Student body largely unaware of deaf culture


 Shanteal Collins

  Mesa Legend


Some students at Mesa Community College say when it comes to communicating with deaf individuals, they aren’t exactly sure how to do that.  Although grabbing a pen and paper would be most people’s gut reaction, there is a little more to it than just relying on the written word: a habit that hearing individuals are so accustomed to.  Most people are not aware that the deaf culture exists as a culture.

photo of videophone console
Lisa Hitzler, program adviser and interpreter for Interpreting Services on campus, demonstrates the videophone technology for the deaf community which is available at both Southern and Dobson and Red Mountain campus libraries.
Photo by Michelle Chance / Mesa Legend

For most students, the definition of a culture includes language, customs, beliefs and  traditions being passed from one generation to the next although language seems to be the top criterion mentioned.  Mesa offers American Sign Language (and Alice Marino) said the biggest misconception students have going into her class is that ASL is an easy course.  Unfortunately, she said, sometimes those students are the ones that struggle the most.

Marino said she was guilty of having this same misconception but quickly adjusted and learned there was more to ASL and hopes that students can come away from her course with the general awareness of language and culture.  Just as learning any foreign language requires work, so does sign language.

Michelle Barto, an ASL instructor at MCC who is deaf, agrees that generally there are students taking sign language over German or Japanese because they believe it will be easier.  “Students believe it’s an easy class because they think it’s English underhand but it’s not,” she said. “People are either visual or auditory learners.”

Barto does not speak in her class but rather resorts to using power points.  The Video Relay Interpreting system is helpful but there is still communication breakdown, said Barto.  The VRI system is a video telecommunication system that uses a web camera or video phone to provide sign language between deaf and hearing persons and can be used in business, medical, education, government, and legal support.

Interpreters are accessed on a tablet, laptop or any other communication device and are always ready to assist deaf individuals, say at at a doctor’s office, but the breakdown comes when the doctor asks the patient, “Which one do you want? Do you want this one or that one?” and the interpretation is hard to make when the interpreter is not physically in the same room as the doctor and patient.

For students learning sign language, their difficulties are in grasping ASL spatial and depth aspects and it is here that Marino explains what that actually means.  “ASL is literally deep,” she said. “It is not linear and this is the most common hurdle my students face while learning. For example, the sentence ‘The red car is parked under the tree’ for hearing people is literally one word after another. We cannot put words on top of words. But for ASL, I use my facial expressions to emphasize a question or statement and I use my hands to talk about the car, tree, the color red, and parked as well.”

Barto said eye contact is very important as well as being able to use facial expressions.  “For a positive statement I nod my head; a negative one I shake my head. To make a point about something, for example if I want to say that I really like ice cream, I rotate my head a certain degree,” Barto said.

Barto said she is the only deaf person in her family and that they all know sign language to communicate with her. Usually the communication works as her children or husband will speed her up on a conversation if she is not present to lip read.  Frustration does overcome Barto, especially in a group setting, particularly when she is in a conversation with her hearing brother first and her sister will join in later. She said they get so carried away with speaking to each other in front of her that they forget she cannot hear.

Communicating with individuals who are deaf from birth is not the only form of deafness.  Jenn Starr is an MCC student who has been deaf for five years due to Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SNHL), which is central nerve death on the side of the brain. A few days before she lost her hearing, she experienced vertigo and tinnitus, or dizziness and ringing in the ears. A few days later she woke to realize she could not hear a thing.

Starr said at first she carried a notebook and pen to communicate with other people but soon realized that she had to find another way to adjust into the life changes she now faced.  In ASL she quickly learned to efficiently lip read and it is because of this she says people are surprised to learn that she is deaf.   “The deaf culture is very confident and has a very strong sense of identity,” she said.

She also said she will always be a “hearing person” in regards to the deaf culture because she lived in the “hearing world” until she was 27.  Doctors had also offered to fix her hearing, Starr said, but she found it pointless and instead welcomed the changes.

Michelle Arviso, a hearing aid assistant at Costco, said most of their patients lose hearing over time.  “We tell patients that we cannot fix the hearing, but that we are going to aid you,” said Arviso, making the difference evident.  She said the process to adjusting to hearing again takes time with the gradual increase in hearing and 95 percent of patients are happy and say they should have come sooner.

“There is a 90-day trial period and we see the patient continually after the aid is placed into the ear. As patients adjust to hearing more and more, we slowly adjust the hearing setting a little more so they can hear more of their surroundings,” she said.

Nick Morgan, an exercise science major at MCC, said he most likely will resort to using a pen and paper to communicate as he does not know ASL.  Sareha Blevins, who is studying sports therapy at MCC, stated that taking an ASL summer course in high school has helped her to become aware of the basics of communicating with deaf individuals: eye contact and giving her full attention.

Marco Perez, an architect major at MCC, said he would not know how to communicate with deaf individuals but that he had a fellow student in a prior class who was deaf and he had a translator with him to communicate with other students.  Perez saw people writing down questions or statements as well and figured this was a technique he could use in the future.  “I think I will have a lot of patience in the future too,” he said.

Understanding is one attribute Tatyanna Watson, an MCC student studying for her associate degree, said she must possess at her Starbucks job and she learned this quickly when communicating with deaf individuals.  Now a regular customer, a deaf individual approached the counter with a note stating he was deaf and had written his drink order down. And instead of calling his name, she takes the drink to him. She understood she had to communicate differently with deaf individuals at this point.


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These are archived stories from Mesa Legend editions before Fall 2018. See article for corresponding author.

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