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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Disabling Pedagogy: Power, Politics, and Deaf Education

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The analysis of data focused on issues of “simple equality” and the positioning of deaf students by and within the “hearing university.” The results are not intended to be representative of the experiences of deaf teacher education students generally. At the time of the study, these were the only deaf students undertaking undergraduate teaching degrees at their respective institutions. In this respect, they represented the total number of deaf students in their class and provided valuable insight into their experiences at an overwhelmingly hearing university. Furthermore, the study does not describe or compare university structures; rather, it is a descriptive and analytical account of the experiences of two deaf teacher education students who reflected on their progress in higher education.

The participants, referred to as Sally and Brooke, are both female, Australian born, prelingually and severely to profoundly deaf, and bilingual in Auslan and English. Both were raised as the only deaf child in their hearing families and educated in English. Sally attended oral schools for deaf children and communicated through speech and lipreading at home and at school. Brooke used Signed English at home and at school. Both of them acquired Auslan as teenagers through contact with the Deaf community or deaf friends and interpreters at school. Both have several close family members who are university graduates and work as teachers or in allied professions. During the study, one of the participants deferred her studies because of personal difficulties but has since returned to the university.

Sally attended my own university. We first met through the Deaf community and again when she participated in previous research I was conducting. When she enrolled at the university, I provided her with additional tutoring (interpreting sections of academic text into Auslan, explaining assessment requirements, and so on). Later I arranged for the university to provide a paid tutor to support her in her studies. I witnessed the difficulty she encountered accessing interpreters through the university and the effect it had on her first year of study. Brooke, whom I had not previously known, attended a different university; she was identified as a potential participant in the study through her profile in the Deaf community as one of a small number of deaf adults enrolled in a college.


When Sally arrived at the university, she learned that she would not be provided with interpreters for all of her classes. She was told there was insufficient funding, an inadequate number of interpreters to meet the university’s requirements, and too little lead time to schedule interpreters by the time the faculty finalized their schedules (interpreters were sometimes sought only days before the beginning of classes; as a result, many times they had already accepted jobs at other institutions or were otherwise fully employed). This situation persisted throughout Sally’s first year. She asked other students to take notes for her, borrowed their notes, and relied on lipreading during lectures, tutorials, and group discussions. Sally’s later reflection on her first year at the university understates the ongoing frustration she expressed to me in emails, phone calls, and discussions at the time:

First year was a bit difficult because I wasn’t provided with interpreters or note takers full time. I had to rely on other students to take notes for me, but it was limited. I never received complete notes, so I really had to persevere and keep asking and asking and asking at Student Services, and finally it was organized, and I had interpreters and note takers. But the problem still came up when interpreters were sick or on vacation, and the problem is ongoing. . . . When I arrived and there weren’t interpreters and there were no replacement interpreters or the note takers would come late, that was a big frustration for me.
During her first year at the university, Sally joined other deaf students in filing a complaint against the university under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 for its inability to provide them with full access to their courses. The case was heard by the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission, which ruled in favor of the students. Sally was to be given access to an Auslan interpreter for all of her university classes and tutorials throughout her four-year program (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2005b). The university was ordered to provide an adequate level of access through the provision of interpreters and note takers. This gave Sally physical access to her courses, but the lack of awareness of deaf students’ needs on the part of the academic and administrative staff proved to be an ongoing barrier to her success:
Most staff don’t have awareness. . . . That’s a problem when they’re not aware of deaf people because here it is such a big place, and so few deaf people and students services don’t tell instructors what deaf students need. I’d be interested to know if they receive any information about raising their awareness . . . to tell instructors that you have a deaf student in your class, and this is what they’ll need because I always have to go and tell them “Hey! I’m deaf, and this is the interpreter,” and they back off a little from that, and it should be done well before that.

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