Navigating university life while deaf

Everyone knows how it feels to start at the bottom of a new institution, especially in university. You’re often far away from home, feeling homesick in a new surrounding. That is until you finally meet someone who you share things in common with.

Josh Gomes, a first-year sustainable and renewable energy engineering student, said he learned he wasn’t alone when he first met two other deaf students at Carleton in September.

Before coming to Carleton, Gomes lived in Cambridge, Ont., where he said he pushed himself to break the stigmas attached to deafness.

“I always try to prove people that [deaf and dumb] is not true,” he said.

Gomes has worn hearing aids in both ears since he was diagnosed as deaf at the age of three. He noted that even though technology has improved, the process has been slow. His hearing aid batteries only last for about a week before they need to be replaced, he said.

“If you look at phones, they have changed so fast with time. With hearing aids, it is the same design just slowly being improved on,” Gomes said. “The battery life is terrible.”

Gomes said he came to Carleton and chose to study engineering to find a more sustainable battery idea for hearing aids. The first idea he had involved solar panels, but Gomes determined that this source of energy would be inefficient to charge small batteries frequently. Other factors he considered included hours of darkness, rain, and the amount of power hearing aids need to run.

His hearing aids are always running, from the moment Gomes wakes up until he goes to bed. Additionally, during his first semester at Carleton, the engineering student learned that his hearing aid project is not a one-person job.

“[Off] the top of my head, you need an electrical engineer, a biomedical and mechanical engineer. You need a team to just begin to design a hearing aid. It is very much a group effort,” he said.

According to Gomes, one of his least favourite things is phone calls.

“For me [it] is like recording their phone through radio, re-recording it through another radio, then sticking it through the phone, and then quiet as well,” he said. “It is terrible and I cannot hear people. When I have to, I get agitated. I like being face-to-face. I can read lips and you cannot read lips through the phone.”

Accommodations on campus

Gomes said coming to Carleton was a big step for him; however, he said the different on-campus resources, such as the Paul Menton Centre (PMC), have helped him throughout.

From extending his exam hours to relocating Gomes to a small, quiet room with less than 15 people, the PMC offers a variety of resources to support students with disabilities.

Gomes said the FM system has been the most helpful resource for him so far.

“[Professors] talk to a little microphone around their neck which turns [voice] into radio waves, then goes to the extra part in my hearing aid and then turns into voice again,” Gomes explained. “It is like having them one inch from my ear. [Their voice] becomes crystal clear.”

Bruce Hamm, the student support and financial administrator at the PMC, said there are currently 40 to 50 students with hearing loss registered in the program.

According to Hamm, different resources provided to students vary on a case-by-case basis. Hamm said the PMC can provide deaf students with test and exam accommodations, note-taking services, interpreters and closed captions on videos shown in class, if needed.

“As far as I’m aware of, we are the only institution that adds closed captions to videos being shown in a classroom with a student registered at the PMC,” he said.

Hamm said the PMC also works closely with the Awards Office to administer bursaries for students to “offset some of the cost they might encounter to sort of overcome the barrier of their education, whether it will be tutor support or others.

Carleton provides different mediums of accessibility and awareness throughout campus.

Celia Young, a professor and program co-ordinator of American Sign Language (ASL) at Carleton, said teaching students on campus ASL builds awareness.

“Deaf people and hard of hearing people often have to fight against the stigma that they are intellectually deficient, and that is not the case,” Young said. “We judge people based on how they sound.”

Young also mentioned having students working on campus who know ASL provides another level of accessibility to students and staff members.

“Right now, there is a big dependence on interpreters. If more people, just regular people, know ASL, then it provides another level of accessibility,” she said.

Young added that learning ASL helps build students’ confidence.

“Learning to communicate using your body often awakens a sense of confidence. It becomes really empowering. It is great to see how students become more confident in their own skin,” she said.

Photo by Meagan Casalino