Deaf students at UNL thrive

Story, aggravated content and video by Bekkah Watkins, NewsNetNebraska

The Deaf community at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is small and even though it’s made up of different people with different experiences, they refer to their deafness with a sense of pride and cultural significance. Deaf identity is defined in multiple ways across a variety of different hearing loss levels.

Individuals in the Deaf community (“big D”) view themselves as “culturally deaf”, sharing both culture and language. In contrast, a pathological view of deafness refers to hearing loss that is viewed as something that needs to be fixed. In both of these views there are levels of hearing loss that range from little to complete hearing loss.

UNL Deaf community members

At UNL there is that range of hearing loss and deaf identity just as much as there is in the outside community. Hearing loss doesn’t affect one age group or one ethnicity.

Jayden Jensen, a UNL microbiology major said, “Our ears just don’t work the right way. That’s all there is to it.”

Jensen views her story as rather unique. A hearing test wasn’t performed when she was born which postponed the knowledge of her hearing loss. At age four she received her first set of hearing aids.

When she was 18 there was a dip in her hearing and she began the process of getting a cochlear implant. Jensen voices for herself and feels that most do not know she is deaf unless she tells them.

Adan is a global studies major at UNL and is originally from Kenya. He relies on sign language and an interpreter in most of his day to day activities but doesn’t let that stop him from communicating with others.

“I have several friends here at the university that I’ve met through my classes. Many times, of course, they are fascinated when they see sign language. They’ll see me signing and somehow that has helped and even caused some of them to change their majors,” Sahal Adan said. “They find that they need to do something on their own behalf to make communication equitable to everybody.”

Professors have office hours or different events come up on campus that don’t fall during times that an interpreter is available and Adan finds other methods to communicate. One of those ways is by writing back and forth on a notepad.

Hearing loss and the deaf community doesn’t stop at undergraduate students. Abbey Buettgenbach is a deaf education graduate student at UNL.

Buettgenbach said, “I like the whole culture we get to be in. The people you meet, knowing how to sign, all of it.”

She uses sign language but also voices for herself. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and special education, Buettgenbach feels like she has knowledge to help others understand how to interact with deaf individuals, even if it’s just how to interact without an interpreter present.

For Amy Willman, a UNL American Sign Language (ASL) professor, Deaf culture is important not only for Deaf individuals but also for hearing individuals.

“They (students) realize very quickly that communication can be effective, even if they don’t know sign or if they’ve never met a deaf person before,” Willman said. “But the bottom line is, there will always be barriers for people who are deaf in a world that is predominately hearing or where information is accessed auditorily.”

Willman began attending the Nebraska School for the Deaf when she was four years old. She continued her education by attending Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in elementary education.

Being bilingual or trilingual

Communicating in a new language can be stressful for anyone but communicating when one person speaks and the other signs creates more barriers than usual.

When Adan learned to sign it was his third language that he learned. Growing up in Kenya his first language was Somali. At age 12 or 13 he lost his hearing. He learned English as a second language and American Sign Language became his third language, making him more diverse in communication than most hearing individuals.

Because a deaf person is exposed to English as a second language, they have to learn a different grammar and syntax than ASL. Deaf individuals don’t want their intelligence judged based on the deficits in the second language.

“No degree of hearing loss has any representation of an individual’s intelligence,” Jensen said.

Willman’s view is that the education of students who are learning a second language is just as important as any other curriculum.

“My primary focus is for my ASL students to learn a different language while also learning about deaf culture,” Willman said.

Deaf and traveling

Language barriers are hard for any person to deal with but for deaf and hard of hearing individuals they have become accustomed with how to handle those situations on a day to day basis.

Traveling is an example of when language can become a problem and yet those who are deaf and use sign language still manage to conquer that experience.

“Since I was young my mother encouraged us to travel. My very first big vacation was when I was eight years old and my family went to Hawaii. When I was 12 we went to Mexico and when I was 13 my family went to Europe,” Willman said. “My mom wanted me to have the same experiences as hearing children and my mother never looked at me and said, ‘oh, I’m so sorry honey. You’re not going to be able to do these things.’”

Adan, Buettgenbach and Jensen didn’t let their hearing loss affect their travel experiences either. Adan studied abroad in South Africa and the university provided sign language interpreters through the Services for Students with Disabilities office.

“South Africa is considered a developing nation and so there’s not a whole lot of people who use sign language, but we did visit a deaf school,” Adan said. “They (South Africa) also didn’t have a strong use or presence of interpreters throughout the community.”

Buettgenbach studied abroad in England at Oxford University and Jensen moved around often with her family because of military placements. Both learned how to communicate and adapt to their surroundings just as they do on the UNL campus.

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