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Sending a Deaf Student Abroad: One University’s Experience

In a classroom setting, a Deaf man leads a group of other individuals with different types of disabilities in learning different signs.

Disability services staff at UC Santa Cruz looked beyond the red tape to determine how – not whether – to make a young woman’s goals of going abroad a reality. Karen Keen, one of the former staff, elaborates.

After the U.S Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) ruled that Arizona State University did not have to provide interpreter services for a Deaf student who wanted to attend University College in Cork, Ireland, in January 2002, the educational community was left with lingering questions about whether colleges would deny students accommodations when they want to study overseas.

But for the Disability Resource Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), the question was not whether to provide overseas accommodations, but how. So, when Sarah Beauchamp stepped into our office to let us know of her hopes of spending her junior year at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, we looked beyond the red tape to determine how to make this vibrant young woman’s hopes a reality.

My initial questions included:

  • Does the University of Edinburgh have a Disability Services Office?
  • Can we hire interpreters in Scotland or will we need to send an interpreter?
  • How many interpreters would be needed?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How will we find interpreters?
  • What if the interpreter is not a good match for the student?

I began contacting various people at the Education Abroad Program (EAP) office on campus, the University of Edinburgh, the Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters and the East of Scotland Deaf Society to get answers. Sarah was also a tremendous help by taking the initiative to collect information. Through her efforts, I was able to get a copy of the University of Edinburgh’s “Information for Students with Hearing Impairment” and an e-mail address for its Disability Office. Rosie, the disability advisor, agreed to arrange for notetakers and also to provide further interpreter contacts.

As I connected with organizations in Scotland, I discovered little disparity in cost per hour for a Scottish interpreter compared to a Santa Cruz interpreter.

However, there were only a handful of interpreters in the entire country who knew American Sign Language (as opposed to British Sign Language), and Scotland in general was experiencing a significant interpreter shortage. It became clear Sarah would not receive adequate accommodations unless we sent an interpreter with her.

So, how does one go about finding and sending an interpreter to a foreign country for the whole school year? In our case, Sharyn Martin, director of the UCSC Disability Resource Center, had made a casual acquaintance with a top-notch interpreter from Southern California at a regional meeting. Not only was Tracy exhilarated by the idea of interpreting abroad, but she also had certification and travel experience, making her ideal for the job. Due to the lower number of classroom hours required for many EAP courses, especially in European schools, Tracy agreed to interpret solo. After bringing her to UCSC to discuss her contract and meet Sarah over a lunch outing with Sharyn and me, it was evident the match was perfect. We worked out a contract that included airfare to Scotland and a monthly salary. The sum took into consideration costs for housing—but technically she paid for her housing with her salary.

The last hurdle was determining how Tracy would obtain a visa for a 9-10 month period. Scotland usually issued visas on a six-month basis. It turned out that the six-month visa worked out just fine. She simply renewed it with no problems.

Once the student and interpreter arrived in Scotland, the school year sailed by smoothly, with Sarah sending e-mails recounting her exciting adventures. In one, Sarah wrote:

“Tracy and I get along really well. The system here is quite different, but I’m getting the hang of it. I have a notetaker; actually, she prefers to use the word, scriber… She writes down everything that the lecturers say. I’m still taking British Sign Language. It’s fun learning another language, using signs in different ways. Scotland is incredible! It’s amazing that I have been here for four months!”

It only takes one e-mail like this to confirm the value in making the effort to provide accommodations for a Deaf student studying abroad.

What Your Campus Can Do

If your school is wrestling with what stance to take as a result of OCR rulings or other legal precedents, first consider the possibilities and reasons for sending a Deaf student abroad with accommodations. Surprisingly, arranging for interpreters and notetakers for a study abroad program may not be as difficult as many think. Here are some points to keep in mind:

There are many interpreters who would love the unique opportunity to work and travel overseas. Ask interpreters in your area or post a message on a listserv such as PepNet. Keep in mind interpreters you have met at past meetings or conferences.

Work closely with the disability office, or other contact person, at the university the student is planning to attend. Rosie, the disability advisor in Edinburgh, was very friendly and helpful, not only with arranging supplemental accommodations, but also in providing contact information for housing for the interpreter, Deaf clubs in Scotland, etc.

Contact the country’s various Deaf and interpreter associations for information on local interpreter demographics. You may be able to hire an interpreter who already lives there. If you are unsure how to find these organizations, the Internet can be a great resource or contact the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange.

Don’t assume that it will be more expensive to provide accommodations for a Deaf student overseas. As mentioned previously, many class schedules can actually make it less expensive to send a Deaf student abroad for a year than pay for interpreters for the same year at home.

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