Embracing Deaf Identity Through Education

Wooden fence-lined path to a beach under a cloudy blue sky.
With encouragement from her Deaf role models, Manako Yabe enrolled in a Deaf Studies program and researched Deaf American, Jamaican and Japanese students' access to higher education.

Since I was seven years old, I dreamed of studying at a university in America.

I was born in Iwate, Japan, but when my family learned I was Deaf, we moved to Tokyo, which has more resources for Deaf education. At seven years old, my family then moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where I attended a Japanese school for two years.

While living in Atlanta, I was privileged to meet Ms. Heather Whitestone, who was the first Deaf winner of the Miss America Pageant in 1995. She was my first Deaf role model, and she inspired me with her message of “Deaf can do it.”

We returned to Japan, but we would eventually move again to London, England, where I graduated from a Japanese high school there. My education consisted of studying independently as a Deaf person without accommodations at Japanese mainstream schools, but I always wanted to have full communication access in the classroom. I wanted to find my true identity and to see other Deaf people as role models.

Why I Chose CSUN

One day, I read a biography which changed my life. The book was written by the late Mariko Takamura, a Japanese Deaf woman who studied at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). When I first learned about CSUN, I thought “that’s the one!”

CSUN has the National Center on Deafness (NCOD), which provides programs and services for over one hundred Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) students every year. CSUN has the largest DHH population in a mainstreamed university in the western part of the United States. CSUN also has a Deaf Studies curriculum that Japanese universities have yet to develop. 

In fact, there are other universities in the eastern part of the U.S. that are more specialized for DHH people, such as Gallaudet University, the first university for DHH students, and Rochester Institute of Technology, where DHH students are mainstreamed with hearing students.

However, when I met Ms. Takamura in person, I found that we shared a lot in common. We had both met Ms. Whitestone, we both loved Atlanta, and we both graduated from the same junior school. Ms. Takamura was like a sister to me, and she encouraged and assisted me with my application to CSUN. Sadly, she passed away just before I entered CSUN the following fall.

Deaf and Hearing Cultural Shock

Since I grew up in Atlanta and London during my childhood, I did not face an American cultural shock when I came to CSUN. However, it was my first time living and studying alone.

The first semester was tough for me to understand the English lectures and to switch between Japanese and American Sign Language, as well as to learn to manage my time and lifestyle. Specifically, I faced a cultural shock in the difference between the Deaf and hearing worlds. Even within the Deaf community, my Deaf classmates and I could not always understand one another due to different communication methods.

Before I entered CSUN, I studied ASL at the English Language Institute in Gallaudet University for a semester. My studies there were supposed to prepare me for ASL communication, but when I met my new Deaf classmates, I had to adjust my communication methods. Most of them grew up orally in mainstream schools and signed in Pidgin Sign English (PSE), so when I used ASL, they did not understand my signs. When they used PSE, I did not understand their signs.

They signed and spoke in English at the same time, which was difficult for me to understand, since I had never grown up orally speaking in English. I grew up orally speaking Japanese, and I had also started to learn Japanese Sign Language (JSL) when I was eighteen. All of these factors meant that my classmates and I had to adjust our different communication styles in order to understand one another.

In the hearing community, I also learned the definition of a new word: “Audism,” which is the idea that a hearing person is superior to a deaf person by their use of spoken language. I recognized many instances of Audism as they occurred between hearing and Deaf people, and these experiences expanded my thinking about the Deaf and hearing communities.

Learning at CSUN and NCOD

My experience at CSUN and NCOD was the first time that I received interpreters and note-takers. I was able to understand my professors’ lectures and I had equal communication access with my hearing classmates in the classroom.

AT CSUN, I majored in Deaf Studies and minored in Sociology with the plan to earn my B.A. degree. NCOD provided not only my accommodation needs, but also support services, such as direct communication classes that were taught by DHH professors, tutoring, the Deaf CSUNian student organization, and orientation.

As a Deaf Studies student, I learned from Deaf professors about American Sign Language grammar, Deaf and Hearing culture, Deaf history, Deaf literature, Deaf women, Deaf theater, and Deaf rights.  I had a great opportunity to have discussions with Deaf leaders who are involved in the Deaf community as a minority linguistic group.

CSUN and NCOD also enhanced my leadership skills. I worked assisting DHH students in English Literature and Public Speaking classes as a Teaching Assistant and was privileged to attend the Deaf Women Conference 2009 as a representative of CSUN and NCOD. In addition, I was crowned as the first international winner of the Miss Deaf CSUN pageant!

Learning in International Contexts

Since CSUN's Deaf Studies major offered an opportunity for a global exchange program called Deaf Community Services in Jamaica, I applied for this program. I had an interview and was selected as one of ten crew members for the 2010 Jamaican Deaf Community Service trip, and I was their first Japanese international participant.

Before the trip, I took a one-semester training program taught by Deaf professors who taught me about Jamaican history, Jamaican Deaf culture and Jamaican Deaf education. They also prepared me for classroom teaching and other activities. In Jamaica, I worked with students at a Deaf school in Jamaica, where I learned about the differences among the postsecondary education systems in Japan, America, and Jamaica.

I learned that each country has different accommodation services relating to postsecondary education. For instance, in America, NCOD is involved in PEPNET-West to advocate for postsecondary educational opportunities for DHH students and as a way to exchange information with faculty and staff members.

In Japan, several Japanese universities have also been involved in PEPNET-Japan, and these universities are responsible for providing accommodations. In Jamaica, the Jamaican DHH students have limited access to postsecondary education, partially because they have to pay for accommodations at their own expense.

The CSUN experience gave me a new dream to become a researcher and to contribute to the creation of better accessibility services for DHH students through international social work and higher education.

Majoring in Deaf Studies helped me to understand my Deafhood (Deaf experience) and to identify myself as a Deaf person. Mentoring with the late Dr. Barbara Boyd, a Deaf woman who earned a Ph.D. degree from University of Southern California (USC), helped me to expand my leadership roles. She supported me as I entered the USC School of Social Work.

Manako's Tips for Studying Abroad:

  1. Prior to studying abroad, clarify your purpose, goals, and dreams. Research programs in order to see how they can support your goals.
  2. Prepare for the experience by collecting information about lodging, student visas, financial aid, and documents.
  3. When studying abroad, taking care of yourself should be your priority. 
  4. Find a person who supports you and your goals.
  5. Be thankful at every moment, and develop interpersonal relationships at your own pace. 
  6. Do not hesitate to ask questions or to ask for help, and avoid jumping to conclusions.
  7. Be humble enough to learn, and never give up on achieving your goals.

Manako Yabe has since completed her master’s degree at the USC School of Social Work and her undergraduate degree in Deaf Studies and Sociology at CSUN.


Manako Yabe