LaGuardia Community College has a club for just about every interest and skill. Photography, chess, creative writing, women in stem, tabletop board games, psychology, cooking, anime, economics, are all clubs organized by students for students. Despite the presence of these clubs at LaGuardia, each offering leadership and community-building opportunities, a growing number of LaGuardia students […]
Mary Jo Hennessy was tired of zooming into the “tiny boxes of people” in Zoom classes. She is a senior American Sign Language interpreter at LaGuardia Community College.
Online learning began to feel claustrophobic, so she got a second monitor to spread out the class participants.
But this created a moment of reckoning.
“I can imagine how hard it was for them (the deaf and hard of hearing community) to rely on visual interpretation. Sometimes they don’t have a good computer. Maybe they had one,” she said.
Hennessy’s career goal is to work as a sign language interpreter. However, she said her life’s passion is to be able to serve and be of greater help. The pandemic not only made her more empathetic, but it also made her more inspired than ever.
Despite the interruptions caused by the COVID -19 pandemic, the American Sign Language Program continued to serve students with various needs. LaGuardia is the only CUNY college that has been providing education for deaf and hard of hearing adults for 40 years.
For the Office of Accessibility the challenge was how to engage students from the deaf and hard of hearing population in an online setting. That meant not only providing laptops, tablets, and hotspots for the students, but also helping interpreters and professors to navigate distance learning.
For professors who received prior notice of having deaf and hard of hearing students in class, strategies included making sure to include captions for video classes, checking captions for accuracy, and narrating the presentation directly from PowerPoint slides.
The major problem for faculty and deaf and hard of hearing students was navigating successful communication during an online class. “In the classroom, the interpreter, the student, and I could all just have a conversation together, but how to have those sorts of check-ins remotely was a little tricky,” said Dr. Chelsea Del Rio, an Associate Professor and History Coordinator.
“The only thing where I messed up a bit was rather than going directly to the student, I asked the interpreter, who then referred me back to this student,” she said.
The in-person learning presented the faculty and the deaf and hard of hearing community with a different challenge.
“When we started having students come in and faculty come back on campus, the issue was we still had a mask mandate,” said Wendy M. Nicholson, Executive Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The deaf and hard of hearing population relies on lip reading and receives 55 percent of their information from facial expressions. Wearing cloth masks impairs that ability.
“Making the right shape with your mouth literally alters the meaning of a sign,” Tahlaiya Thomson said, a Deaf Studies student. She would pull down her mask for in-person ASL classes to make sure her mouth morphemes are correct.
Obtaining a clear mask resolves the issue and helps for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing students to see more nuances from communication.
“As an institution of the City University of New York, we are required in this instance to make sure that faculty have those masks,” Nicholson said, adding “supply and demand, that was an issue. We were able to get quite a number of those clear masks and let the faculty know that we had them.”
LaGuardia Community College cannot accommodate the students with the clear masks. But students who wish to obtain them might reach out to the Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities, who have been giving them out.
The pandemic is still unpredictable, and LaGuardia does its best to assist the deaf and hard of hearing community. For their part, the community still relies on visual expressions of American Sign language and lip reading.
“If you are signing to a person and they don’t see your mouth and what facial expressions you are making: are you sad? Are you mad? Are you happy? Are you excited? Are you surprised?” Thompson added.