On University Life and Deaf Forebears

Back in my day, I wanted to go to college, I wanted to get my PhD, but I couldn’t get an interpreter.

Interpreters were not provided back then, you see. And we also didn’t have the technology we have now.

I had to fight for my right to be there.

I still went to school, I still worked for my degree, but I sat in the front and tried my best to lipread. I knew I wouldn’t get everything, but it was better than nothing.

Or I sat in the back, next to friends, and read their notes. Then I read up on everything, studied up, and worked as hard as I could.

Or I never went to class, because I knew I wouldn’t understand anything. It was a waste of my time. I borrowed notes, I studied, and I still passed the examinations.

Back then people viewed you much more negatively if you were deaf. It’s not something you disclosed very much, unless you had to.

I could tell that the hearing people in those places didn’t know what to do with me when I showed up and let them see I was deaf. They’d never seen that before.

I still had great friends and mentors, who helped me through those days. They wrote things down, kept me informed, read my papers and my work. They were very supportive, and I still had a good time.

I didn’t know sign language was an option. I’d never met another deaf person before. I thought I was the only one.

I wish I’d had the education opportunities you’ve had, even if things nowadays still aren’t perfect.

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These are all comments I’ve received from older deaf people over the years – particularly those who attended college or graduate school in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, before universal accessibility laws and the ADA. Every time I have the opportunity to talk to or correspond with members of this “old guard,” I walk away feeling astonished and humbled by their ability, their intelligence, and their perseverance to get an education and create opportunities for themselves even within contexts that were far less accessible than they are today. It’s, frankly, a treat to learn about their experiences. While I’ve gotten a range of different stories from different people, I always wind up thinking about how academia and higher education have changed drastically for deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the last fifty years, even if there still are barriers and still progress to be made.

Accessibility in higher education settings was something I spent a lot of time thinking about here last year, since I wrote my master’s thesis on perceptions on accommodations and access among contemporary mainstreamed deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the United States. But it keeps returning to my mind. While in Oxford earlier this month, I had the serendipitous opportunity to meet and have lunch with an older deaf professor, who was also American and also an Oxford alum, while he and his family passed through for a day. How we actually ended up back in Oxford, on the same day, after each traveling several thousand miles across the world, I’m not quite sure, but a mutual deaf friend was gracious enough to introduce us and I’m very glad our meeting worked out. During this professor’s recollections of Oxford and his times there, several decades ago, I found myself reflecting on my own time in this place. How different our respective experiences were, and also how similar – in certain ways. Certainly I had far more access to interpreters, accessibility resources, and other opportunities than he did, because of my position in this day and age. Those factors alone, and also more progressive cultural attitudes about deafness, made mine a different Oxford than he must have experienced. But he also used the traditional Oxford education system, very focused on individual encounters and independent study, to his own advantage, and with that he succeeded – in a way I realized that I also could succeed, if called upon to do the same. And some elements of Oxford, such as sports and pubs and conversation and the English countryside, never seem to change. (Cue more reflections on the odd sense of time one encounters in this place.)

One thing I get out of conversations like this one, I suppose, is not to take things for granted. The opportunities I’ve had, and the existence I lead, are very much a product of my time, and also of the energy and effort that my deaf forebears (so to speak) have expended in generations past. But also: one does what one has to. Those forebears fought to assert a place for themselves in mainstream contexts that did not accommodate them, and as I grow older this seems to me a profound and inescapable truth that I ought to keep close in mind – just as I must remember how, as a woman, there was recently a time that I wouldn’t have been able to attend Oxford, either, all questions of deafness aside. Institutions like Oxford are already not always the most accessible, precisely because they were designed for a certain kind of student: white, male, upper-class, able-bodied. I know this already, and I tend to encounter it more often in the context of race and gender, upon discussions with other women or with minority groups from previous generations. Similar encounters with other deaf people are comparatively more rare. But these encounters with the older deaf generation, who lived a different reality than I did, in the same place, are still essential. These conversations give me a sense of my own history. In this vein, they also give me a stronger sense of myself, of how my puzzle piece fits in with a larger human tapestry.

This visit back to Oxford has already been a time of reflection on what I got out of this place, and how it continues to lend itself to where I am going, so I’m glad I got to weave some other unexpected pieces into that fabric, too. Now, for the enjoyable day when I return to Oxford for some decades-off reunion and find myself able to chat with another, younger, deaf student who has also made her way there…!