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Deaf student group forms


By Reuven M. Lerner

Walking down the Infinite Corridor, you might notice a large campus map marked "Guide to the Handicapped." The map indicates the locations of ramps and elevators for students, faculty, staff and visitors who are unable to use the many staircases on campus.

At first glance, this map seems like a noble gesture, proving that MIT is in touch with the needs of the community. But think again: The map, while providing a valuable service, ignores some of the other handicaps which members of our community might have.

It is precisely this problem that a newly-formed group, Hands, intends to solve. Hands, which was formed at the beginning of this semester, is the brainchild of Thomas R. Westcott '93 and Adam Skwersky '94.

Westcott, who is hearing, has been signing for 10 years, and is a mechanical engineering major. Skwersky, who is the only deaf student at MIT to require an interpreter, is thinking about majoring in mechanical engineering.

The group's name is taken from a similar organization that Skwersky's sister, who is also deaf, started at Mount Holyoke College several years ago. The local chapter, which has been meeting weekly since the beginning of the semester and is expected to be granted membership in the Association of Student Activities in the near future, will serve both MIT and Wellesley College.

Group has many goals

The founders of Hands have set a large number of goals for their new organization. Westcott himself admitted that "some of them are going to be a lot easier than others," but was confident that many of them would be accomplished in time.

Among these goals are providing "a social setting for people who are interested in deaf studies" and "to act as a contact for deaf individuals that are interested in applying or transferring to MIT or Wellesley," Westcott added.

In addition, he said, Hands members will work "to organize community service projects for the deaf and hard-of-hearing in and around Boston."

Skwersky said that Hands has already decided to work on adding captions to videotapes of MIT lectures. "Right now, we're going through the planning stage. I called up a lot of professors, and we pretty much have an idea of what we need to buy, and have an idea of who is going to do the work," he said.

Westcott said that Hands also intends "to provide tours and interpreters for deaf individuals and institutions that are interested in visiting MIT and Wellesley and interacting with students or the faculty."

Eventually, Westcott said, he hopes that there will be "a complete deaf studies program at MIT and Wellesley, including the instruction of sign language for credit during the regular semester and IAP."

Other schools do more

Westcott said that one major goal of Hands is to make MIT more attractive for deaf students than it currently is.

"MIT loses a lot of deaf students to other universities because they provide better services for the deaf," he said. He added that schools such as Boston University, Northeastern University and Stanford University provide more than the bare minimum required by law.

"You have on the one hand somewhere like Stanford, which is on the same level as MIT," he said. "But," Westcott added, "at the same time, someone that's deaf and wants to go to MIT might not necessarily be able to survive here, because they don't have the services, and they go to Northeastern University. Not to say that it's a bad university, but it's not the same caliber of education."

Skwersky said more deaf students would come to MIT if more services were available. "If they find out that MIT closed captions its videotapes, you will start seeing more deaf people at MIT." He estimated that there are about four deaf students currently studying at MIT.

Skwersky described the spring of his senior year in high school, when he was accepted at both Stanford and MIT. He had been hoping to go to MIT for many years, but was attracted to the many services that Stanford offered him.

One night, a woman from the Stanford Disabilities Resource Center called Skwersky with a teletypewriter (TTY), a device similar to a modem used by deaf people to communicate on the telephone. The next day, a deaf student who had transferred from MIT to Stanford called him on a TTY, and spoke with him for a long time.

"MIT didn't call me up special, or anything like that. But I wanted MIT to have a chance," Skwersky said. He spoke with Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Arnold R. Henderson Jr. through a TTY that Henderson borrowed. "MIT had no deaf services set up. On the other hand, Stanford had what was called a Disabilities Resource Center. And the way they talked about it, they made it sound like a deaf paradise."

He added, "I'm very glad I made this decision [to come to MIT]. But right now, I don't want other deaf people to have to go through what I did. I want people in California to want to go to MIT, not Stanford."

Both Westcott and Skwersky were grateful to the administration for their interest in boosting deaf services on campus. They said that Henderson had been particularly helpful. Westcott said that Henderson had contacted several outside deaf organizations, "working real hard to make Adam's stay here as nice as possible."

Sign language attracted many

Many of the founding members of Hands participated in a sign language course that Westcott taught during IAP. He was surprised by the response, which numbered over 100 people for the first week. Westcott said that while the attendance dropped over the course of the month, many people stayed with the class, despite the fact that participants did not receive credit for it.

Westcott said that there are about 30 members in Hands, from both MIT and Wellesley.

Westcott added that he hopes Hands will interact with deaf organizations outside of MIT and Wellesley. They said local organizations were interested in helping Hands become established on campus. In addition, they said, Hands members might go on trips to deaf schools, including Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.