This post was updated Feb. 10 and 10:16 a.m.
Imagine being on a campus of 50,000 students and not always being able to hear what’s going on around you. Extracurricular activities would be rather confusing, guest speakers would be speaking gibberish unless you stared intently at their lips and group projects would be a nightmare.
This is the life hard of hearing students live at UCLA.
UCLA has 11 deaf and 39 hard of hearing students who have registered with the Center for Accessible Education, which is responsible for providing accommodations for deaf and hard of hearing students. It provides a variety of services, such as access to lecture notes, American Sign Language interpreting services and Communication Access Realtime Translation, in which a captioner transcribes speech in real time during classes.
The university only employs four captioners, or about one for every 13 deaf or hard of hearing students, so students usually end up working with the same few captioners over time. However, the university usually outsources interpreters to an agency called The Sign Language Company, meaning students don’t necessarily work with the same interpreters for each class.
CAE allows students to request captioners and interpreters for classes and nonacademic activities during business hours, meaning students can’t get ahold of them for club meetings, socials and networking events that take place during the evening.
The lack of captioner and interpreter availability after class hours makes students with hearing disabilities miss out on opportunities to learn new skills, build their resumes and attend study groups or review sessions – experiences that should be easily accessible to anyone in the Bruin community.
UCLA must ensure students with hearing disabilities have equal access to these activities by extending captioners’ hours and paying for interpreting services to run outside of the current schedule.
Students who don’t have access to interpreters or captioners are forced to resort to other strategies to make up for the lack of assistance from the university.
Matt Sanchez, a third-year computer science student, said he had difficulty getting interpreters for extracurricular events, so he stopped trying altogether. Sanchez has had to be creative, taking friends with him to events or gatherings and relying on them to interpret when he misses what’s been said.
Austin Vaday, a fifth-year computer science student who runs Signs for Humanity, a Facebook page with about 13,000 followers that aims to spread knowledge of sign language, expressed similar concerns.
“It’s awfully hard to get our hands on ASL interpreters for club meetings and different social events happening on campus, especially at the last minute,” Vaday said.
For Vaday, the lack of available interpreters means he has to read lips to understand what is being said. But reading lips is not an easy skill to learn, and many students are unable to resort to this method of interpretation.
“I have to read lips, and that’s not always possible, nor is it easy,” Vaday said. “If a deaf person comes into UCLA (and) isn’t able to hear or understand others, they would have a much, much harder time than I generally do.”
Sanchez said not being able to access interpreters and captioners after business hours has significantly hindered his social life at UCLA, since he has been left out of group conversations, projects and other activities on campus.
“Socially, my hearing impairment has always continued to be an ongoing issue throughout my life … and my experience here in UCLA has not changed much in that regard,” Sanchez said.
These are serious concerns for a university that prides itself on its accessibility. If the only reason for students to go to a university is to take classes and complete exams, then UCLA is doing a great job when it comes to accommodations for deaf and hard of hearing students. But if going to a university also includes joining clubs and participating in social events on campus – as it should – then it’s clear UCLA is dropping the ball.
CAE needs to better cater to the holistic needs of hard of hearing students, not just their academic ones. And it can do this by making captioners and interpreters available after business hours and for nonacademic events. Not having these services raises the barriers to entry for deaf students joining clubs, forming study groups or attending speaker events.
It’s true, this would be costly to the university, but UCLA already doesn’t provide enough for the 50 deaf and hard of hearing students registered with CAE. And that’s been a worrying theme when it comes to how the university has provided for those with disabilities: In addition to not catering to students with hearing impairments outside of business hours, UCLA only operates one seven-person van to transport students with disabilities, and some campus buildings have limited accessibility.
CAE needs to invest the money to ensure students with disabilities not only learn successfully in their classes, but also grow outside of them – building their resumes, learning new life skills and giving their time for causes they believe in.
UCLA is an institution many people dream of attending. The university needs to ensure all students, even those with hearing impairments, can be a part of that dream – especially if it’s been expecting students to cover for the gaps in its services.