Imagine sitting in a silent classroom surrounded by college students feverishly taking notes. The professor is talking quickly, and you are unable to hear anything. You intently watch the interpreter assigned to you for that day.
Today’s interpreter is using a type of sign language you are not fluent in, making it difficult for you to follow. Certain concepts or words come up that the interpreter doesn’t know how to sign, leaving you confused and unable to grasp the material. This difficult experience is something commonly faced by deaf students at Boise State.
At least, that’s what Elyse Taylor identified in her research for the Needs Assessment course in Boise State’s Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning (OPWL) program. About two years ago, Taylor chose to pursue this issue for a project in this graduate course.
Taylor works as the Accommodated Testing Coordinator in the Educational Access Center (EAC), as well as the campus coordinator for the Workforce Recruitment Program for students with disabilities. After she noticed this gap in learning for deaf students, she decided to do something about it.
“I was noticing the students using interpreting services—specifically deaf students—had GPAs that were at risk of having some bad consequences, such as being put on probation,” Taylor said. “They just weren’t keeping up with the parameters the University sets.”
The professor of this course, Donald Winiecki, helps graduate students identify an issue preventing a workplace from reaching its goals, and then helps them work toward a recommended solution.
“Boise State’s goal is to make sure all students have equal access to content and succeed–and to do wonderful things,” Winiecki said. “The data from the (Educational Access Center) indicated that deaf students were not succeeding at all.”
After identifying the specific concern with deaf students and their GPAs and conducting interviews and research, Taylor and her teammates came up with a report analyzing all the potential issues. From this report they created recommendations they felt would create an adequate path toward improvement for deaf students.
“The common denominator between all the deaf students was the interpreting accommodation,” Taylor said.
Currently, the EAC contracts with an outside interpreting agency called Network Interpreting Service. Taylor and her team discovered two primary frustrations from deaf students using this interpreting service.
One issue was found in the scheduling. According to Allison Gonzalez—Lead Accommodation Coordinator for the EAC—in order to schedule an interpreter, the deaf student had to submit a request, followed by the EAC submitting a request to the agency, then the agency had to approve and schedule an interpreter. This lengthy process made it difficult to secure consistent interpreters for a student’s courses.
The other issue was the lack of sign language consistency. Gonzalez explained how there isn’t one universal sign language. In fact, there are many different categories of sign language—including American Sign Language (ASL), Pidgin Signed English (PSE) and Signing Exact English (SEE).
Therefore, if an interpreter proficient in one of these languages is assigned to a deaf student who is proficient in a different language, a clear hindrance to learning occurs. In addition, some deaf students may not even be familiar with sign language.
“There is a misconception that all deaf people know sign language, and that’s not true,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of parents will choose to go the oral route, where they don’t sign with their kids. Then, when these students get to college—or in bigger settings—it’s difficult to hear.”
Taylor feels passionately about implementing the recommended solutions from this project—beginning by hiring two Boise State staff interpreters.
The project raised an important question of how to best serve the disability community at Boise State, according to Winiecki. Through assessments such as these, the EAC can pinpoint where their accommodation services can be improved.
Winiecki has a special interest in those with sensory disabilities, as he transcribes braille—mostly for math and science subjects within the engineering department.
“We’ve lost some (blind) students because we couldn’t provide the content for them quickly enough,” Winiecki said.
According to Taylor, a very small subset of the disability population go on to hold permanent jobs. However, she feels by searching for solutions such as these ones, and creating the most inclusive environment possible, there will be movement in a positive direction.
“School is hard—very hard. So when you see somebody work through that—in addition to figuring out how to cope with their disability and fully utilize their accommodations—it’s fantastic,” Taylor said.
Gonzalez also feels that optimizing accessible resources and creating an inclusive environment for deaf students will help to improve their overall college experience and ability to learn.
“Deaf culture is very rich and very unique. It really is an amazing culture,” Gonzalez said. “They have their own cultural norms and it’s really interesting to be allowed to observe that world and try to enter it. Sign language is what ties that culture together,”
One way students can work to become a part of this culture is through learning sign language. There is also an ASL club on campus that hosts weekly silent lunches, which anyone is invited to attend and participate in.
Taylor, Gonzalez and Winiecki hope that solutions and improvements will continue to be made when it comes to deaf students, as well as the entire disability population at Boise State and beyond.
“That’s exactly what we look for in social justice. We want to make sure that people have the resources they require to succeed. We’re not favoring them, we’re just giving them what the institution should provide to fulfill its own mission,” Winiecki said.