Opinion guest column

Deaf accessibility at MIT

The Institute should take further steps to ensure that the needs of deaf students are met

Last month, I attended MIT’s presidential inauguration hoping to join the celebration and learn more about President Reif. But most of the time, I found myself left out and merely spectating. I was bombarded by incomprehensible information and I was not able to celebrate as much as I wanted. I am one of MIT’s very few functionally deaf students. Ironically, in an inaugural celebration that touted the Institute’s “diversity,” the facilities for deaf accessibility were mostly hit-and-miss.

Prior to attending the inauguration events, I met with Associate Dean of the MIT Student Disabilities Office Kathleen Monagle, who quipped, “Be proactive, not reactive,” when it comes to accommodating a variety of people at large scale events. In other words, we all should try hard to be as inclusive as possible. In fact, according to Dean Monagle, there is a list of guidelines for event planners to enable them to accommodate the deaf and hard-of-hearing without guests having to request special services. My experience at the inauguration suggests that there is still some way to implement the following MIT guidelines that are not currently being followed.

Hire American Sign Language interpreters (or a stenographer) for main symposia and lectures

On Thursday, September 20th, I walked into Kresge auditorium to attend the “MIT Serving the World” symposium session — part of the main theme of “A Globally Engaged MIT.” After just a minute in the auditorium, I realized that I could not understand a single word the presenter or panelists were saying. I left disappointed and frustrated — a spectator once again. I was expecting to see at least some semblance of accommodation, be it an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, or a real-time captionist/stenographer.

I’d like to point out that hiring interpreters is not a must for every large-scale event, but what would be beneficial for both the deaf and non-deaf audience is hiring a stenographer or real-time captionist. There could be, for example, a large overhead projection screen at the front that is completely visible to audience members to read real-time captions. This approach has the added benefit of accommodating a wide spectrum of hearing loss, not only those who are profoundly deaf.

Provide optimal seating for viewing interpreters or captions

Undeterred, I then continued to the main event, President Reif’s inaugural ceremony and address on Friday, September 21st. My deaf companion had decided to join me, and another friend notified me through a text message that ASL interpreters would be available. For a good ten minutes, we stumbled around in a sea of MIT alumni sitting in chairs on Killian Court, tapping on staff members’ shoulders in an effort to find ASL interpreters.

Then, a couple staff members scrambled to seat us near to the front of the stage, but all of these seats were already taken by alumni. We were seated in the third row. There were no reserved seats for those like my companion and me. The rest of the inauguration passed in semi-frustration as alumni’s heads obstructed the view of our only source of information. In an effort to prevent this problem from re-occurring, event planners should arrange optimal seating, and make sure that all event staff are aware of the availability of interpreters or stenographers in advance.

All videotapes should be captioned before they are posted. The Academic Media Production Services (AMPS) at MIT can caption videos

After the inauguration, MIT posted online media of the key events. Videos of the symposia and the inauguration were readily available from the MIT main website, MITNews, and MIT TechTV. Audio and video clarity were top-notch, but unfortunately, there were no video subtitles available at all. Once again, MIT has failed to live up to its own standards for online media accessibility, further compromising its reputation for inclusiveness in cyberspace — i.e. OpenCourseWare, EdX, etc. In this case, AMPS should have captioned the videos in advance before posting them.

As a deaf student, these are the problems that I encountered during the inaugural celebrations. I recommend that the Institute’s event planners contact Dean Monagle in order to learn more about accommodating special needs at future events. Event planners should pay particular attention to the goal of planning events that do not require guests to request special accommodations in advance. Over time, these guidelines should become integrated into the processes of event planning.

The inaugural events showed me that MIT wants to engage the world and promote diversity. In order to do so successfully, MIT must ensure that it does not alienate those with disabilities. To quote Dean Monagle, “Be proactive, not reactive!”

Kathy Cahill over 5 years ago

What a great article! Sheila, thank you for taking the time to write this. I think CART (real time transcription) of the spoken events would not only benefit deaf and hard of hearing people, but would also help those whose English is not great, or English is their second langauge, in understanding what is being said. I also think MIT needs a full-time coordinator of Disabilities Services who has the authority to set up a process to make every event, building and website accessible so it is built in to the process and not an add-on for after the event.

Anonymous over 5 years ago

Take notice: the world is changing, technology is changing--the nature of communication itself is changing. By paying attention to the accessibility rights of deaf and hard of hearing individuals, communication can be improved for all individuals--ESL learners, the moderately hearing impaired, people with auditory processing disorders, and people who just need to hear something twice from time-to-time due to accents, cultural differences, and context.

This article perfectly exemplifies the inability of those in positions of organizational power--even at an institute like MIT--to think beyond communication methods that are outdated and belong to a world that no longer exists. Get on board with the 21st century.

Jenny Ferreira over 5 years ago

Sheila, you have presented an excellent analysis of the exclusion you had to endure. You have not only described the problem but you have provided MIT with attainable solutions. I agree that not only the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community would benefit if the methods of communication you describe are implemented but also the hundreds of students to whom English is their second Language. MIT has the perfect opportunity to create new grounds for INCLUSSION not only in Boston but around the world. Congratulations! Continue being a catalyst for positive change!

Barbara Johnson over 5 years ago

Thanks so much for writing this article! I am a hard of hearing staff member, who is also a cochlear implant user. I too need captions for video and live captioning at large events. I've been at MIT for a long time and do indeed advocate as much as I can. Many on campus have heard from me in the past and I welcome opportunities to collaborate and educate around issues of accessibility for those with hearing loss. While I've made some inroads on a local level, with CART services and assistive listening, there's obviously more we can do. And I agree that some Institute wide coordination would be great. Feel free to contact me any time to continue the conversation, Best, Barbara

Sheila Xu over 5 years ago

If you want to continue the conversation or tell me anything, please email me at sheilaxumit.edu