Writing centers have mottos or missions where they help “all writers with all writing.” They do an excellent job of this, but one area that is lacking in writing centers is work with d/Deaf and hard of hearing clients. From my own work in this area, I have crafted a training that I conduct at writing centers across the state of Oklahoma to share aspects and history of Deaf culture, teach helpful phrases in American Sign Language, and then give participants in the training tips and ideas on how to change their tutoring styles to benefit d/Deaf and hard of hearing clients.
Before we get into some tips to benefit these clients within writing centers, a little background information is needed. You may be wondering why I have used “d/Deaf.” “Little d” deaf typically refers to the medical diagnosis of a moderate to profound hearing loss. It is also used with deaf individuals who do not communicate using American Sign Language (ASL) and do not consider themselves culturally Deaf. “Big D” Deaf refers to those individuals, as well as the Deaf community, who view themselves as culturally Deaf (Schmidt et al. 7). The Deaf community sees itself as a minority group, not a group of individuals with a disability. They communicate through a signed language, typically ASL, and they have their own stories, culture, and community connections.
American Sign Language is the primary language of Deaf individuals and is commonly mistaken to have English structure; that is highly incorrect. Even though ASL is communicating visually using English words and phrases, they share “...neither pronunciation, syntax, nor vocabulary with English” (Wood 221). This can lead to grammar problems when writing because the English structure is something that they are not as familiar with. I used the term “primary language” instead of first language because the majority of children who are born deaf are born to hearing parents. Their parents typically do not know ASL and do not have access to the resources to help their child learn to communicate through ASL. This causes a delay in language/literacy access and learning. This late access to language delays their learning usually until they begin school.
Working with Clients and Interpreters
In college, Deaf students use interpreters for classes and out of class activities. If a d/Deaf client comes in with their interpreter, the first thing you need to be aware of is seating. Tables in writing centers are usually placed in a way that lets you either sit face-to-face with your client, or, if the table is against the wall, sit next to them. Clients that come in with an interpreter need to be able to see you and their interpreter, so arranging your seating in a way that makes this arrangement possible is a huge help.
However, the students may not always be able to schedule an interpreter outside of class time for many due to a myriad of reasons. d/Deaf and hard of hearing clients that come in without an interpreter need to be able to see you, and have something to write on, like paper or a computer. If a d/Deaf client does come in without and interpreter, do not get nervous or refuse to help them. Just be open-minded and assist them in any way you can. When working with interpreters, the tutor must be cautious of not including diction from themselves or the interpreter. When interactions are not interpreted verbatim, this takes the client/writer out of their own paper and has the tutor or interpreter inserted.
General Tips for Consultations
d/Deaf and hard of hearing clients prefer to work on their writing via computer instead of a hard-copy piece of paper. This is because it is easier to follow along and you can communicate through an online chat function if needed. Also, if you both have access to it and can work through it simultaneously, there is no need to read aloud. Reading aloud is common during consultations, but this makes following along more difficult for d/Deaf clients.
d/Deaf and hard of hearing clients are typically grouped with ESL/ELL students in classrooms, but the errors that consistently arise are different to ESL/ELL students. There are usually small grammatical errors (e.g., “The store wasn’t opened yet”), but they also have “deep-structure errors.” These errors stem from the d/Deaf client not being able to be audibly immersed in the English Language. “Because audible English immersion is impossible for deaf students, deaf writers face much greater difficulties in overcoming English writing barriers and meeting American academic standards than their non-native hearing counterparts” (Schmidt et al. 8). That and how ASL and English share no structural similarities, mentioned previously. So, d/Deaf clients primarily want to focus on local/low-order errors rather than global/high-order errors because of their grasp on grammar and structure rules.
Overall, the best way to benefit d/Deaf and hard of hearing clients is to be flexible, open-minded, and patient. Tutors are taught to have a more “hands-off” tutoring approach and help the client through inquiry-based tutoring. d/Deaf and hard of hearing clients prefer a more directive tutoring approach (Babcock 102). Showing them where there are errors or brainstorming alongside them is an excellent way to assist them. Assessing the needs of your client and adapting your tutoring model around the client will not only benefit d/Deaf and hard of hearing clients, but every client that visits the writing center.
Babcock, Rebecca Day. “Interpreted Writing Center Tutorials With College-Level Deaf Students.” Linguistics and Education, vol. 22, 2011, pp. 95-117.
Schmidt, Katherine, et al. “Lessening the Divide: Strategies for Promoting Effective Communication Between Hearing Consultants and Deaf Student Writers.” The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 33, no. 5, January 2009, pp. 6-10.
Wood, Gail F. “Making the Transition from ASL to English: Deaf Students, Computers, and the Writing Center.” Computers and Composition, vol. 12, 1995, pp. 219-226.
Alison Green is a master’s student at Oklahoma State University, where she serves as a writing center consultant and a first-year composition instructor. Her areas of interest include feminist studies and disability studies.