Entering a Deaf College
College! It is a wonderful, painful time for anyone growing up. For us deaf college students in the eighties, it was a time to form bonds that have persisted even as we graduated, moved on, and began the rest of our lives.
In college, for the first time, we were all thrown together - deaf students from mainstream backgrounds and deaf students from schools for the deaf. Together, we learned and grew.
I arrived at college in Fall 1981 (following the Summer Vestibule Program for new students - SVP '81) relatively young as most first-year students at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York averaged nineteen years old. I was sixteen going on seventeen years old and did not sign well.
It was six months of college before I was able to carry on a decent conversation in sign language. Eager to continue as a reporter as I had done in high school, I joined the RIT Reporter magazine. They had never had a deaf reporter before.
Through lipreading, using my residual hearing, writing, and the TTY, in college I was able to interview people and write articles. This worked well for most stories I covered except for one, which turned out to be a disaster. I had tried to cover an event that had a speaker. That's when I discovered my limits as a deaf reporter.
Being a college reporter enabled me to meet many memorable people such as Dr. Ross Stuckless, a researcher, and Dr. William Castle, director of NTID. It also made me well-known at NTID, especially after I wrote an article on something controversial in the NTID student government.
After about a year of college I became tired of being only a reporter and wanted to do something more. They allowed me to become the copy editor. However, by the spring of 1983, I had decided to quit.
For a deaf college student who had often been lonely in the high school years, the sheer joy of being able to make friends by merely going to parties or eating in the cafeteria (RIT's Grace Watson - signed "g" down the throat and "w" coming up, or the NTID Dining Commons (a "d" and a "c" to the chin)) was intoxicating!
Bored? Lonely? All we deaf college students had to do was run down the hall to visit friends. It was the early eighties and TTYs were relatively scarce. At first my contact home was limited to a TTY room where we had to take turns using the TTYs. Fed up with the limitations, my family bought me my first TTY.
My college friends often borrowed my TTY. One friend had one of the few television sets with built-in captioning available. There were televisions in the lounge, but you had to share them and people did not always want to watch the same programs.
For us deaf college students in the early eighties, "going to the movies" meant going to the NTID auditorium for a captioned film for the deaf screening. Once in a while, you could also catch a subtitled foreign film shown elsewhere on the RIT campus.
We deaf college students craved communication. It is almost as if we were trying to make up for all the conversations we could not have in our high school years with other hearing students (if we came from mainstream backgrounds). We would chat in the cafeteria for hours, right up to closing time when the management would make us leave.
My sign language skills were forced to improve sharply in my third year of college when I befriended two girls who did not speak or read lips. These girls made me go through a "Silent Period" of no speaking and only signing. Once they pronounced me improved enough, I was allowed to turn my voice back on.
I made friends in college, deaf and hearing. Today, it is only the deaf friends I still keep in touch with.
In my early college years, I was still very "hearing" minded and oral, as the more ASL deaf students would say. In fact, I initially tended to try to socialize more with hearing students than with deaf students.
I struggled with the deaf-hearing thing in college as I was still overcoming the pain and anger from the previous years of my mainstream experience. At one point I envisioned myself as being caught behind a wall - one side being the hearing world, the other side the deaf world. Where did I belong? Where was the door in the wall?
I had not yet found my identity as a deaf person. This identity developed gradually in college, through daily interaction and living with deaf students. The turning point came when I took a deaf culture/heritage class taught by a Dr. Panara. At the conclusion of the course I celebrated by going to the RIT bookstore to buy Jack Gannon's Deaf Heritage. I still have that book today. On the inside front cover, I wrote "I have found my identity as a deaf individual."
Leaving the RIT Reporter magazine earlier was in a sense symbolic, because that marked the end of my primary association with the hearing world in college and a shift to the deaf world. In the deaf world, I had a brief stint