Computer Technology Education and the Deaf Student: Observations of Serious Nuances of Communication
Robbins, Curtis, Information Technology and Disabilities
The purpose of this paper is to raise a very peculiar topic of concern. As a deaf student taking computer courses to earn certificates as a multimedia specialist and a network administrator at two different colleges in the state of Maryland, I have experienced recurrent problems in different computer classes. I have found that no studies or projects have ever been conducted to find ways of serving deaf students like myself who are taking computer courses in regular colleges and universities.
A review of the education literature revealed only one study relevant to the issue I'm discussing here. This 1987 report, which focused on high school math teacher training (American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 1987), does not address the issue of how computer courses can be taught to deaf students in college or university settings.
For over thirteen years I have taught computer courses at Gallaudet University, an institution of higher education serving a very specific group--deaf students. Additionally, I have taught non-technical courses and counseled at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf for two years.
These institutions of higher education were established to serve a target population of deaf students with all the technology and communication skills among the staff and faculty being geared to that purpose. Furthermore, these schools have budgets to serve these students, who get considerable technical support from staff and faculty who have sign language skills. This paper is not about specialized schools, but rather the many more "regular" schools whose programs and resources might be made more accessible to deaf learners.
This paper is about my observations as a deaf computer student who attended hearing institutions of higher education at which the budgets for services to disabled students are very limited (and in the case of the deaf student this means funding sign language interpreters). Significantly, most of the staff and faculty at these institutions have little or no understanding of the needs of deaf students.
As a former educational technology professor I sought to improve my employability by adapting my skills and knowledge of computing to the current job market. I've taken courses and seminars at several institutions of higher education. As a deaf individual, I consider myself an excellent lipreader with very understandable speech, but in any classroom setting I strongly prefer having an interpreter present in order to be able to participate in class discussions. On the other hand, on a one-on-one basis, I am able to carry a relatively decent conversation without hesitating to ask the other party to repeat if I don't understand--reminding other speakers to speak slowly and keep things away from lips.
At all computer courses I've taken, practically every classroom contained a cluster of networked computers lined up on rows of tables facing the front of the room. All were unintentionally set up with poor visibility (after all, these schools were not designed for deaf students). I've had difficulty trying to follow instructors' demonstrative, illustrative, or graphic gesturing, whether by hand, on hand, or on the blackboard, an overhead projector, or a large monitor--they were, above all, visual obstacle courses for me in following the instructor. And of course, as crowded as most computer labs/classrooms are, lipreading or watching interpreters under such conditions was just as preposterous.
These classrooms typically contain workstations with bulky monitors and high miditower computers, with little or no room to set the notebooks down. Catching even a glimpse of the instructor is a strain.
And the interpreters! They come with all levels of sign language skills and from almost every walk of life, but with little, or some, or no prior knowledge or skills in computer technology. …