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Offbeat

Sign-language university grants degrees to the deaf

The lecturer is standing in front of his class and expansively gesticulating. With both hands, he is carving out gestures in thin air. A small group of students sitting in a semi-circle watch him and one another closely.
Nearly every student at the Gallaudet University in Washington DC is deaf or has impaired hearing. Classroom instruction is conducted by means of the American Sign Language (ASL). Without visual contact to the others, communication is difficult. “Most people here know American Sign Language, so everyday conversation is a lot easier,” comments Christian Vogler. Although he has never been able to hear, the 40-year-old speaks clearly understandable German and English. The IT specialist hails from Germany. In Washington he heads Gallaudet’s Technology Access Program, a department that provides cutting-edge technology such as videophones to aid the students.
During his studies in Germany, he had to rely on reading the literature and other students’ lecture notes.
“I did have sign language interpreters for some of my classes there. But I had to look for them myself and there weren’t enough interpreters available so I had to rely on a mix of interpretation, reading, note taking and talking to fellow students,” Vogler said.
At Gallaudet University, by contrast, the complete curriculum is geared to the deaf and hearing-impaired. The university describes its program as being “unique” worldwide. US President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill in 1864 that authorized the former school to issue university-level degrees.
About 1,800 students are enrolled at the university, a bare 15 minutes’ drive from the White House.
Keith Doane is on course to complete his political science and philosophy studies next May. The 27-year-old has done his entire studies at Gallaudet. He coolly leans back in his chair while he communicates in sign language with his two hands.
Some signs resemble a fist, others show fingers rubbing against each other, yet others involve the entire hand moving in a certain direction.
A female sign-language interpreter translates his words out loud: “Some of my friends say that I am too deaf,” says Keith with a smile.
He spent his early school years with other hearing-impaired or deaf pupils. His parents also cannot hear.
“You do get accustomed to the convenience of being here in an environment where everyone is deaf. It eases your communication with your friends and your community,” he says through the intepreter.
What worries him now is the period after he graduates, when he will possibly be working with people who are able to hear.
“It is not impossible. It just takes a little time,” Keith adds. “I want to help people around the world. “Once I’ve finished graduate school in a couple of years I want to set up an NGO (a non-government organization or charity) and see if I can use that to help people around the world.

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