Deaf Education and my experience | Deaf Awareness Month

Hello, I’m Rogan and welcome! For those who don’t know, September is Deaf Awareness Month, and for the past few years (except 2021) I’ve done a few videos specifically for this month. I have a few things that I hope to get out this month but there will also be some completely unrelated things like my book wrap ups that I’m catching up on. Today, I want to talk about Deaf education in general, and to answer a viewer who was curious about my education journey if you will. I’m sure there’s several of you who want to know this too! I’ll start off with a broad overview of what Deaf education can look like. I want to emphasize that it will be VERY broad, and I will be glossing over a lot of details and nuance. It’s just not possible to fit everything into one video and it’s not my area of in-depth knowledge either. Then I’ll go into a bit of detail on my personal education. I’ll put time codes if people are wanting to skip to certain parts. Let’s get into it!

For K-12 schooling, there’s two ways that Deaf people tend to identify themselves: Deaf school or mainstream. Deaf schools are generally very similar in how they’re run – all the faculty sign, and all the staff should also know sign, all the students are deaf and have varying levels of signing skill, and may or may not live in dorms at the school. Some are large enough that they have full-time residents that go home on the weekends and holidays. This tends to be in large states where it’s hours’ drive to the deaf school from most of the state. There are some deaf schools that are too small to have dorms, so the students are commuters. And I do mean commuters, some kids will end up riding the bus for two hours one way every day. If the students live close enough to the deaf school, they’ll use the bus daily, but if they live further out, they tend to live at the school. Generally, the students will stay at the deaf school for all their classes, but sometimes they might be sent to a nearby public school for specific classes that the deaf school doesn’t offer. I think that’s a fairly decent, if broad, explanation of what a deaf school can look like. Let’s talk about mainstream schools now.

I’ve been saying mainstream without explaining what it means, but I think it’s pretty clear at this point what it means. Generally it’s a word used by the deaf community to refer to any school that’s majority-hearing, which can mean public or private schools. The sign even changes based on the person’s experience, whether they went to a school that had a deaf program which meant they weren’t the only deaf person or if they were the only one in the whole school, which is signed this way, [stream-1]. I also want to add that if it’s a single person, the index finger will always go *under* the full hand because that’s basically what it is, a deaf person being alone and disappearing in a crowd of people. Mainstreamed kids will have hugely varying experiences! Some go through school completely alone with no interpreters, no accommodations. Some will be the lone student and have one interpreter that stays with them from kindergarten all the way to graduation. (This is not ideal, interpreters should be switched out every few years so the skill and knowledge grows with the student.) Some will attend a school that has a deaf program, meaning there might be a classroom set aside for all the deaf students and they take classes in there. It might be all of their classes, or just one or two classes. They might be taking all their classes with hearing students. Usually, schools that have a deaf program will be good at providing whatever accessibility individual students need, but that’s not a guarantee. 

There’s obviously a lot of little differences that I’m not touching on for both types, but if I did, we’d be here all day! I’m going to briefly touch on college before talking about my personal education.

People tend to know about Gallaudet University, which is a university specifically founded for deaf people, and the only one of its kind. Gallaudet is very much a liberal arts college, and it’s partially funded with federal money. There’s Rochester Institute of Technology, which is the second largest concentration of deaf students in the US. Technically, it’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, or NTID for short. I tend to just say RIT because NTID is part of their campus, classes are provided through RIT systems, and so on. The only difference is that all deaf students at RIT pay a reduced tuition through NTID, because of federal money. Then there’s several others that have smaller, but still sizable deaf student populations such as California State University, Northridge (CSUN), SouthWest College for the Deaf (SWCD), Lamar University, and Western Oregon University (WOU). These colleges tend to be very good with providing accessibility for their deaf students. Deaf people in general, when they’re deciding on where to go for college, will gravitate to Gallaudet and RIT. That’s purely because of their size and reputation, and going to school to one of those theoretically will be less difficult than going to some mainstream college where they’ve never worked with a deaf student before.

If I missed any colleges, leave them in the comments! Okay, moving on. I’ll talk about my education now, from preschool all the way to college and a little beyond.

I started out at age three at a day deaf school that’s now called Northwest School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, based near Seattle. They use SEE as their primary mode of communication, and they heavily encourage sim-comming which is signing and speaking at the same time. I went to that school until the end of third grade, and I also went to a mainstream school nearby for a few classes. My parents decided to transfer me to a mainstream school closer to home, because my commute was usually at least two hours one way, and I often slept on the ride both ways. It just so happened that the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH for short) program was moving at the same time, so we all were new students at this school. I was very lucky to be going to this program, because it was fairly big for a DHH program. I had multiple interpreters throughout 4th grade to graduation, and when I was in middle and high school, the interpreters were assigned based on classes and their skills, not based on the student. This is fantastic, because interpreters who may struggle with interpreting math don’t have to and interpret for classes they’d do better in. I took Spanish for two years, and we lucked out that one of our interpreters at the time spoke fluent Spanish, so they were assigned to that class. For the most part, my mainstream school experience was great and I’m very lucky in that. I did have to fight to take some classes, such as Spanish, because they said I could get that foreign language requirement waived on the basis of being deaf. I didn’t want to have that waived, so had to work to convince them to let me take it. I was also the first fully mainstreamed deaf student at that school. They’d had only one other deaf student before me, and they took only electives with hearing students, did the rest of their classes in the deaf classroom. So the school assumed it’d be the same situation for other deaf students, which is a very common issue with systems like public schools, vocational rehabilitation offices, and the such. That’s a tangent we’re not going to touch today.

After graduating high school, I went to college at Rochester Institute of Technology for four years, including some summer courses. For a long time, I thought I’d go to Gallaudet because it was the only school I knew of that provided accessibility. But then in my senior year, RIT had a recruiter that came to our school because there was a large number of students graduating soon. If that recruiter hadn’t come, I probably wouldn’t have gone to RIT. I’m very happy about that decision, because… I have nothing against being a Gallaudet student, but I knew I wanted a school that was a mixed environment. And what I was more interested in at the time was tech-related, which RIT has better programs for. I started out as a photography major because I was interested in becoming a teacher for film and photo in public schools. After two years, I realized that wasn’t where my passion was, so changed majors to one that I created myself. RIT has what they call School of Individualized Studies, and many other colleges have something similar. This is essentially where you can pick and choose your classes to create a major in some area of study that isn’t available, or you want to study more than one thing and not do a double major. I called it Leadership, and took various classes in management, hospitality, business, psychology. I was wanting to work in student/campus life, because that really shaped my experience at RIT. It took me a while to realize, but if I hadn’t joined clubs as soon as I got to RIT, I probably wouldn’t have stayed at RIT. They really made a big impact on my college experience, and I’m very grateful for that. I would encourage checking out the clubs at your school and finding one that’s a good fit for you. I did some electives and basic required classes online via my local community college during the summers, because I’d changed majors and this was at the same time RIT switched from quarters to semesters. You don’t have to graduate “on time,” I just pushed to finish at my anticipated graduation time, because I was approaching my limit of non-stop schooling.

Immediately after graduating from RIT, I went abroad! Again, I know I am very privileged and lucky to be able to manage going abroad for a year of school. I went to an international leadership program for deaf youth, called Frontrunners. I learned about this program through a person who I worked with at a summer camp, and as soon as I knew what it was all about, I knew I had to make it happen. The program is based in Denmark, but nowhere near Copenhagen! It’s about three hours away, in a very rural area of Denmark. The topics covered things like linguistics in sign language versus vocal language, education of deaf people, media, and quite a lot of variety. We also had a bunch of guest speakers from all over the world, and we had a couple of class trips. It was an absolutely fantastic experience that certainly had its ups and downs. I would absolutely go back and do it again, but maybe with some tweaks to make it an overall better experience.

Once Frontrunners wrapped, I came back to the US and haven’t done any formal education since then, apart from attending conferences and taking training for being a Deaf interpreter. So I think that about covers all of my personal education experience. 

If you have any specific questions, please leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer! I can only speak from my experience and things I’ve learned from my friends, so I might not have all the answers. Of course, ask about whatever you want to know about. It doesn’t have to be specific to this post. That’s all for today, bye!

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Published by Rogan Shannon

Hello there! I'm Rogan, a queer deaf guy who has a passion for leadership and advocacy. I create YouTube videos about a lot of different topics - being deaf, queer, reading, language, and whatever else interests me!

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