Because I grew up in a small Greek city where I never socialized with other Deaf people, I never thought there were other people like me. From kindergarten through high school, I attended a mainstream school that didn’t provide support services, nor were teachers aware of Deaf culture and deafness. As a child, I didn’t really realize I was Deaf, despite being born with hearing loss too extensive to use hearing aids. Instead, I considered myself a person with a problem in my ears and difficulty interacting well with hearing people.
My concept of myself began to change during my college years, when I decided to learn Greek Sign Language (GSL). This gave me the chance to be involved with the Deaf community for the first time, which helped me realize how much I had missed by not socializing with other Deaf people.
GSL and Greek Deaf culture fascinated me, so I decided my career would be in those areas. When my GSL teacher encouraged me to pursue a graduate program in the United States through the U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright Foreign Student Program, I recognized it as an opportunity to further this career goal.
The Fulbright Foreign Student Program enables graduate students, young professionals, and artists from abroad to study and conduct research in the United States. The program operates in over 155 countries worldwide. Approximately 4,000 foreign students receive Fulbright fellowships each year.
I interviewed with the Fulbright Commission in Athens, Greece, where I received a positive response, and I felt doors opening up to me. Then the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, accepted me into its graduate program focused on Deaf education.
As my Fulbright program got underway, I learned about the field of Deaf education and Deaf culture in the United States. The perspectives people have on these topics fascinated me. In Greece people know little about these issues, but in the United States books on these topics are plentiful.
As I explored this new culture and learned American Sign Language (ASL), it amazed me to meet Deaf people who were able to attend college and do other things that would not be possible or accepted in Greece, like piloting an airplane. I experienced different points of view that helped me to face aspects of my own deafness and accept it.
I also received accommodations that I couldn’t imagine in Greece. Faculty taught all the courses for my graduate programs in ASL and a certified professional interpreted between ASL and spoken English in meetings where the participants didn’t use sign language. In addition, movies at some theaters provided open captioning that is similar to subtitles for foreign movies. These accommodations were so practical and helpful that I had no problem adapting to my new surroundings.
I hope someday Deaf people in Greece can have access to these types of accommodations to provide encouragement and support in their personal and professional lives.
During my Fulbright program, I gained significant personal insights about respect and sensitivity for people with disabilities as well as self-confidence and pride in my deafness and a belief that Deaf people can improve their lives if they work hard. I received professional benefits, too, by working with Deaf people, learning about American Deaf culture and developing my ASL skills.
Those experiences gave me the confidence to improve my skills in GSL and apply my knowledge in Deaf education. I went home with a renewed commitment to work in the Deaf community and to encourage human rights for Greek Deaf citizens by working with the governing administration to achieve some of the accommodation ideas I had discovered abroad.
When this article was written, Argiroula Zangana worked for the Institute for Language and Speech Processing in Athens, Greece.