“The Deaf community is one big family,” a counselor at Gallaudet University said. “But it’s easy that we are forgotten about.”
Like thousands of other college students across the United States, Gracie Kelleher scrambled to pack up her dorm with a stunned sadness. Because of the coronavirus, the 22-year-old won’t get to spend much of her final semester on campus, and a big graduation ceremony seems unlikely. But for her, the dramatic shift in her college experience hits much harder.
Kelleher is hard of hearing. Her school, Gallaudet University, has become a vital cultural connection and resource that she and about 1,500 other students cannot find anywhere else.
Located in Washington, DC, Gallaudet is the only university in the world that operates bilingually for students who are deaf and hard of hearing, offering all classes and programs in American Sign Language and English. Its student body includes people from across the US and 25 other countries. It serves new signers, native signers, deaf-blind students, and others with special needs.
“Students come to Gallaudet and don’t feel they are looked at as disabled or incapable, but instead are noticed for their academic achievements, their sense of humor, or any other factor that makes us human,” Kelleher told BuzzFeed News from her now-empty dorm room. “The students, faculty, and staff at this school are here because they are part of a unique Deaf community and culture.”
The university, where she could communicate freely in ASL, has substantially changed her life. The 22-year-old made “lifelong friends,” joined a sorority, and was finally able to study things she was passionate about (government and Spanish). She was also able to develop and strengthen her “Deaf identity.”
Growing up in Florida, Kelleher, like many of her peers, didn’t have any deaf or hard-of-hearing friends. Until she came to Gallaudet, she used hearing aids to “help keep up in conversations.” Most deaf people (around 80%) are born to hearing families, many of whom do not learn ASL.
It’s lonely and isolating, she said, but it’s something you get used to because you have to.
Once she got to college, though, she had “full communication access.” She could sign with teachers and classmates, as well as use ASL to order coffee and crack jokes at parties. Finally belonging somewhere these past few years has been a “haven,” she said.
So being forced to abruptly leave her school months early has sparked panic, fear, dread, and anxiety, students said — not just because of the comfort and social connection fostered by the campus but also the stability, acceptance, and services that deaf students do not have access to when they go home.
Trenna Paxton told BuzzFeed News over Twitter how “jarring” it’s been. On her way back home to Ohio, the junior explained how she struggles “with the expectations of the hearing world” because it’s “a much different place than the Deaf world.”
“My family does not use ASL, never has, and now that I mainly use ASL going home is a struggle. Communicating with English can be done and my mom is learning a bit,” the 20-year-old said. “Typically I have months to prepare myself to wear my hearing aid and speak everyday again, but because of this virus… I had a week to prepare instead of months.”
Selima Carlin is a single mother who lives in on campus-housing for deaf parents with her five-year-old son, Ryder. She describes the school as a “village,” where people help her watch her child so she can enjoy basketball games.
“Students lost our jobs around the campus, I am one of them and that is hard, because I have to think how am I going to pay for tuition, rent, and foods for my child and I,” she told BuzzFeed News in an email. “I don’t have a home to go to, this home is my home. It is a lot to take and at the same time.”
Carlin is one of about 150 students with special circumstances, such as international students who have complicated visa requirements, will be staying on campus, officials said.
In addition to losing that social and cultural connection, transitioning to virtual classrooms is a much more complicated and difficult experience for deaf students, who rely on visual learning environments, said Doris Zelaya, a counselor at the school.
“English is a second or even third language to many of our students,” she told BuzzFeed News. “A very small number of students may have limited access to the internet and computers.”