Working Together: Deaf Education and the Fulbright Program (Italy and USA)
By now it is not uncommon to see a Deaf Italian student toting a backpack at Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal-arts university for Deaf students. Nor is it strange to see a Deaf American graduate student working in Italy in areas related to their specific field of experience.
This cultural exchange between Italy and the United States has been ongoing for more than fifteen years, thanks to the Mason Perkins Deafness Fund (MPDF), Gallaudet University, and the Deafness Program supported by the Fulbright Commission in Italy.
This program was developed in 1986 by Dr. Elena Radutzky, director of the MPDF and current coordinator of the Deafness Program, and Dr. Ceil Lucas, a professor in the Graduate School Department of Linguistics & Interpretation of Gallaudet University. They joined forces to realize the possibility of offering an annual Fulbright scholarship for Deaf Italians to attend Gallaudet University to study and obtain internship experience in areas related to deafness. The long-range goal was to have these students become professionals in their fields of specialization and leaders in the Italian Deaf community.
“By having access to Gallaudet in more than just a tourist way, Deaf Italians were able to make very tangible contributions to their situation,” Lucas said. “It also vastly opened the horizons of the Deaf Americans who [eventually] went to Italy.”
In 1992, after reviewing the unqualified success of the MPDF scholarship, Roberto Wirth, general manager of the five-star Hotel Hassler in Rome, himself deaf, decided to start offering a second scholarship. The specific objective was to send prospective future Deaf educators from Italy to study the latest U.S. educational methods for Deaf children up to the age of six. So, the Fulbright Commission worked with the Roberto Wirth Fund to begin this additional effort.
In 1998, the Fulbright Commission in Italy, enthusiastic about the success of the Italian program, persuaded its Board of Directors to support a true cultural exchange by initiating three annual Fulbright scholarships for American graduate students in the Deaf education field to work and study in Italy.
Any U.S. Deaf or hearing graduate student in a deafness-related field has the opportunity to pursue individually tailored projects in Italy from among these areas: sign language research and teacher training, development of educational materials, teaching American Sign Language (ASL) or English, bilingual education, early intervention programs, interpreter training, production of multimedia tools for education and training, tactile sign research and training of teachers/professionals working with deaf-blind children. In addition, special work proposals are also taken into consideration.
However, while the Italian Fulbrighters had an easier time adapting to life at Gallaudet, thanks to the large international student population, support staff that specifically attended to their needs, a month-long intensive course in ASL before school started, and a 24-hour assimilative environment, Americans going to Italy often faced a bigger set of challenges.
Several steps needed to be taken in order to ease the transition of the American grant winners. Sharon Hayes, who formerly coordinated the Fulbright Program at Gallaudet, provided potential applicants from Gallaudet with information and encouragement about the long-term advantages of working and studying abroad. Hayes also helped with the culture shock factor by giving them a brief introduction to Italian culture, lending them books on Italian Sign Language (LIS), and giving them tips on how to quickly become accustomed to the different sign and written languages. Upon arrival in Italy, the new Fulbrighters then received an extensive orientation and have the complete support of the Fulbright Deafness Program and the MPDF for the duration of their stay in Italy.
Debra Cole, who taught social studies at the Lexington School for the Deaf, came to Italy in the spring of 2001 in order to learn more about foreign language teaching methods. Cole, who had taught English at City University of New York and in China, was motivated with the challenge of teaching English effectively to Deaf Italians. During her time here in Rome, she gave numerous workshops across the country on teaching methods, taught an English class to Deaf university students, and participated in various conferences and seminars.
“At the beginning, I had to learn how to speak and lip-read Italian in order to communicate with hearing people,” Cole said. “It was difficult at first until I started using LIS and written Italian more expertly. The MPDF had an amazing network of Deaf experts all around Italy that could help me understand more about the social and educational issues facing them.”
Raychelle Harris, who studied linguistics in graduate school, worked with sign language teachers and schoolteachers on various teaching techniques when she was in Italy in 1999 as a Fulbrighter. She focused on assessment, grading, teaching approaches and activity development, in order to teach Deaf children more effectively.
Harris, who was a teacher at the New Mexico School for the Deaf, said “Luckily, communicating with hearing Italians was easier than I thought due to their frequent use of gestures, but what really helped was living for a couple of months with a Deaf Italian host family which afforded me full exposure to LIS and written Italian. I was exposed from sun up to sun down, and even dreamt in LIS!”
The MPDF, in addition to providing orientation programs for both outgoing Italians and incoming Americans, works to set up meetings between the current scholarship winners from Italy and upcoming American winners, and vice versa. That way, every winner is better prepared for his or her stay abroad by being able to pick up a few basics of the foreign sign language, written language and culture, as well as important details to be aware of abroad.
In addition to focusing on the scholarships for Italy and the United States, the MPDF also sponsors workshops and seminars on deafness-related matters in Italy, promotes bilingual education for Deaf children, translates and/or adapts educational books into Italian to be printed, disseminates information and collaborates on a variety of projects all aimed at bettering the future of Italy’s Deaf children.
The MPDF also works with the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, acting upon requests of Deaf American students who are interested in coming to Italy for study abroad programs. We work together to help find interpreters and support services for these students, and connect them with the local Deaf community. For more information about the Mason Perkins Deafness Fund, please contact us.
U.S. graduating college seniors and graduate students in Deaf education programs from throughout the United States are eligible to participate in the Deaf Studies Program in Italy. Contact the Institute of International Education (IIE) for information on how to apply. Deaf education students in Italy who want to conduct similar studies in the United States should contact the Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange Between Italy and the United States.