said on his Twitter feed, @DeafHistorian. “Love the energy, ideas, and relationships that are borne of this work.”

In the two-day meeting, this group of national experts discussed ways negative attitudes and ignorance from those with authority — teachers, administrators, parents, and interpreters themselves — can prevent deaf students from getting truly equitable access.

In fact, research shows that setting high expectations for deaf students can improve overall outcomes for those students.

Task Force Members

Members of the task force represented decades of experience in the interpreting field, and a range of backgrounds, cultures, and experiences.

“I am grateful to all the members of the task force, who gave generously of their time, energy, and most importantly, their expertise,” Ivanko said. “Each person on the task force brought something unique and meaningful to the conversation. Their passion, breadth of knowledge, and dedication to deaf success was evident in every interaction.”

The members are:

NDC staff:

Attitude as a  Barrier to Access

In addition to looking at institutional barriers, the task force looked for ways interpreters might improve their performance, especially when a deaf student is learning American Sign Language or English.

“Interpreters treat students who don't know English or ASL (American Sign Language), but do know other languages, as language deficient or say ‘they have no language,’” said Marina Martínez Cora, a member of the task force.

In those cases, it is often the interpreter themselves who are limited. They may be competent in English and ASL, but usually do not have competency in other languages. The task force noted the importance of an interpreter understanding their own limitations when working with students, instead of applying labels to the students.

“Pausing to recognize ‘I’ as the interpreter am not a good fit as an interpreter for a deaf individual is an essential ethical decision interpreters need to be making," said Ivanko. "It’s not about the interpreter — it’s about equitable and appropriate access.”

Similar attitudes and biases are conveyed by teachers, administrators and other people that students might encounter. This is often internalized by the student, and those feelings of inadequacy can follow them throughout their lives.

Gaps in communication must be taken seriously and addressed quickly.

The Value of a Deaf Interpreter

The task force also considered ways that deaf interpreters — deaf people who are specialists in American Sign Language and other visual or tactile forms of communications — could increase accessibility for all deaf students in various postsecondary settings.

Deaf interpreters can provide interpreting, translation, or transliteration services on their own or as part of an interpreting team, but face barriers to earning certification, obtaining professional development, and getting hired.

Using a deaf interpreter can ensure a deaf student is appropriately represented and that the message is conveyed accurately. They also offer cultural competencies and shared experiences that allow them to provide important context that may be missed by a hearing interpreter.

Unfortunately, deaf interpreters also have to combat biases and ignorance about their work — both from institutions and other interpreters. More education about the benefits of using a deaf interpreter or interpreting team that includes a deaf interpreter could help combat this stigma.

Next Steps

NDC will continue partnerships with our task force members with resources development, including new guidelines and best practices for hiring interpreters, as well as with the development and design of online learning courses.

A new online course, Deaf Centered Practice, will be released Jan. 27. This course opens a dialog about marginalization and oppression of deaf individuals by professionals across settings. In this course professionals will reflect on ways changes practices that include deaf people in the pathway towards greater success.