October 24, 2005

Deaf Students Share Life Experiences, Deaf Culture

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Imagine managing life at Cornell as a person who is 97 percent deaf or who has a cochlear implant. Li Ye Chen ’06 and Cristina Hartmann ’07 handle Cornell’s demands every day, facing and overcoming challenges many students can barely fathom.

Both students shared their perspectives on their Cornell education as well as life in general, at Cornell Union for Disability Awareness’s (CUDA) panel discussion entitled “Unveiling the Deaf Experience” on Friday. Stacey Horman ’07, president of CUDA, acted as moderator.

Chen, a computer science major, developed hearing loss when he was four years old. At eight, he lost 97 percent of his hearing and now uses a hearing aid. Hartmann, a history major and co-president of CUDA, was born deaf. Her parents decided to get her a cochlear implant, which she said is like a “bionic ear.”

Both talked about the deaf community in the United States, and their places in it as Cornell students. According to Hartmann, the deaf are like any cultural group, and it recognizes American Sign Language (ASL) as its national language. A sense of pride characterizes the deaf community, similar to the one that can be seen in gay, black, or Latino communities.

“Deafness is not something viewed as negative, [or] as a disability. It’s something people have pride in,” Horman said.

The deaf community is a diverse one, and includes all races, religions, creeds, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses, according to Hartmann, which is one reason she likes it.

Hartmann was never fully immersed in the deaf community; she was ‘mainstreamed’ and spent her last two years of high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Chen did attend the Deaf Institute for a short period of time but found that as someone who was not initially born deaf, he could not comfortably assimilate into deaf culture, and was then mainstreamed.

“At the institute they tell you not to use your voice because it’s not part of their culture,” Chen said. Cochlear implants are one contentious issue in the deaf community and have affected both panelists’ lives.

“Basically, it’s a microphone. The sound goes through a wire as a message for your brain to interpret,” Hartmann said.

Chen may decide to undergo surgery for cochlear implants, but he expressed his concern about facial paralysis, which can occur because the wire actually touches the brain. Making the decision to get an implant is like “changing an integral part of your identity as a person,” Hartmann said. According to Hartmann, some members of the deaf community oppose cochlear implants because of the threat they pose to the continued use of ASL.

Similar to activists fighting for the preservation of certain spoken languages, some feel that deaf people with cochlear implants would no longer need to sign for communication, causing ASL to vanish.

Chen finds the experience of being deaf at Cornell to be particularly draining; he likened it to “driving an SUV with a hole puncture in the tank.”

But, both panelists have found creative, effective ways to deal with Cornell as deaf students. Interpreters accompany both Chen and Hartmann to class and translate professors’ spoken English to ASL. For work, Chen finds instant messaging convenient not only because of his hearing loss, but because many of the people he has to communicate with have accents. When writing papers, Hartmann said “she has to sign to herself sometimes to get an idea and then translate it back into English.”

These different ways of learning and working are not obstacles to Chen and Hartmann and they have equally positive attitudes about deafness. Hartmann said that being deaf has taught her tolerance and patience, while Chen said he’s become more optimistic and has developed an external focus.

Chen and Hartmann’s determination and resiliency enthralled Lena Samsonenko ’06, who attended the discussion. She said Hartmann “loves who she is and it’s great to see that” and added “deafness makes them unique and they’re proud of it.”

Archived article by Jessica DiNapoli
Sun Staff Writer