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Deaf professors get heard

First Canadian conference on deaf success in higher ed held in Toronto.

BY MOIRA MACDONALD | NOV 08 2010

Ryerson university professor Kathryn Woodcock gathered together all the deaf professors in Canada she knew of for a first-ever Canadian conference called “Deaf Success in Higher Education” held at the university at the end of September.

There were four, including Dr. Woodcock, plus one postdoctoral fellow.

“That just shows there’s something wrong,” says Dr. Woodcock, a professional engineer and professor in Ryerson’s school of occupational and public health. She says deaf and hearing-impaired people often give up climbing the academic ladder because there are no role models.

Proving otherwise, the five academics shared stories of completing their PhDs and pursuing their careers in environmental science, linguistics, psychology, second-language acquisition and Dr. Woodcock’s specialty, human factors engineering (with a special emphasis on amusement park safety).

One of the biggest challenges, say the professors, is finding and scheduling skilled sign-language interpreters who are able to handle the jargon and technical terminology used in their specialized fields. “You must have a good support system. It is an absolute requirement,” Erin Wilkinson, a linguistics professor at the University of Manitoba signed to the audience of about 70 students and educators.

The conference “could be a turning point in deaf culture,” says Dr. Woodcock, who gradually lost her hearing during childhood. She coped by learning to read her teachers’ lips and sitting in the front row. She did not learn sign language until she was 30. She works with hearing-abled staff and students through a combination of lip-reading, use of a cochlear implant and by speaking or “voicing” for herself. Dr. Woodcock wrote a book on deafness, Deafened People: Adjustment and Support, in 2000.

There’s an old, uncomfortable story in the deaf community that deaf people are like crabs in a pot of boiling water, says Dr. Woodcock. When one tries to escape, the others pull that crab back in. The success of one deaf person can be threatening to the rest.

“The four of us – we don’t want to be the crabs in the pot,” she says. “We’re making a break for it and we hope other people will keep following.”

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