At age 23, Kirsten Pribula heard a water sprinkler for the first time. She stood in the middle of College Green for a few minutes trying to preserve the moment and remember the sound.
Pribula lost her hearing between the ages of 3 and 4 due to autoimmune inner ear disease. AIED is a progressive hearing loss condition caused when the immune system attacks the inner ear, according to the American Hearing Research Foundation.
Pribula underwent cochlear implant surgery — a surgery where a device that improves hearing is placed in the inner ear — when she was 8 years old. The surgery allows her to hear partially, but Pribula still relies heavily on lip reading and interpreters, she said.
In group conversations, Pribula said she often needs an interpreter because it is hard to keep up with the back-and-forth nature of the setting.
“But with one-on-one conversations, I do really well because … I can read lips well,” Pribula said.
Despite the problems she faces because of her hearing loss, she still chose to come to Ohio University. Pribula was also looking at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the only university in the nation designed specifically to eliminate barriers for deaf and hard of hearing students, but Gallaudet did not offer Pribula the major she wanted to pursue.
Pribula, a junior studying graphic design, thought she was the only student who is deaf on campus, but according to Carey Busch, the assistant dean of student accessibility, there are between 15 and 18 students on Ohio University’s Athens campus that are deaf or hard of hearing. The group makes up less than one-tenth of a percent of the campus’ student population.
Although Pribula often feels overlooked by the general student body, there are some offices at OU actively working to accommodate students, who are deaf, in and out of the classroom.
Making Campus Accessible
OU has the Office of Student Accessibility Services, located in Baker University Center, Room 348, to help students with disabilities on campus, including students with all levels of reduced hearing.
In 1990, Congress passed The Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people who have disabilities in all public forms of life, including universities.
“Our overall goal with all students would be to remove barriers that they experience as a result of their disability,” Busch said.
Through accessibility services, Pribula said she is provided with interpreters and notetakers that help her in the classroom. Without the notetaker’s help, she would have to multitask more, which can lead to missing signs from the interpreter who relays what the professor is saying.
Before the notetakers were implemented, Busch said the office relied on the professors to supply the student with content from the lecture. The feedback from students using this process was negative, so the office switched to using student notetakers.
“If we can’t find someone who will be a notetaker, (we work) with the student and the faculty to find a way that they can still get the full benefit from the lecture,” Busch said.
One way to improve the accessibility in the classroom, Pribula said, is to choose videos that have subtitles available. If the professor cannot find a video suitable for captioning, Pribula said the professor will give her an alternative assignment.
“Most of the time, it kind of sucks because I feel like I’m kind of being left out a little bit and … that I’m not doing the same thing as other people in the class, and I don’t want to make other people feel jealous in class because I’m getting the special treatment,” Pribula said. “I don’t want the special treatment — I just want to be treated the same as everybody else.”
Accessibility services is not the only office providing assistance for those who are deaf.
Housing and Residence Life also cooperates with students who are deaf to provide them with necessary equipment, Jneanne Hacker, the director of business and conference services, said in an email. She added that the office makes sure the room of a student who is deaf has a bed shaker and strobe lights connected to the fire alarm as well as a doorbell located outside of the dorm room that, when rung, activates the lights in the room.
There is not a designated residence hall for students who are deaf, Hacker said, because the department likes to make all housing choices available for students.
Life on Campus
Outside of the classroom, Pribula said the main problem she faces is people do not know how to communicate with her.
“Sometimes, when people try to talk to (me), they realize ‘Oh, (she is) deaf,’ and they would feel sorry for (me),” Pribula said.
Pribula said people on campus treat her decently, but at first, it is a little “awkward.”
“It’s really hard for me to make friends because I’m not really sure if people are open-minded to being friends with people who are disabled,” she said.
Busch said she has seen an influx in students who are deaf who want to be more involved in campus activities. She added that it has been a problem and a “point of frustration” that interpreters are not available for most of the campus events, such as concerts and theater productions.
“Recently we’ve had some students who really want to be more involved on campus and not just be a student and go to class,” Busch said. “I think campus culture is the biggest place where we have some room to grow.”
Tyler Murphy, the vice president of OU’s American Sign Language club, said he would like to see more campus events interpreted for students who are deaf.
The club is interested in expanding this year and reaching out to students, who are deaf, on campus — as no students who are deaf regularly attend the club’s meetings — to gain knowledge and listen to their experiences, Lauren Mathie, the president of ASL Club said.
“We want (students who are deaf in our club), and we want to know who they are,” Mathie, a senior studying communication, said.
Murphy and Mathie both took ASL at their high school, Hoover High School in North Canton, which led them to become a part of the club at OU, they said.
“Our teacher in high school, she was deaf. I went into it with such a perception of ‘Oh, poor deaf people. Oh, that’s so sad,’ but she could do anything,” Murphy, a junior studying strategic communication, said. “That was such a wake up call to me. There’s this whole culture and language, just different ways of life.”
Because Pribula lost her hearing at a young age, she said her parents put her in speech therapy, and she also learned sign language from an interpreter when she became deaf.
“My parents know this world we live in is a hearing world, and they wanted me to have the best of both worlds,” Pribula said. “They wanted me to (be a part of) the deaf world and the hearing world.”
Pribula said she wants to be treated like a regular student and for people to feel comfortable interacting with her.
“I just want them to be more open-minded a little bit instead of thinking that I’m kind of the weird deaf girl, and that they can’t really communicate with me,” Pribula said. “But they can (communicate with me) — they just have to work a little bit more because I’m the one working hard a lot.”
Pribula said there is a lack of people who are Deaf on campus, which is a fairly typical problem.
“A lot of times, (the Deaf community) is left out,” Pribula said. “I think there’s a few other people (on campus) who are deaf, but they’re not connected to the Deaf community, so they have no knowledge of sign language or Deaf culture or the community itself.”
Deafness beyond OU
There are two different definitions of deaf — deaf and culturally Deaf.
When the “d” in deaf is lowercase, it refers to a medical term for a person with “some level of reduced hearing,” Busch said.
“(Deaf) with a capital ‘D’ ... has to do with culture and identity,” she said.
Parts of Deaf culture include using the proper etiquette, such as appropriately getting someone’s attention, and using sign language to communicate, she said.
Lisa Koch, an adjunct ASL professor who herself is hard of hearing, said choosing to be a part of Deaf culture is an “individual decision” and is often dependent on if the person who is deaf is taught to speak rather than to use sign language.
Koch said neither path is the “correct path” for everyone.
According to the Center for Hearing and Communication in New York, more than 90 percent of children who are deaf are born to hearing parents. Koch said that can play a major role as to whether the child is raised using sign language.
A “right of initiation” into the Deaf culture is receiving a sign name from a person who is Deaf, which takes a “special characteristic” about a person and typically the first letter of their name, Koch said.
Koch said her sign name, which was given to her by her roommate at Gallaudet who is Deaf, is the sign for the letter “L” and the sign for “audiology,” which was her major at Gallaudet, combined into one sign.
You do not ask for one,” Koch said. “You are given it.”
Pribula’s sign name is the letter “K” and the sign for “work” because she said she is hard-working and always busy. She received it from an interpreter about the time she became deaf.
“Only the Deaf person can give the hearing person a sign name because it’s our thing,” Pribula said. “It’s our culture, our language.”