First Impressions of Gallaudet University

This article was originally published on our CEO’s dedicated WCMT-research blog but we thought it was great and wanted to share it with you:

img_1548For those uninitiated in all-things-deaf, Gallaudet is the world’s first and only university that offers ‘programs and services specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hearing students.’ It was established in 1864 by an Act of Congress and its charter was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. (Taken from their website:

I plan on writing a more in-depth article about Gallaudet, so please forgive me for not including a blow-by-blow account of the visit, but rather, here let me just let you into a few things that struck me.

The first was definitely the atmosphere and the physical layout of the place. It felt to me more like a deaf school in Kent (leafy, blue signs everywhere, residential area and quiet) than a leading university with global recognition. It was so calm and peaceful – there was no-one in sight. On our tour, it was explained to us that the site was originally the home of a school, which was the inception of deaf education in America and how Gallaudet found himself involved.

Something else we learned on the tour was why America uses ASL. Strange statement, but ASL is actually a derivation of French Sign Language (FSL). Now, in the UK, we are always told that when young Gallaudet came across the waters, he chose to export FSL back to America as “he preferred the signing/it was more effective/it was more successful in teaching.” Yet, on our tour is was explained to us that there were many successful schools in the UK at that time, teaching deaf students. Mr Gallaudet initially wanted to learn from these institutions and asked to see their methods and approaches, but as the schools were private, they asked a fee for him to enter. Appalled, he skipped across to France where he was welcomed by de l’Epee and the rest is history. To think, if we had been more inviting, America could be using BSL today!

Gallaudet is the height of sign and deaf-culture immersion. It was so lovely as a deaf person to order my food and drink in sign language, be served in the shop in sign language, to sign “excuse me” to the signing caretaker and sign “hi” to the signing campus security! Although there was a language barrier for me due to my signing BSL (though my ASL is improving David tells me!), I just felt so happy and elated the whole time I was there.

Another revelation for me was finally being able to use VRS and see what all the fuss was about. Now to explain, there are three platforms that seem to be thrown together as “VRS”:

– VP – video-phone – this is a direct face-to-face way that deaf people can call each other. Similar to web-cams (FaceTime, Skype etc) but is hard-wired and doesnt require an internet connection: a deaf phone, as it were.

– VRS – a system by which a deaf person can call a hearing person. I sit in my booth and an interpreter comes on the screen. I tell her (in my best ASL) what number to call and she relays through voice-over and signing the conversation, much like a real interpreter would.

– VRI – this is where a deaf person and a hearing person are in the same room but no interpreter is physically present. Rather, the interpreter pops up on the screen and does their thing.

Now, with that clear, I got to experience the first and second iterations. I must say, I got a little addicted and silly, but it was so freeingimg_2294 to be able to literally pick up the remote and call someone! Being able to call another deaf person and pop up on their screen, like a phone call, was just liberating. I was smiling like a child watching a cartoon. No texting, or garbled english emailing – just pick up the phone and tada! They are there in front of you.

I was also able to use VRS, which was a very interesting experience that I have not yet fully digested. The positives are clear: the ease of not having to book an interpreter; being able to call literally anyone and the service to be free; not having to wait more than a few seconds for an interpreter to be ready. WOW. Yet, there are downsides that I noticed immediately: each interpreter’s signing varied massively in clarity and accuracy; their understanding of me seemed to rely on lip-reading rather than interpreting my international signing and gestures; I felt I had no control – they were the ones guiding and controlling the interaction. It was strange for me, and I may have views to articulate at a later date that are more firm, but on face-value, what an asset! Though I would have to question the quality of service for something more serious that ordering pizza or calling family and friends like I did.

Every space, every classroom was deaf friendly and you could see the deaf-influence in every aspect of design. This is something that apparently has been the case since when the school was built, with windows on one side of the assembly hall being smaller so as not to glare in the eyes of the audience, or stairwells in the ancient dormitories being open to allow signing between floors. This has been furthered by a building funded by Sorenson (a VRS company) that is the height and pinnacle of ‘deaf-space’. Glass everywhere: the lifts even had glass walls so that you could sign to someone from the ground floor something you forgot to tell them, or sign “hold the doors!”

Interestingly, many of the students we met were from International origins and that shouts to the reputation that Gallaudet has across the globe. Many come with no ASL or even no sign language, so they have a special centre that focuses on getting their signing up to speed before they are allowed to enter the University ‘proper’. They also make sure that students meet required levels of english before entering, again showing that they take bilingualism and meeting common standards seriously.

img_1549David and I also visited the MSSD: the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, based on the same campus as Gallaudet and also the primary school, Kendall. It is termed the Model school, not because it is built from Lego blocks and has miniature people, but rather because they model best practice in the pedagogy for teaching deaf children. Now, MSSD was surprising in that they are not as well equipped as Gallaudet nor are they as technologically embracing as some hearing schools now that use iPads etc. Yet, one thing that I thought was amazing was something that have included in their curriculum called ASLology. Again, this will be in my final report, but there is a real emphasis in getting students to not just learn vocab in ASL but really embrace sign language as a vehicle of expression. They ensure that their ASL-literacy is as good, if not better, as their English-literacy. Encouraging students to exploit technology such as video-blogging, they also give them the skills to produce their own sign language literature! This holistic approach to signing and literacy runs throughout the school and is reflected in Gallaudet. Food for thought.

As I said, this post is more a brief overview of my visit, but I met so many deaf people, saw so many interesting things and heard so many fascinating snippets that I cannot process them just yet. It inspired me to want to go and study there, which is what our Deaf Learners project is all about – creating environments and areas of study that inspire students to want to come and further their educational journeys. It gave me much to think about in terms of applying their approaches to the UK context.

Well, we are on the train now – an 11 hour journey from Washington DC to Rochester, New York. Rochester is home to the highest proportion of Deaf people for a state and is a real Deaf-mecca in America. It is placed amongst the beautiful Finger Lakes that makes a train journey a little less arduous.

Signing Off…

One thought on "First Impressions of Gallaudet University"

  1. Louise Booth says:

    Hi Abdi

    It sounds like you’re having an amazing and inspiring trip.
    Really enjoying reading the posts.

    All the best


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