A Whole New World:
My Journey into Gallaudet


By Felicia D'Amato,
college student, British Columbia

When I was two years old I was diagnosed with a severe to profound hearing loss. I was the first deaf person my parents had ever met. Decisions had to be made, and my parents made the best decisions they knew how for me at the time: they fitted me with hearing aids, enrolled me in speech therapy, and chose to mainstream me.  My main mode of communication with my world was through speech, and through lip-reading.

Growing up, I never really complained much about my hearing loss. The truth is I didn’t spend much time thinking that I had one. I lip-read fairly well, and save for an FM-System, my hearing aid, and hearing resource teachers, I didn’t really see myself differently than my peers.  I really wanted to fit in with the world I was in, which was the hearing world and the only world I knew at the time. There were times when I would be assertive. I regularly asked for captions, and I knew to explain to people that I listened mostly by lip-reading. (The lip-reading part won me friends in school, especially when people realised it was an extremely useful for eavesdropping, but a skill I tried not to use too much – people deserve their privacy.)

I made it through sophomore year pretty much on my own. With my trusty FM and those speechreading abilities, I did okay in school, excelling at reading, writing and social studies, but falling behind in math and science. However, I only did what I had to do to get by. I never looked forward to school, simply because it was both frustrating and exhausting in terms of how much work it was to keep up and to hear.

My frustration was at an all-time high when my hearing loss took a turn for the worse. Something had to change; my level of hearing couldn’t support me anymore.  It was at that point an interpreter was assigned to me. Utilizing an interpreter was the first time I could access everything I had been missing out on-- PA announcements, movies that weren’t captioned, what students were saying in the back of the room. I was certainly not fluent in sign language, but somehow I understood everything my interpreter was saying: she signed a mixture of ASL and English and used everything she could to get the message across. I really believe that people who are hard of hearing or deaf are amazing adapters and that our brains adjust to new ways to communicate.

After high school, I enrolled in the Youth in Transition Program provided by the Provincial Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, where I met other deaf youth who signed and had a counselor who supported me in my educational pursuits. I learned about Gallaudet University there--the world’s only liberal arts college for the deaf and hard of hearing teaching exclusively in American Sign Language (ASL). It is thanks to the Deaf community in Vancouver who supported and encouraged me in immersing myself in ASL that I drew the courage to transfer to Gallaudet.  

Gallaudet wasn’t like any other place I’ve ever gone to. For me, it encapsulates everything that Aladdin and Jasmine were singing about in the movie, about a “whole new world.” Especially the part about no one will tell us “no,” because at Gallaudet, everything is completely accessible, on a level I never knew possible. PA announcements were done on a TV screen in sign language. Everything is taught in ASL directly, and the class discussions that were always hard for me to fully join suddenly become engaging and entertaining with everyone signing.

One of my fondest memories of Gallaudet happened on one of the first days of class after I transferred. The teacher had announced that we were watching a movie, so I automatically raised my hand to ask the question I had been asking my entire life: is the movie closed captioned? After I asked, I couldn’t help smiling as everyone laughed with me. Of course it was. This was a school where everyone was like me. Where we weren’t “hard of hearing” or “deaf” or “disabled,” we were students having our dreams come true, inside a world that wasn’t stopping us. Teachers actually know students by name, and the biggest class size I’ve had was 20 students. I realize that I’ve become a better public speaker because so many of our classes require presentations with feedback and support shared from both teachers and peers. 

The classes I took at Gallaudet were challenging, both professionally and personally. Gallaudet has recently implemented a service-learning component the last few years, which engages a student in a project relevant to classes taken within the community of Washington, DC. I’ve spent a lot of time outside of the classroom with this project, and that can be a challenge in itself, in learning how to balance your time, and sort out priorities. It was well worth it. It’s rare to find an institution that challenges you within and outside the classroom, and cares about what you’ve learned on all fronts, that encourages you to continuously set higher goals and supports you in those efforts. Gallaudet has a tutoring center (TIPS) that is free of charge, and their tutors and instructors are among the best and brightest, and excel at providing accessible tutoring services.

It’s been said that an education isn’t worth a great deal if it teaches you how to make a living, but not how to make a life. Gallaudet’s classroom stretches on into cafeteria meals with where you can engage out of this world debates, to the late night study sessions where songs are signed in ASL combining both worlds into one, and fire alarms that consists of flashing lights instead of sound, proving you don’t always need to hear for an emergency.

Before Gallaudet, I was an average student, never really putting the time into school to excel. At Gallaudet, however, that all changed. I’ve joined a sorority. I’ve taken amazing classes like the BioPsychoSocial Aspect of HIV/Aids. I’ve been challenged by teachers, peers, and coursework, and most of all the access that I’ve been provided with has pushed me farther, because I’m so much less frustrated by the nuances of a fully accessible education, that I’m able to challenge myself even further in coursework. I have been on the Dean’s List for several semesters, and have won several scholarships. I even had the privilege to participate in a federal internship.

When I got to Gallaudet, I felt like I fit right in. There was some apprehension beforehand, though, as I grew up oral and my signing wasn’t fluent. Gallaudet attracts students from all walks of life and abilities. I even found some hard of hearing friends, like myself, who had grown up oral, and who continue to use both ASL and spoken English as modes of communication in their everyday lives. Throughout my time at Gallaudet, I’ve seen a transition of many more students who have grown up oral and have no prior knowledge of sign language when they come to campus. At Gallaudet, I primarily use ASL, as that is the predominant language of the campus. But sometimes, I do use my voice especially with my parents, or my hearing friends who have no knowledge of sign language, and my deaf and hard of hearing friends are respectful of that as well. My parents were worried when I left that I might lose my speech abilities, but that hasn’t happened. My speech remains the same after four years of attending Gallaudet.

I care about my education now. I met one of my best friends through the Honours Program at Gallaudet, and we continuously push each other to become better scholars as well as people; she’s now pursuing her doctorate degree, and every time I’m not sure I can do it or I start to doubt myself, I remind myself that she’s set the bar higher and that I should, too. Most of the time, no explanation is needed among us. We know what it’s like to hear and not to hear. For the first time in a long time, I know that I’m not alone.

My time at Gallaudet is nearing to an end, but I won’t forget the lessons I’ve learned and I cherish every moment I have spent there. I don’t simply feel like I’m leaving a college, I feel like I’m leaving a home. Gallaudet instilled a pride in me for being deaf and hard of hearing. I take comfort in knowing that I have been to a whole new world, one that is filled with beautiful hands and beautiful dreams, and the knowledge that nothing is impossible if you focus on making a life and not just a living.  

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