I am a Deaf student and sign language is my first language. I have cochlear implants, which enable me to hear and understand others in one-on-one interactions and most small group settings. As I approach graduation in May and reflect back on my undergraduate experience, I can say that these four years have undoubtedly been the best of my life. However, despite my love for this school, as with everything, there is always room for improvement.
Cura personalis: care for the whole person. Men and women for others. These are two values in which Georgetown takes pride and attempts to instill in students across all four schools. When it comes to accessibility for individuals with disabilities, however, Georgetown’s system often struggles to uphold these values. In my years here, I have experienced several frustrations in regards to securing sign language interpreters. During freshman year, I learned that the Academic Resource Center would be unable to provide interpreters for anything not directly tied to my classes. If I wanted to attend a student event or a lecture, I would need to contact the student group or departmental organizer personally. My requests were often met with confusion, pass-the-buck methods, and sometimes rejection. This was because non-academic events do not have a set funding pool for accessibility requests, and student groups/departments are not budgeted for them. This means I am unable to experience plays, student group events or improv comedy shows on campus. In some ways, this prevented me from fully engaging in the true Georgetown experience.
My deafness is a part of me. It does not end when I walk out of a classroom. As my requests were met with discouraging obstacles, I did not feel that I was cared for as a whole person. I often ignored the many Georgetown event invitations, as I knew that my chances of attending would be slim. Event invitations sometime come within one, two or three days’ notice. Unlike many Hoyas who are able to decide to go on a whim, I need a week or two beforehand to plan and navigate the bureaucratic process of obtaining an interpreter. A big lecture hall with 100 people and no interpreter? Forget it. A twenty-person setting? Maybe. If I were to attend an event without an interpreter, I would need a front row seat to lip read the speaker. I would be mentally exhausted by the end of the presentation, after struggling to hear every word of the content. The worst situation is when someone tells a joke, and everyone begins to laugh. Five seconds later, I laugh to follow the attendees, feeling left out when realizing that I completely missed the joke.
My most frustrating experience involved booking an interpreter for an on-campus LSAT class sponsored by the Georgetown University Student Association. The process began with an email to GUSA to request interpreters. Fifty-seven emails, six different people and 19 days later, I was still without an interpreter. I showed up to the first class with my fellow Hoyas and saw a volunteer interpreter who sat signing incoherently. Later, I discovered this “interpreter” had only one high school class of ASL preparation, and was not by any means qualified for this role. There were a lot of emails thereafter and eventually a meeting with the assistant dean of students, who empathized. But, even after what seems like the 100th conversation on this topic, empathy did not turn in to action. Despite the then GUSA President Trevor Tezel’s wonderful advocacy efforts, there was no recourse. I couldn’t return to that class.
Some departments on campus are still financially unprepared to provide interpreters because it is not within their budget. When there is a request for an interpreter, departments scramble to try and find outside sources or other departmental fiscal overflow to fund the request. In a lot of instances, at no fault of the department, this confusion is made apparent to the requestor. It does not create a culture that is welcoming to individuals with disabilities and their needs. Although I know that it is not what Georgetown intends, it does project the image that accessibility needs are a burden.
Georgetown cannot and should not pick and choose when they will accommodate my deafness. The request process should be streamlined and accessible. There should be a designated access coordinator working with student groups, departments and the university to handle accommodation requests. Then, that person could tap into a centralized fund designated for accessibility needs of its students and attendees. With a centralized fund and system in place for accommodations, any student needing support services would be able to show up and enjoy any event as my fellow Hoyas are able to do. This system would allow the university to truly exemplify cura personalis, caring for the whole person.
This is not to say that Georgetown has not improved in the four years that I have been a student. GUSA and the Center for Student Engagement announced a plan of payment for interpreters for student groups. In the 2014 blueprint training for student groups, there was an announcement to start including accommodation statements on flyers, which ultimately will work toward a culture of inclusiveness on campus. Thanks to advocacy efforts, university administrators have increasingly become more aware of disability needs on campus. However, I will say this — plans and policies without the means (finances) to actually achieve them are merely ideas.
As I plan to embark on the next chapter of my life, I urge Georgetown to continue forward on centralizing a fund and designating a coordinator for individuals with disabilities. The Disability Working Group, chaired by Jane Holahan and Mary Dhuly, has been working tirelessly throughout the year to improve accessibility on campus in general. I thank them for their work. I thank the Lecture Fund, who has worked from day one to accommodate my requests for the big speeches on campus. I thank the professors, faculty and friends who have been supportive of me throughout my four years on the Hilltop. I would not trade this experience for anything in the world.
Heather Artinian is a senior in the College.