Listening to the Deaf Community

As deaf and hard-of-hearing students build community and find their voice, increasingly robust programs and organizations at Kent State are opening opportunities for success in their careers—and for hearing students to work with deaf populations.

By Kim Catley
Illustration by Chris Hicks, BA '14, MA '16

When Richard Costes, BA ’06, talks about his first day at a school for deaf children, he describes a room filled with young children crying, trying desperately to be understood, while he sat in a corner playing alone. On his second day, he walked up to his teacher and asked, “Will you play with me?”

The teacher scooped him up, marched down the hall and into the administrator’s office and called his parents. When they arrived, the teacher said, “This child can speak. He is too smart to be here with all of these other deaf kids.”

That one sentence, suggesting that deaf people weren’t smart, stuck with him.

Mr. Costes was born deaf, but grew up in a hearing environment. He told himself he wasn’t deaf. He refused to learn sign language—an attitude that was supported by his school, which prioritized speech. He also declined any assistance in the classroom and his grades often suffered as a result.

“That’s a lot of self-loathing for a big part of your identity,” he says. “It wasn’t until college, when I took an ASL (American Sign Language) class—because I thought it would be easy—that I realized how wrong I was.”

Mr. Costes’ shift in perspective mirrors a larger evolution in deaf education. As Pamela Luft, PhD, associate professor of special education at Kent State’s School of Lifespan Development and Educational Sciences, explains, early American deaf education was sign language–based. That changed in 1880 when, at the Milan Conference of Deaf Educators, delegates banned the use of sign language in schools worldwide and voted that oralism, or lip reading, would be the sole method of instruction at deaf institutions.

This continued until the mid-20th century when penicillin was introduced. Now, there was a treatment for the childhood diseases that had previously led to deafness. Instead of going deaf as older children with language skills, much of the deaf population was born deaf, or lost their hearing as pre-verbal infants.

Oralism was no longer as successful and sign language was reintroduced, although the debate between the two methodologies remained.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the culture was shifting. In 1990, Ohio passed a law recognizing ASL as a full visual-spatial language—one that is linguistically complete and shares no grammatical similarities to English—and the state began offering grants to increase the skills of school interpreters working with deaf children.When Dr. Luft arrived at Kent State in 1995, the field of deaf education was recognizing, and increasingly valuing, ASL as a true language that would support bilingual/bicultural approaches to deaf education. She saw enough interest to expand the ASL curriculum and offer a minor. “You can’t become fluent in two two-hour courses,” she says.

Dr. Luft also had several Deaf adults (using the capitalized word preferred by individuals who identify as part of the Deaf community), approach her about wanting to teach ASL. She quickly saw a need and worked with the Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies faculty to establish the first four-year program in ASL—now one of the largest ASL programs in the nation.

“I tried to make sure that most of the ASL faculty we hired were Deaf,” she says. “I never wanted an ASL, deaf education, or interpreting student to graduate feeling uncomfortable communicating with a deaf person because they hadn’t ever interacted with one.”

Is it deaf or Deaf?

Identity is fluid and can change over time or with setting. Some individuals and organizations use the term deaf (lowercase ‘d’) in an all-inclusive manner, to include people who may identify as Deaf, deaf, deafblind, deaf with disabilities, hard of hearing, late-deafened and hearing impaired. Others make the following distinction:
Lowercase ‘d’ deaf refers to the physical aspect of deafness—anyone with physical hearing loss.
Uppercase ‘D’ Deaf refers to the cultural aspect, the Deaf community and individuals who identify as part of the Deaf community.
Note: Uppercase Deaf individuals usually are physically deaf, but not always. CODAs (Children Of Deaf Adults) tend to be culturally Deaf, but have full hearing. In general, to identify as Deaf you have at least some knowledge of ASL and are involved in the Deaf community itself, such as going to Deaf events, seeing other Deaf individuals and /or participating in Deaf politics.

Today, Kent State’s programs reflect the variety of communication styles and needs present in the modern Deaf community. This may mean students who use hearing aids and cochlear implants sitting next to students who communicate exclusively in ASL. Teachers may work with deaf students in self-contained classes, while others work in an inclusion setting.

Kent State students who are interested in working with the Deaf community can choose from three distinct majors on campus. Students can major in ASL in the Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies—just as they might major in Spanish, Arabic, or any other foreign language—to work and communicate with deaf populations in a professional setting, or combine the major with an education minor to teach ASL to deaf and hearing populations.

The ASL/English Interpreting program in the School of Lifespan Development and Educational Sciences trains students to work as community interpreters (in a range of environments, such as medical, legal, religious, performing arts, social services and education) or as educational interpreters (Pre-K–12).

And students who specifically want to teach deaf children can enroll in the Deaf Education program in the School of Lifespan Development and Educational Sciences, which provides the coursework and field experience necessary to be licensed in the field of special education in the area of deaf education.

“Our Deaf Education program is unique in placing students in deaf education classrooms for their last two semesters of coursework, with linked assignments they must complete in these placements,” Dr. Luft says. “And the ASL/English Interpreting program is unique for requiring a one-semester final practicum that is supervised. Many other state programs have students find their own practicum activities and sites without supervision, which can significantly reduce quality control of students’ skills to address the unique needs of deaf learners. Our programs are highly regarded, and our graduates are sought after. Many are able to choose the jobs they want and often have offers before they graduate.”

"There is a big difference between ‘accessibility’ and ‘inclusivity.’ ”

C. Richard Costes, BA ’06C. Richard Costes, BA ’06


Theatre studies major

My story: Born deaf, but raised in a hearing environment; he didn’t learn sign language until college. He is now an actor performing throughout Chicago and a consultant for theatres looking to make their shows more accessible to deaf patrons.

Getting access: “When I started at Kent State, I only used note takers, because I didn’t want to admit I needed more help. It was only towards the end of my college career that I realized there was nothing wrong with getting more assistance. That’s when I requested note takers, FM [frequency-modulated] devices and captioning. The captioning improved my learning a thousandfold.”

All the difference: Professors at Kent State helped him embrace his identity. “College is a place for you to find out who you are; it’s where you become the person you’ll be for the rest of your life.”

I’d like the hearing world to know: “There is a big difference between ‘accessibility’ and ‘inclusivity.’ Accessibility means everyone has a point of entry; for the Deaf community, this means captioning or interpreters. Inclusivity means all those [deaf and hard-of-hearing] people are not just watching or listening from a distance; we are part of the conversations and we are part of the work being done.”

At the same time that Kent State has expanded the pathways for students hoping to work with the Deaf community, the university also has seen a surge in the number of deaf and hard-of-hearing undergraduate students over the years, although the numbers fluctuate. A robust Student Accessibility Services (SAS) office ensures that deaf students have access to the university’s full scope of academic programs.

Kate Croteau, BIS ’17, graduated from Kent State last December and enrolled in the university’s Cultural Foundations of Education graduate program the following spring. She’s also studying political science, and hopes to eventually work in a community center focused on LGBTQ+ and Deaf youth.

Ms. Croteau works with SAS to access transcriptions, closed captioning and priority seating, as well as Power Points and lecture notes before class, peer note taking, speech reading, and extended-time testing.

“Before getting accommodations, I assumed that the way I learned—and struggled—was normal, and that’s how everyone else did it, too,” she says.“Realizing that I could embrace my accommodations, use them to the best of my ability, and could advocate for them any time they weren’t being appropriately offered really reshaped the way I was able to focus on and enjoy my education.”


"Being Deaf is not a disability; it is a point of pride.”

Stefanie Amiruzzaman, BA ’12, MEd ’15Stefanie Amiruzzaman, BA ’12, MEd ’15

ASL major, with a minor in fine arts; MEd in special education with a concentration in deaf education

My story: Born hearing, she became deaf at 9 months old from bacterial meningitis. “My parents wanted me to learn both sign language and English. My mom attended a sign language class to learn, and she purchased a Signed English book to teach me.” She is a current doctoral student in the Evaluation and Measurement program at the School of Foundations, Leadership and Administration.

Getting access: Note takers, captioning services for videos, and interpreters. “I love the access that interpreters provide for my education. I would be lost or struggle if it was not for them.”

Tri-lingual: “I want my son to grow up having respect and involvement in the Deaf community. On the other hand, my husband, who is hearing, is originally from Bangladesh, and his family still lives there. So, I am teaching my son, Aleo, both ASL and English, while my husband is teaching him both Bangali and English. Aleo’s first sign in ASL was ‘milk,’ his first Bangali word was ‘ma’ (mother), and his first English word was ‘mama.’”

I’d like the hearing world to know: “Being Deaf is not a disability; it is a point of pride, along with its own official language, and a close-knit community.”

Leah Subak, PhD ’14, an ASL/English interpreter and coordinator with SAS, says the office works to keep classroom accommodations—which include transcriptionists, interpreters, note taking and closed captioning—in line with national best practices. They also bring in speakers to connect the campus and Deaf communities. SAS even crosses over with the academic programs on occasion when students observe the professional interpreters or build their skills in a practicum placement with the office.

While accommodation services are critical for deaf and hard-of-hearing students to access their academics—and the ASL, ASL/English Interpreting, and Deaf Education programs ensure a strong field of professionals—there are also opportunities at Kent State to build and strengthen the Deaf community.

For example, Elexis Blake, BA ’18, teamed up with Nebeyat Mamay, BA ’18, to found the Deaf Power Organization at Kent State in 2016. Its goal is to create a community for all deaf and hard-of-hearing students. “We even welcome CODAs (Children Of Deaf Adults) and hearing ASL signers into our organization,” she says, “to create a stronger community that will help us advocate for Deaf awareness at KSU.”

These kinds of connections are what elevate a campus or community from accessible to inclusive.

Richard Costes experienced this distinction in the classroom of Carol Robinson, PhD, an associate professor of English at Kent State University at Trumbull. While he was beginning to use sign language, it was Dr. Robinson’s use of texts by Deaf authors that made him realize he belonged to a community. He started to see his deafness as part of his identity.

After attending Kent State at Trumbull for two years, he transferred to the Kent Campus to finish his degree in theatre. Now, Mr. Costes is an actor and director. He also consults with theatres looking to make their shows more accessible for deaf patrons.

This past spring, he performed the role of Snout in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” When a group from the Illinois School for the Deaf attended a show, the students were thrilled to see a deaf actor in the production. Afterward, they bombarded Mr. Costes with questions about his career. He was happy to share, in hopes of inspiring the next generation of deaf actors.

“I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to integrate myself into the Deaf community and culture,” he says. “I’m trying to embrace the part of me that for nearly two decades I kept buried.” 

"Even something as simple as repeating yourself makes a world of difference, as we are used to hearing, ‘never mind.’ ”

Austin Hale, BA ’21Austin Hale, BA ’21

Communication studies major, with an applied communications concentration

My story: Severe hearing loss since birth; he began using hearing aids at age 2.

Why Kent State: Signed up for Kent State’s College Credit Plus program to take college courses as a high school student. “I received accommodations that far outclassed the ones my high school offered. The positive experience, more inclusive environment and close proximity of Kent convinced me to join.”

Getting access: Priority seating, closed captioning and real-time transcription. “Being able to lip read the professor, read captions in the videos and have a transcription of what was said make it difficult to miss things.” 

Changing communications: “I am working toward an applied communications degree with the hope that my perspective and experience dealing with the frustrations of hearing loss would allow me to contribute to the profession in a useful way.”

I’d like the hearing world to know: “Any gesture of understanding or patience is greatly appreciated. Even something as simple as repeating yourself makes a world of difference, as we are used to hearing, ‘never mind.’”


"We are fully capable of doing anything! The only thing we cannot do is hear.”

Elexis Blake, BA ’18Elexis Blake, BA ’18

Psychology and ASL major

My story: Born deaf, she uses a cochlear implant to hear. She is now a case coordinator for Easterseals–Community Center for the Deaf, and an ASL teacher. She helps the Deaf community gain independence through case management, advocacy, vocational support and community outreach.

Course change: She started at Kent State as an accounting major, but switched to psychology and ASL her junior year. “I suffered from clinical depression, and the experiences I went through were even more challenging because I was Deaf. I want to create an opportunity for the Deaf community to have equal access to mental health counseling.”

Getting access: Getting access: ASL interpreters and note-taking services. “Having an interpreter provides me an opportunity to be challenged and thrive educationally and linguistically.”

Changing communications: “I am working toward an applied communications degree with the hope that my perspective and experience dealing with the frustrations of hearing loss would allow me to contribute to the profession in a useful way.”

I’d like the hearing world to know: “Deafness is not a disability in the eyes of the Deaf community. We are fully capable of doing anything! The only thing we cannot do is hear. We are just like you, and we are proud to be who we are!”

"We need to prepare future educators and interpreters with academic skills to understand and address the unique needs of deaf learners.”

Jacqueline Gee, BS ’15,Jacqueline Gee, BS ’15, MEd ’16

Educational studies major; MEd in cultural foundations of education

My story:  Born hearing to an extended family of deaf individuals, she is a CODA (Child Of Deaf Adults). Immersed in Deaf culture at home, ASL was her first language. She is a current doctoral student in cultural foundations of education in the School of Foundations, Leadership and Administration.

Challenges: At school, she struggled with not knowing how to navigate between the Deaf and hearing worlds; had to take remedial English before entering college. “How could my parents give me something they didn’t have? And schools were unprepared for ‘diverse learners’ who looked like me.”

Big influence: “I met Dr. Kay Amey [assistant professor of geography at Kent State Ashtabula] years ago at KSU and, at that time, I couldn’t envision doing anything other than interpreting. A college education seemed impossible, but she gave me a helping hand and the push I needed to work for it. She taught me that faculty have the power to change lives. When we envision the potential for our students, amazing things can happen!”

I’d like the hearing world to know: “We need to prepare future educators and interpreters with academic skills to understand and address the unique needs of deaf learners.”


Tips to Communicate with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

There is no “one size fits all” approach to communication, nor is there a “typical” deaf person. Each individual brings their own set of communication needs and preferences, based upon the setting and purpose of the interaction. Communication is possible, even when accommodations (e.g., interpreters) are not present.

Ask the individual about their communication needs. Bridging deaf/hearing communication is a daily occurrence for deaf people; they are always your best counsel. Writing, texting, gestures, speech, sign language, technology and visual aids are all possibilities to explore.

Find a user-friendly setting. Background noise, lighting, pace of conversation, number of speakers, accents and facial hair all influence communication. An individual’s familiarity with the subject matter and the availability of visual prompts, such as pictures and charts, also guide the communication method.

Remember that hearing aids and cochlear implants do not restore hearing to “normal.” While some users are able to use a telephone or recognize music, others are only able to pick up on environmental sounds.

Get the attention of the deaf individual before speaking. If the individual does not respond to the spoken name, a tap on shoulder or another visual signal is appropriate.

Provide a written outline of the main topics to be discussed. This is especially helpful for individuals who depend on speech reading to pick up on keywords in a conversation.

Speak clearly, at a normal pace; do not yell or over enunciate.

Look directly at the individual while speaking. Do not cover your mouth or look around while speaking.

Avoid standing in front of a light source, which can make it difficult to see your face clearly.

If you need to repeat, rephrase the thought. Some words are harder to understand than others.

Use visual aids, gestures, and body language when appropriate. One picture truly is worth a thousand words.

Use open-ended questions to allow opportunities for both parties to check each other’s understanding of a topic.

Source: National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes

5 Facts about Hearing Loss

1. There are 466 million people—over 5 percent of the world’s population—with significant hearing loss.*
34 million of those are children. Unless action is taken, by 2030 there will be nearly 630 million people with disabling hearing loss. By 2050, the number could rise to over 900 million.

2. An estimated five out of every 1,000 babies are born with hearing loss or acquire it soon after birth. Hearing loss can have a significant impact on a child’s development and educational achievements. Early identification followed by prompt and suitable interventions can help to ensure that children with deafness and hearing loss enjoy equal opportunities in society.

3.  80 percent of the world’s 70,000,000 deaf have no access to education. Most deaf and seriously hearing-impaired children rarely receive any schooling in developing countries. Source: World Federation of the Deaf

4. Chronic ear infections are a leading cause of hearing loss. Over 30 percent of hearing loss in children is caused by diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, meningitis and ear infections. An estimated 330 million people globally suffer with chronic ear infections; if left untreated, they can lead to hearing loss and life-threatening complications.

5. Noise is a major avoidable cause of hearing loss. Some 1.1 billion teens and young adults (ages 12-35 years) are at risk of hearing loss due to the unsafe use of personal audio devices and exposure to damaging levels of sound at entertainment and sport venues.

*Significant hearing loss is defined as: Adults (15 years and older): hearing loss greater than 40 decibels (dB) in the better hearing ear; Children (0-14 years of age): hearing loss greater than 30 dB in the better hearing ear.

Source: World Health Organization, March 2018, unless otherwise noted



Download "A Nuts and Bolts Guide to college success for students who are deaf or hard of hearing" from the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes.

See tips from the National Deaf Center for communicating with deaf individuals.

Visit the National Association of the Deaf website.


Students in Kent State’s ASL/English Interpreting program got hands-on experience interpreting for deaf visitors during Deaf and Hard of Hearing Awareness Day at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

To improve English literacy and comprehension, Deaf children need to learn ASL as their first language say Dr. Katherine Amey, assistant professor of geography and geology at Kent State at Ashtabula, and Jacqueline Gee, lecturer of ASL & Deaf Culture and Community at the Kent Campus, in this TEDx Lizard Creek talk.



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UPDATED: Saturday, May 18, 2024 06:15 AM
POSTED: Wednesday, December 19, 2018 01:36 PM