Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with disabilities on their path towards college with your organization Communication service for the Deaf (CSD)?
In my work as a K-12 classroom teacher, I worked extremely closely with students in transition. I felt closely connected with those who were disabled or deaf, like myself, and working through a challenging system. As an English teacher, I worked hard to give students the language tools they needed in life, read student college application essays, and wrote recommendations annually. Later as an adjunct professor at Gallaudet University, I worked equally hard at giving students the support they needed not just to get into college, but also to stay there and succeed.
Now with CSD Learns I am fulfilling a lifelong dream of creating resources in American Sign Language for teachers in the classroom who, like me, open their hearts to the students they teach and want to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed.
What do you tell students who don't believe they can attend college because they are deaf or hard of hearing?
In my experience as a teacher in public schools, deaf students dream of attending college but often have no idea where to begin. My advice here is what I shared with them: the best strategy is to begin planning early for the financial, social, and academic aspects of college. Don't wait until your senior year.
Start talking to your school guidance counselor early and visit colleges to experience the culture and see what is the norm on campus. Empower yourself to comparison shop. When I applied for college 16 years ago, some colleges refused to provide ASL interpreters, and some did not even have to be asked. And once you've planned and looked around, choose a college which showed that it's willing to invest in all students.
What are some common misconceptions about students who are deaf or hard of hearing and education?
I think one huge assumption I'd love to see change is the idea that interpreters are there 'for' the deaf person. This can result in professors talking to the interpreter -- and never really engage with the student who is deaf. Interpreters interpret both ways, and are there for all parties present. When you have an interpreter in your class, it's an opportunity to broaden the scope of discussion and create a diverse learning network in the classroom -- and all students can leave the classroom enriched from the sharing.
Should students be up-front with universities about their hearing disability during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university? What are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address being deaf or hard of hearing with universities during the application process?
I had no choice but to disclose my status as a deaf person since I attended a school for the deaf, which was on my records, and since I needed an ASL interpreter for the interviews. I later realized this was the best thing that happened to me. Out of six colleges, three didn't want to provide any interpreters during the interview or tour, so right away, I knew which colleges wouldn't have the environment I wanted.
I not only asked about classroom interpreting, but also university events and activities like sports and theatre. Out of the three remaining schools, only one was willing to invest in me so I could have a complete college experience. I wasn't willing to settle for anything less -- and neither should deaf youth today.
If you could give one piece of advice to students who are deaf or hard of hearing applying to college, what would it be?
While keeping access in mind, don't forget about your bucket list. College is a time when your mind and heart broaden and you'll want to choose a place which has all the options you could dream of. Go abroad. Perform in a play. Join a team. Learn about ancient skeletons. College is more than just a place to sit while you get a degree so you can get a job. A great college should be a place full of excitement and opportunity!
What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student who is deaf or hard of hearing should consider when selecting a university experience and why?
Think about your community and support network. When I went to college, I was so focused on getting in that I never worried about staying in. Initially, I found myself incredibly lonely as there were no other deaf students in the university. Luckily, I developed strong connections with deaf students in other universities and had great family and friends who visited.
Where can students seek help/advice if an issue does arise?
The internet. There are so many online resources we can turn to now when we experience challenges. One notable online resource is DREAM - Disability Rights Education, Activism and Mentoring, which offers national conferences and allows deaf people to meet others also working within the college system.
Are there any barriers that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for?
My students often found themselves surprised at the struggle to obtain qualified interpreters. Not every interpreter is qualified to work with every high-level academic subject. I know students who have transferred to big-city schools because they're more likely to find an interpreter experienced in a specific field.
What are ways students can start to build a long-distance support system if they attend college away from friends or family?
I recommend thinking about who in your world now, such as friends or family members, might struggle to communicate with you once you go to college and let them know how important it is to you that you stay connected -- then make a plan.
As a deaf person in a hearing family, I had to think about communication avenues. How did I talk to my family members? What tools did they use, a phone or a computer? I actually taught a couple of relatives to use email -- and made it clear they'd be expected to -- so I could stay in touch.
Any final thoughts for us?
Don't be afraid to challenge yourself and see how much further you can fly. When I was in college, I had the opportunity to try activities and go places I'd never thought I would before. Deaf students today graduate at the top of legal and medical programs, play sports at Olympic levels, and go on to become actors, politicians, and more. College is where you begin to shape your future. Enjoy every minute.
Joseph Santini, Ed.S.Program Manager for CSD Learns
Joseph Santini, Ed.S., is program manager for CSD Learns, the online education system of CSD, and a former K-12 instructor. As program manager, Santini supervises the development of course curricula and oversees the production and quality assurance of online learning content and assessment materials. A Ph.D. student at Gallaudet University, Santini's research focuses on training for teachers in bilingual environments. Previous publications include “Supporting Deaf Students -- And All Students” in Educational Leadership, “How a Deaf Educator Teaches Critical Literacy With Media and Technology” on Noodle.com, and “The Language of Respect” in the New York Times Lesson Plans site.