Volume III Number 4, December 1996

Computer Technology Education and The Deaf Student: Observations of Serious Nuances Of Communication

Curtis Robbins, Ph.D.


The purpose of this paper is to raise a very peculiar topic of concern. As a deaf student taking computer courses to earn certificates as a multimedia specialist and a network administrator at two different colleges in the state of Maryland, I have experienced recurrent problems in different computer classes. I have found that no studies or projects have ever been conducted to find ways of serving deaf students like myself who are taking computer courses in regular colleges and universities.

A review of the education literature revealed only one study relevant to the issue I'm discussing here. This 1987 report, which focused on high school math teacher training (American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 1987), does not address the issue of how computer courses can be taught to deaf students in college or university settings.

For over thirteen years I have taught computer courses at Gallaudet University, an institution of higher education serving a very specific group -- deaf students. Additionally, I have taught non-technical courses and counseled at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf for two years.

These institutions of higher education were established to serve a target population of deaf students with all the technology and communication skills among the staff and faculty being geared to that purpose. Furthermore, these schools have budgets to serve these students, who get considerable technical support from staff and faculty who have sign language skills. This paper is not about specialized schools, but rather the many more "regular" schools whose programs and resources might be made more accessible to deaf learners.

This paper is about my observations as a deaf computer student who attended hearing institutions of higher education at which the budgets for services to disabled students are very limited (and in the case of the deaf student this means funding sign language interpreters). Significantly, most of the staff and faculty at these institutions have little or no understanding of the needs of deaf students.

As a former educational technology professor I sought to improve my employability by adapting my skills and knowledge of computing to the current job market. I've taken courses and seminars at several institutions of higher education. As a deaf individual, I consider myself an excellent lipreader with very understandable speech, but in any classroom setting I strongly prefer having an interpreter present in order to be able to participate in class discussions. On the other hand, on a one-on-one basis, I am able to carry a relatively decent conversation without hesitating to ask the other party to repeat if I don't understand -- reminding other speakers to speak slowly and keep things away from lips.


At all computer courses I've taken, practically every classroom contained a cluster of networked computers lined up on rows of tables facing the front of the room. All were unintentionally set up with poor visibility (after all, these schools were not designed for deaf students). I've had difficulty trying to follow instructors' demonstrative, illustrative, or graphic gesturing, whether by hand, on hand, or on the blackboard, an overhead projector, or a large monitor -- they were, above all, visual obstacle courses for me in following the instructor. And of course, as crowded as most computer labs/classrooms are, lipreading or watching interpreters under such conditions was just as preposterous.

These classrooms typically contain workstations with bulky monitors and high miditower computers, with little or no room to set the notebooks down. Catching even a glimpse of the instructor is a strain.

And the interpreters! They come with all levels of sign language skills and from almost every walk of life, but with little, or some, or no prior knowledge or skills in computer technology. We, the interpreters and I, would come to class early in order to discuss my needs with the instructor. This often included checking for buzzwords that would be used in the lectures and developing some "homemade" signs to help minimize fingerspelling. We also discussed how the interpreters should assist me in case the instructor had to make a point or two while I was working on a class exercise. Finally, we identified computer jargon and developed the special signs to replace fingerspelling. As strange as it may seem, many of these interpreters have interpreted in computer classes for other deaf students but few of them were able to make headway in those classes- -- and still further, they could not figure why some convenient signs differ in meaning from student to student -- though other signs were similar or the same.

More often than not, the instructors were unprepared, disorganized, and haphazard. In many cases, textbooks were inappropriate because of the lack of lab assignments. In most cases, there were no textbooks or handouts. In every case, the instructor created exercises at the spur of the moment. And in every situation, I felt like I was in a computer triathlon, constantly figuring out what's going on, constantly trying to remember the details of the lecture, and persistently hoping to finish every exercise. If that sounds bad, my fellow classmates told me during class breaks that most had hardly any time to write notes. Fairly often I approached the instructors, before, during and after class, asking for written instructions on exercises so I could keep up with the class. For the most part, they did let me have them -- and graciously so! Still such previous inquiries were -- frequently -- moot because the instructors came up with other exotic ideas for the exercises.

The significant point here is that in all my classes and seminars, most if not all of the hearing students continued to tinker at the keyboard while the instructor kept lecturing or explaining the concepts. All the while, I was sitting still, watching the interpreter until the instructor finished lecturing. Thus, I would fall behind and frantically try to catch up before the next exercise. Sometimes, I've beaten the odds and completed the exercises, but other times I've been unable to. Tough luck, I dare say.

And while I was doing those exercises, the interpreters frequently stopped me in order to convey to me the points that the instructor was making. This was part of the agreement the interpreters and I made before classes started. It was the only way to keep up with the rest of the class during these activities. There was no way for me to keep an eye on the instructor or interpreter while attempting to complete the various exercises and focusing on the monitor. Insofar as I succeeded, the exercises were done spasmodically. I succeeded? You might ask indeed. Yes, because I was able to absorb the information and make every attempt to complete the various exercises either at home on my own computer or at the computer lab, at least an hour before classes started. Sometimes the instructor would be there at about the same time and spend some time with me to finish up the exercises by giving me the details that I either forgot due to my haste, or the interpreters, through no fault of their own, missed out. Most of the time, I was on my own.

I almost always managed to grasp everything that the different computer courses were designed to teach. I met just about every goal and objective of these courses except a few that I could never complete due to the time frame. Not every project was done with diligence and clearheadedness on my part; the satisfaction of completing the activities was all that mattered. It was a struggle -- a tortuous and frustrating experience, to say the least. For the interpreters, it was the anxiety of knowing whether or not they had done the job. It goes without saying that they have, but the concern is whether they have the right technique. Theirs always has been a frustrating and laborious task. We were constantly perplexed as to how the situation could be remedied.

Also, before a class started, I would ask a willing classmate to take copious notes on the lectures, and give him/her carbon paper with a writing pad. Hopefully, s/he would give me enough information to get by. If not, then I'd spend more time looking over the texts to find the missing information. Often, instructors tended to give lectures without any notes. Sometimes what was said was not found in any book. Often, I found that other students did not wish to share their notes with me, for whatever reasons. What I got from the notetaker was all I would get.


In most cases, computer courses require lab time. The lab is a place where theories and concepts are put to work through practice assignments. None of the computer lectures gives textual recipes for easy solutions. It's all entirely left to the student to explore. Critical thinking, critical analysis, algorithmic and logical reasoning, and self-actualization are expected of him by putting to test the newly acquired and untested knowledge through experimentation in the lab -- without the presence of an interpreter, a notetaker, or the professor. Students tend to discuss and exchange probabilities or possibilities while working on the lab exercises. In every lab, I noticed that many students were anxious to complete the lab assignments as quickly as possible. Sometimes, they would come in the lab on a "buddy system;" then it would become very difficult for me to join with them. The conversations they carried on between keystrokes were usually very rapid, thus, making it very difficult for me to follow. Whenever I asked a question or made a comment, it was usually difficult to comprehend what they were saying no matter how many times they repeated it. As much as they were trying to be helpful, my efforts to understand them were generally fruitless. Sometimes, they were aware of my communication situation, but they really did not want to be bothered -- quite obviously. Again, I had to be on my own.

This reminds me of an experience I had while working as a computer programmer in a Federal agency many years ago. I was doing a subprogram in COBOL and JCL on an IBM 3033 system. This program calls for a specific database file that would print out certain information in a very peculiar way. It turned out that the program did not produce the desired information. After carefully reviewing my work for a few days, I found that all the pertinent information required for the final output was correct. There was nothing wrong with the program itself. File tape numbers were correct. Input and output file names were correct. A file dump was done on an input file, and there wasn't anything wrong with it. The computer analyst I was working with took the program and studied it herself. After several days, she returned it, baffled. Other analysts overheard our conversations and came to assist, but I'm guessing that she called them over. Once they started conversing, I was left out because I couldn't follow. Lipreading at this point became a worthless task because too many people were talking at once, and often they talked with the printouts practically covering their faces, or their heads were looking down on the paper. After a number of weeks went by, my immediate analyst returned saying everything was fine and that I didn't need to worry about it anymore. No statement of the solution was given. Nor were there any reasons for the problems given. I asked for an explanation but she dismissed me, saying she was busy and would get back to me another time (and never did). Perhaps, for her it might be too much of a problem to explain it all to me. However, the interesting part was that my colleagues in the unit knew what the problem was. They hesitantly told me what it was. Why wasn't I told directly? After all, wasn't it my work?

>From that day on, I vowed never to be a computer programmer again. It happened too often with other analysts in the other jobs I've had. And so, whether at school or at work, this communication problem was undoubtedly prevalent -- a hopeless paradox, or so it seemed.


As a child, I was taught to always ask the teacher to let me copy his/her class notes or get extra help in order to understand what s/he taught. Such a good habit didn't always work after leaving high school because not every instructor came in with prepared lecture notes or took the time to serve the students. There is an old adage: A terrific artist does not always make the best teacher -- and vice versa.

Most computer professors -- in my professional and professorial judgment -- have very little understanding of the intrinsic concerns of their students. Theirs is a propensity to lecture, answer questions about the course or class, and depart -- leaving students in the limbo of a plethora of confusing statements of theories and concepts, lost logical frameworks, or simply with an odd mnemonic string left hanging over the cranial edge. Students often can't get a word in edgewise with the instructor. The double stigma prevails for me, though. Not that I'm one of the students who got the same treatment as the others in class, but that the anxiety for clarity is in want of simple answers. What if what I grasp is misconstrued or misconceived? How am I to know? Is it the fault of the interpreter for missing a point or two during transition from spoken word to sign language? Is it the fault of the notetaker for nodding while meticulously detailing every theory and concept in writing espoused by the speaker? They are not human tape recorders. Or maybe it was me falling asleep or getting lost in the middle of words or thoughts -- mine or the speakers? Mine eyes have only seen some glory every now and then! But the benefit of the doubt lingers -- and the professor is nowhere to be found.

I've met instructors who tend to think that because of the presence of the interpreter, I'm not able to carry out a conversation with him/her. Nor do some of them want to take the time to clarify to me some misconceptions again and again. Then again, like with the computer analyst, to them it might be too much of a bother to explain things to me without the interpreter present -- no matter how many times I've told them I could lipread if they would just spend a few moments of their time.

Yet, I've had a few good instructors who have provided excellent handouts that were helpful in following their lectures. They were also available to answer questions or discuss concerns. They, too, made efforts to communicate with me. But, they were only a few.


If a deaf student does not have previous computer knowledge or skills, would s/he have succeeded in those classes? Would s/he have the stamina to follow through the lectures and computer activities with computer lingo flowing through the lectures? Suppose the student did, would s/he know how to approach the interpreter to deal with the class activities, or the appropriate computer signs, which can be very nerve-wracking and extremely frustrating for the want of support -- moral or otherwise? Could the interpreters be the resources for helping the student succeed in computer classes or seminars without overstepping their roles? So, what is the interpreter to do?

Suppose this deaf student can't lipread. Should s/he take the initiative and ask his/her classmates for assistance - especially in the lab? Could s/he find a friend in that class and go in a "buddy system" and do the lab exercises together? I empathize with academic advisors and counselors in many Offices of Disabled Student Services who can't find or don't have resources to deal with such problems. And I, too, empathize, if not sympathize, with those deaf students who have had to struggle as hard as they can to succeed in computer classes. They're still out there trying, without the help they're entitled to get.

When there are trying times, there must be solutions somewhere.


American Association of State Colleges and Universities (1987). Gallaudet Summer Institute in Mathematics and Computer Science for Pre-College Teachers of Hearing Impaired Students. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED306847).
Robbins, C. (1996). Computer technology education and the deaf student: Observations of serious nuances of communication. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 3(4).