Colleges Might as Well Say ‘Deaf People Unwelcome Here’

The scandal of the “fake interpreter” at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service is a reminder that colleges and universities often provide garbled interpretation for deaf students, if they provide any at all, sending the message that deaf people are not welcome.

Most public lectures and university events are not interpreted into sign language at all. In rare cases, posters will say that sign-language services are available upon request. That provision allows for a scholar or student to make a request weeks in advance but precludes the kind of spontaneous decision most of us make to go to university events the day or even hour before. By not routinely providing sign-language interpretation, universities are doing the equivalent of not providing ramps and elevators for wheel-chair users. In effect, the university is saying, “No deaf people welcome at this event.”

People often say that the reason there isn’t widespread use of interpreters is that they are too expensive. Yes, high-quality interpretation costs money, but most universities have both the means and the ability to provide such services if asked by those organizing an event. If a university says it cannot afford such services, perhaps it might want to consider that under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other legislation, any entity receiving federal funds or providing public services must provide accommodations for people with disabilities. Which would be more costly—sign-language interpreters or cancellation of federal funding? Or paying lawyers in an expensive legal suit? Indeed, funding is relative: Colleges build expensive labs and sports complexes, so what’s the big deal in paying one or two interpreters for an hour’s lecture?

If sign-language interpreters are hired, especially in small college towns, they often are not skilled in interpreting academic language. There is nothing more depressing than watching an interpreter used to working at court dates or doctor visits trying to tackle a lecture on, say, Kant and Derrida. The attentive deaf scholar is rewarded with a mix of gibberish and garbled insights; it’s kind of like having Saturday Night Lives’s “Drunk Uncle” tell you what’s going on in a lecture on particle physics.

The solution is to involve deaf people in decisions that affect them. Deaf scholars know which interpreters are particularly suited to interpret which academic subjects. But how will colleges tap the knowledge of deaf people? The barriers colleges impose by not routinely providing sign-language interpretation at college events become even higher given that most colleges don’t include deaf history and culture as part of their diversity curricula. Hearing students remain ignorant of a significant part of the civil-rights movements of the 20th century when they are not given the opportunity to learn about deaf history. Deaf students are marginalized as they are routinely taught about the marginalization of others. And deaf scholars, who might otherwise be sought out for hiring as are other minority scholars, are often thought of as teaching only in deaf institutions.

Finally, sign-language instruction needs to be available in more colleges and universities. Sign language is often seen as a lesser language, mainly taught in community colleges. Currently 167 institutions of higher education allow sign language to fulfill foreign-language requirements, yet few of those institutions actually offer sign-language courses.

Universities need to change their culture. Only when every announcement for every university event says “There will be sign-language interpretation and real-time captioning” will there be inclusion for deaf scholars and students. Otherwise the message to the university community and beyond is: “Deaf people not welcome.”

Lennard J. Davis is a professor in the departments of disability and human development, medical education, and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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