My Experience as a Deaf Student at Bellevue College

Photo Credit: Mark Paton

I am a new writer for the Watchdog. I intend on transferring to major in history, then continuing through a master’s degree to become a librarian. This may all sound normal, even nerdy, but there is another layer to my educational path: I am deaf.

I was a very unresponsive and quiet child. Though I was an early reader and writer, I did not speak until I was school-aged. The mystery to my strange communication was partially solved when my school made me see an audiologist. In first grade, I was diagnosed with moderate hearing loss, and was most likely born with it. It should not have been strange for my caretakers, for I had deaf relatives, but they refused to help me. I was forced to adapt in schools and in social life. I learned to read lips the best I could, and had no access to American Sign Language, as it was forbidden by my caregivers. My hearing grew worse with age, and I found myself increasingly isolated, especially in schools.

Due to the way I was brought up, it was nearly impossible for me to advocate for my needs. My caretakers were incredibly cruel to me due to my hearing loss, so when I was on my own and in college, I felt a weighted blanket of doubt regarding my own needs.

That was, until I was well into my mid-twenties and got my updated diagnosis of severe-to-profound hearing loss, severe enough for my insurance to finally cover both hearing aids, and with the daunting fact that, within about ten years, I will likely be without any hearing. Somehow, this changed something within me. Finally, with a little nudge and the ability to discover all the things I really cannot hear without help (which is basically everything), I decided to talk to Bellevue College’s Disability Resource Center.

Setting up my DRC appointment was far easier than I thought. I filled out a form, and was assigned a staff member to talk to about my learning issues. It was possibly the first time I had ever felt like someone heard what I needed and understood. I could not hear professors and relied on lip reading, which was challenging during in-person classes but even worse when professors did not utilize webcams during remote learning. Though in many schools, Deaf students who knew ASL could be assigned an interpreter, I did not know ASL due to my upbringing. Instead, though, the DRC notified all of my professors of my deafness–so I did not have to, which took a great burden off of my chest–and captions were made mandatory for any video or audio lecture, including live classes.

This posed a problem for programs like Zoom, where auto-captions (which are often woefully inaccurate, and therefore ruin the learning process) are a premium feature. I would be in a live class, I was assigned what is known as a stenographer, or a live captioner, through a program known as CART (Computer Aided Real Time Transcriptions). However, unlike in a real classroom setting, I cannot see my stenographer sitting in the class and instead have to open a browser window side-by-side with my live class.

Often in colleges in live classroom settings, deaf students are assigned note takers. These are paid student positions for hearing students with good handwriting or typing skills to help deaf students; however, I had never experienced having one myself, though it would have been extremely helpful. After all, when you are busy looking at an interpreter or reading transcripts, it is hard to be able to look away and take notes on materials in classes, as you will miss the visual input needed to learn. But during these times, having a note taker is difficult, as classes are online. One of my professors made the decision to post notes on Canvas, which made learning extremely helpful, as after class, I could go back and read what I had missed when I was focused on captions. It would be amazing if more professors did this, as it adds so much accessibility to learning.

In some ways, being a deaf remote learner is even more daunting than in person. When there is an issue, you cannot just walk to the DRC, and instead have to contact them. You cannot read a professor’s lips very well through a spotty internet connection as you could in an in-person class. For Deaf students with ASL interpreters, this would involve a whole other video feed, which can be frustrating to deal with.There is also the trouble of pairing my hearing aids to receive an audio feed through technology. Learning in a live, in-person classroom, my hearing aids will amplify sounds it perceives as speech, and even has modes for classroom settings to mute background noise. But for hearing aids with Bluetooth capability, this ends up being rather frustrating; most hearing aids are “Made for Apple,” which essentially means they will only work for Apple. I had to raise money to get myself an iPad so I could continue learning better with the help of my hearing aids; after all, understanding 60% of speech is better than 10%.

However, in a sense, it is almost humbling. In asynchronous classes, I am on the same playing field as my hearing peers. We are all learning together without deciphering a lecture or extra aided materials. Online, in synchronous classes, technology issues can happen to anyone, which makes me feel more similar to my hearing peers.

Despite the hurdles of hearing aids and notes, I am extremely grateful for the patience and kindness of Bellevue College’s Disability Resource Center. The staff is kind, friendly, and genuinely wants disabled students to succeed. If you have any sort of disability, I, as a deaf student, highly advise making an appointment. Even in these trying times, it can make a massive difference in your grade and your confidence.