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Breaking Down Barriers: Summer Academy Takes on Educational Attainment Gap Between Deaf and Hearing Students

Lam, Jackie

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000524318.11517.3b
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Ms. Lam is the assistant editor of The Hearing Journal.

People with hearing loss face unique challenges in various aspects of their lives, and education is no different. Unlike other areas, however, schooling, especially higher education, directly affects their employment opportunities and livelihood, determining whether the equity gap between themselves and their hearing counterparts widens or narrows. Up until recently, this need has gone largely unmet.

The “Deaf People and Educational Attainment in the United States: 2017” report by the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes (NDC) found 83 percent of over 38,000 deaf individuals included in the analysis successfully completed high school, but only 51 percent finished some college in 2015, amounting to a 6 and 12 percent gap with hearing individuals respectively (NDC, 2017 The number, however, drops even further when it comes to those who have completed a bachelor's degree—only 18 percent of deaf individuals compared with 33 percent of hearing individuals, a 15 percent gap. These findings indicate that hearing-impaired students get into college, but only a third of them graduate.

This year, Pennsylvania has joined the ranks of a small number of states like Alabama and Mississippi that are taking a stab at this educational attainment gap issue through summer college prep programs. The Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry hosted the state's first-ever Deaf and Hard of Hearing Summer Academy at Pennsylvania State University in July to prepare 25 high school students who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deafblind to facilitate their transition to and success in college.

The focus of the two-week program at Penn State is not academics, but rather knowledge and skills related to day-to-day living such as assistive technology, social work, financial management, team-building, self-advocacy, self-awareness and the law, and communication access options. Jane Freeman, MEd, a consultant at the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN), originated the idea of the summer academy because she saw that learning independent living skills was crucial to deaf and hard of hearing high school students in her 18 years of experience in teaching this population. “We used to take overnight trips with the high school class, and the students had to do all the planning for it in terms of reservations and tickets and meals and raising money and all that,” Freeman said. “So we knew there's a lot more to being a successful adult than just academics.”

At the center of this is the self-advocacy skills that could get their needs met, Freeman said. “For example, communication, assistive technology, transportation needs,” Freeman said. “Whatever the case may be…if they know what works for them and they know how to advocate to get it, they're going to be successful in whatever environment they're in.”

Many reasons could explain why deaf and hard of hearing students lack self-advocacy skills, but one could be the existing educational structure's sole focus on classroom learning, Freeman said. “In high school, you go to your different classes to learn the content, to pass the courses, and it's very academically focused,” Freeman said. “If you're a student with a disability, not just deafness but other disabilities too, there are very specific skills you need to learn related to that disability. And where do you do it? Who teaches you?”

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The program was designed, therefore, to put these students in a real-life college environment and actual college classes to help them discover what they would need in that setting, said Russell Goddard, program director of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Summer Academy and statewide coordinator of deaf and hard of hearing services for OVR. “They may be used to an interpreter, for example, but they might not be aware that we have CART services or they could possibly use, say, Sequence, or TypeWell, or FM Systems,” Goddard said. “So having them be exposed to several different types of simple accommodations is one of our goals for the summer academy.”

Students also got to experience firsthand the unforeseen challenges they might encounter in a college classroom, thanks to an idea from the College Prep Summer Experience camp by the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services called “Front Row, Back Row” that Goddard incorporated into the summer academy's curriculum. “Basically, they put students in an auditorium-style classroom that's pretty common for college freshmen,” Goddard said. “Then they had a staff member go up to the board with their backs turned to them while he was speaking in a different accent, or putting on a fake moustache to pretend that he had facial hair covering his lips, or walking back and forth in front of the interpreter, and asking the students how they would handle those situations as they come up.”

For many participants of the summer academy, this was the first time to meet other deaf and hard of hearing students, Goddard said. “In Pennsylvania, we have 500 school districts,” Goddard said. “And more often than not, if there is a student who is deaf in one of the districts, they are usually the only deaf student in that school district.”

Bringing together students with hearing loss across the state showed that there are many ways of being deaf and hard of hearing, said Sommar Ane Chilton, MEd, an instructor at the communication sciences and disorder department at Penn State who provided input into the planning and had previously taught deaf and hard of hearing students at the K-12 levels. “There will be students who will be attending this camp who use no hearing technologies,” Chilton said. “They use American Sign Language as their mode of communication, and then we will have students who may use cochlear implants, may use hearing aids, may prefer to use spoken language versus sign language.”

With such variability, “the biggest challenge is finding the best fit educationally, communicatively, and socially with each of those deaf students because not every single deaf student needs the same thing,” Chilton said.

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A lot of these challenges that deaf students encounter stem from the systems around them, according to Stephanie Cawthon, PhD, associate professor at the department of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Institute and the NDC. “When we think about systems, we think about family, we think about the community, we think about state laws, we think about programs like the one at Penn State,” Cawthon said. “Those are system factors that we really do believe have a great potential to help improve postsecondary outcomes.”

One such system, federal laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), shifts the burden of seeking help onto students with hearing loss or other disabilities after they leave high school. The Student Disabilities Services at the University of Chicago sums up the key difference between the two legislations as: “[The] purpose of the IDEA is to ensure that students are successful in the K-12 system” whereas the ADA “only ensures access, because success in college is up to the student” (University of Chicago, 2017

If a student was raised and trained on how to get services from IDEA, transferring that information to ADA is not always as smooth as you would like, Cawthon said. “[One] of the things is that the school or the institution is no longer responsible for finding you and asking, ‘Hey, do you need services?’ You have to go and say, ‘Hi, I need services’ and go through their process,” Cawthon said. “It's on the individual now, and you're an adult typically and you choose whether or not to disclose that is something that you're seeking. And you'd be surprised by how big of a barrier it is.

“There's also the sense that you have to request accommodation. You have to have three or four days in advance. Sometimes that person isn't there. Having a third party mediate language and communication is not going to feel the same as a direct communication environment. It's just not. Very rarely, I would say extracurricular activities or guest events preplan access, so you have to go specifically to ask for it.”

The weight of these responsibilities often dissuades deaf students from sticking with and completing college. “It's a big burden,” Cawthon said. “It takes a lot of energy. Sometimes it's frustrating, and I see students giving up because it's like you're doing a full-time job. You are both a full-time student and a full-time person asking for access, and it's an unequal burden, and I see that quite a bit.”

Cawthon and her colleagues at the NDC are tasked by the Department of Education with improving postsecondary outcomes for deaf individuals within five years, so they identified four root causes of educational attainment inequity to devote their efforts to: language and communication, social opportunities, professional, and attitude and biases. To succeed and flourish in and beyond the educational setting, Cawthon said deaf individuals need equal access to communication opportunities like quality interpreters and captioning, as well as the capacity and the chance to build social networks through events like happy hours. She said deaf students often have to rely on professionals who have not been trained on how to work with them; and on top of that, deaf individuals still face a lot of discrimination.

“One of the things we are really trying to do is to shift the culture to a positive, strength-based model, instead of a weakness-based model, or if you can't hear, you can't do this,” said Cawthon. “The logic right now comes from your lack of perception of sound as opposed to what it is that you do add to a conversation or add to a community.”

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Attitudes and biases are hard to change, but Cawthon said the NDC hopes to move society towards that positive, strength-based model by sharing stories of deaf individuals who have been resilient or successful in reaching their goals on social media “They may reach their goals in different ways, and it doesn't look like one thing,” Cawthon said. “So just feeding that message out there that deaf can is an important one for us.”

Programs like the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Summer Academy at Penn State and the Drones and Droids camp at the University of Alabama in Huntsville are looking to empower students with hearing loss by encouraging them to pursue careers in the growing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found employment in STEM occupations grew by 10.5 percent between 2009 and 2015, compared with 5.2 percent in non-STEM jobs (BLS, 2017 The Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA) at the Department of Commerce projected STEM jobs to grow by 8.9 percent from 2014 to 2024, compared with a 6.4 percent growth in non-STEM jobs (ESA, 2017 The same report also found that STEM workers earned 29 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts in 2015.

Bedarius Bell, state coordinator of deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind services at the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services who organizes the summer camps for students with hearing loss in the state, including the Drones and Droids camp, has been trying to incorporate STEM into their programs for the past two years. One example is a science competition called STEM Wars, which was previously only open to blind and visually impaired students. They're now extending the opportunity to participate to hearing-impaired students. “We have three different STEM masters, so we'll have somebody who's an expert in coding, somebody who does robotics, and another person who is a software engineering-type person, and there'll be a competition from each master,” Bell said. “They'll present on their topic, and we'll have a little activity for students to do to compete with each other.”

Bell said they have been pushing for more focus on STEM in their camps because STEM careers are key to helping deaf students get on an equal footing financially with their hearing peers. “Financially, if you can have a job that pays more, you have more independence, more freedom of your life and autonomy,” Bell said. “I know for me in Alabama that I really want to push that for our students because that's the way of the future.”

Along the same lines, the summer academy at Penn State was eager to expose students to all the possibilities in STEM. They invited the CEO of Greenfish, a virtual reality company in Lancaster, PA, to speak at one of their sessions. “This gentleman just started the company a few years ago, and is already up to 10 full-time employees,” Freeman said. “He employs artists, he employs people from the technical end, marketing end, so there's a variety of jobs within that one company. We want the students to realize that you may not be the person holding the camera, but that doesn't mean that's a field you can't consider.”

Freeman said deaf and hard of hearing students are not limited by anything, and she hoped the summer program instills hope and confidence in these students. “I think the idea that we want to get across to our students is dream big,” Freeman said. “Don't look at a field and say, ‘I can't do that because I'm deaf.’ Look at a field and say, ‘How am I going to do that? Because that's where my passion is and there's a way to overcome my hearing loss and participate fully.’”

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