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Lessening the divide: strategies for promoting effective communication between hearing consultants and deaf student-writers.


Casey, who has frequented our Writing Center for as long as our most seasoned consultants can remember, is deaf. Over the course of nearly four years, she has steadily worked to improve her writing by resorting to a not-so-unusual routine for deaf writers: Casey has made it a habit to seek assistance for each writing assignment over a period of time and via multiple sessions, sometimes reaching half a dozen in-person appointments over a three-week period.

Because of her unique position as both a deaf student and a long-time Writing Center client, Casey has developed a refined sense of what works for her during tutoring sessions, what doesn't, and why. Thus, we began to solicit targeted advice from Casey on a regular basis with two goals in mind: to immediately improve our services to suit her and other deaf students' particular needs and to ultimately incorporate Casey's suggestions into our ten-week tutor training program.

Our discussions with Casey were well under way when we received a call for proposals for the regional writing centers conference, and we were thrilled by the thought of sharing our work (i.e., suggestions from Casey and existing research in the field) with colleagues in our region. The program keynote, however, was "Let's Talk about Talk," and we immediately realized that our work did not easily fit the year's theme. We were suddenly positioned as outsiders. In "Transcending 'Conversing': A Deaf Student in the Writing Center," Margaret E. Weaver argues that faculty and staff tend to possess false assumptions about deaf learners that are directed by audist perspectives (224), which include the following:

* a language is comprised of a set of arbitrary sounds that possess conventional meanings and are used in conventional ways (i.e., spoken language is legitimate language);

* when a student lip-reads and possesses the ability to orally communicate in English, she is fluent in English written conventions and English is her primary language;

* a deaf student is not a "beginner" in English (i.e., she is not viewed as a non-native learner) but rather a counterpart to the native writer who possesses an ability to write but fails to invest "thought" into her work;

* the catalyst for the writing problems of a deaf learner is simply "lack of motivation" (223-4). Talking is not always an option in tutoring sessions, yet audist-directed presuppositions minimize the complex nature of this reality. The audist perspective is so prevalent in academia that even writing centers fall under its spell, and deafness remains relatively uncharted territory in our work.

While deaf students have been utilizing writing center services for several decades, Deaf students' needs continue to receive peripheral, if any, treatment in tutor training programs because little scholarship exists on the subject. While Brenda Jo Brueggemann, a deaf woman herself, offers direction with regard to general composition and deafness, the scholarship of Rebecca Day Babcock specifically pairs deafness and writing centers; unfortunately, much of Babcock's work is still forthcoming.

Ultimately, writing centers continue to struggle to meet the needs of deaf students in theoretically sound ways because of presuppositions that exist in general academia along with the lack of intersections between writing center and deaf scholarship.


There exists a substantial difference between the terms deaf and Deaf. When "deaf" is written with a lower case "d," the term refers to actual hearing impairment. For example, an individual who once possessed full hearing function but, as an adult, lost her ability to hear is deaf. She may not identify herself as part of the Deaf community because she is not familiar with ASL and does not have Deaf social networks; however, she is considered deaf based on her hearing impairment.

"Deaf" written with an upper case "D" refers to embracing, participating in, and being accepted as part of Deaf culture, regardless of hearing ability (Cook and Learner). Deaf culture may include those who attend deaf schools, the children of deaf parents, and some sign language interpreters (Baker and Padden). For example, a hearing child who is raised by deaf parents often self-identifies with Deaf customs, actively associates with other members of the Deaf community, and is familiar with sign language; thus, she belongs to, and self-identifies with, the Deaf community.

While Deaf individuals do not regard deafness as an impairment, they are often at a disadvantage to hearing people because everyday society tends to be structured around, and for, hearing individuals. Additionally, deaf individuals construct their identities in a variety of ways, are exposed to a variety of situations and environments, and learn via complex and varied pedagogical contexts; thus, the aforementioned definitions of deaf and Deaf serve an operational and transactional function and, by no means, do justice to the wide range of experiences that deaf people possess.


American Sign Language, or ASL, is the native language of 550,000 to 1 million individuals (Cook and Learner). Contrary to audist-based beliefs, ASL is not simply English in signed form; rather, English and ASL are completely discrete language systems (Michaud, McCoy, and Pennington). Signed English, on the other hand, consists of the lengthy process of signing the individual nuances of an English sentence.

Because there is a lack of one-to-one correspondence between ASL and English, switching between the two can be extremely difficult (Bober); ASL is pictorial/visual and three dimensional while English is audible and linear. In ASL, a signer uses the physical space she occupies to assist her in communicating; facial expressions also serve a primary role in communication exchanges. In English, the Deaf writer is limited to and by words; when vocabulary is limited, ideas in written English are automatically limited as well.

The literal structures of the two languages are also different, and these differences are often evident in deaf students' writing. For example, to express the idea that a movie was seen in the past, a deaf student may write the following sentence: Yesterday movie I see. Offering an uninflected verb is common because verbs are not conjugated in ASL. While a verb in English is conjugated to indicate the tense of the action, who is doing the action, or both, tense is indicated through a sign separate from the verb in ASL. The sentence "I saw a movie" can be expressed in ASL by first indicating the tense of the situation using a sign such as "finished" or "yesterday" followed by the direct object "movie," the doer of the action " I," and finally the infinite verb "see."


One of the most fundamental differences between hearing and deaf writers of English is that hearing writers have an advantage in an audist world: they have the convenience of writing in their first language while deaf writers must learn how to write in a second language in a manner similar to non-native English writers. However, the language disparity is much greater for deaf individuals than for non-native hearing individuals simply because the former populace possesses little access to written and spoken English (Antia, Reed, and Kreimeyer). Because audible English immersion is impossible for deaf students, deaf writers face much greater difficulties in overcoming English writing barriers and meeting American academic standards than their non-native hearing counterparts. Due to possessing little, or no, access to audible English, typical error patterns do emerge in the written work of deaf students. Notably, ASL is void of punctuation; thus, this absence engenders many errors.



On a large scale, most of the structural patterns between English and ASL are different (Michaud, McCoy, and Penningt on). Discrepancies between structures such as subject/verb order and explicit/implicit meaning are perhaps a primary reason why deaf writers have difficulties writing. In English, a grammatically correct sentence typically places the subject before the verb and requires both constituents to be overt. However, in ASL, the verb or verb tense may precede the subject, if either is explicitly given at all. For example, the signs that would convey "I go to the store" would include the following:

"store" + "I" + "go"

Thus, deaf writers may confuse conventional order for the subject and predicate. Additionally, some ideas in ASL are expressed through body movements and facial expressions and do not require distinct signs.


ASL writers may tend to drop "to be" verbs in their writing (Michaud, McCoy, and Pennington). In ASL, ideas are expressed by giving context and the idea that applies to that particular context, which does not always make verb usage necessary. For example, the idea of a girl being pretty may be signed with the following:

"she" + "pretty"

This speech pattern is often transposed to deaf students' written English. Instead of "she is pretty," they might write "she pretty." While the idea is expressed in the phrase, the construction is not grammatically correct according to English based conventions.


Deaf writers may fail to use possessive markers (Michaud, McCoy, and Pennington). Again, possessive markers are not a necessity in ASL, so deaf writers may omit possessive markers when writing in English. Instead of saying "Nicole's dog," a deaf writer may simply give the signs in spatial relation toward Nicole's direction:

"Nicole" + "dog"

When writing, deaf students may fail to include the possessive "s," the possessive apostrophe, or both.


Plural markers may be absent for a reason similar to the absence of possessive markers (Michaud, McCoy, and Pennington). In ASL, if the idea of "more than one" accompanies an object, the sign for the object will not change (be made plural). The number or amount would be indicated before the noun. For example, "apple" would be signed the same, regardless of the number of apples; the amount of apples would be indicated with a number sign prior to the sign for apple:

"10" + "apple"

Thus, when there is more than one apple reference in a written sentence, the plural marker on the noun may be absent.


Deaf writers may have a problem giving appropriate verb tense when writing because tense is not a concept utilized in ASL (Michaud, McCoy, and Pennington). If someone were to say "I crossed the street," the clause would be translated into ASL by giving the following signs:

"finished" + "street" + "person walking across"

Thus, a deaf writer is more likely to write verbs in their infinitive forms.


Another common error is the periodic absence of determiners/articles (Michaud, McCoy, and Pennington) because determiners/articles are simply not necessary in ASL. The phrase "I want an apple" would be signed as follows:

"I" + "want" + "apple"

The nonessential nature of determiners/articles in ASL often transfers over to deaf students' writing as exemplified by the absence of determiners/articles in sentences.


A writing consultant has the ability to engender profound changes in the writerly development of a student who uses writing center services regularly. Traditional tutor training, however, rarely includes theoretically-grounded guidance in the area of working with deaf writers, who possess extremely limited exposure to discourse features of conventional English and whose primary language (ASL) includes no written form. The gap in training often leads even the most experienced of consultants to become more directive and less collaborative while working with deaf student-writers.

Based on our experiences with deaf-student writers and our conversations with Casey, we have devised some useful tips to improve basic communication between deaf student-writers and their hearing consultants.



Feeling out of your element the first time you work with a deaf student-writer is not only normal--it's expected. For you as a hearing consultant, the experience can evoke the same kind of anxiety that working with a senior-level student-writer on a paper in a discipline with which you are completely unfamiliar evokes: fear may overtake your ability to read, speak, and think like a writing consultant. Thus, you should simply expect to feel uncomfortable at first; also, keep in mind that the deaf student-writer is likely to feel uncomfortable as well, especially when the session marks one of her first tutoring experiences. The awkwardness, however, will soon subside, and the writing--as opposed to the unfamiliar situation--will become the focal point of the session.


To initiate conversation, make direct eye contact with the student-writer or use some sort of visual indicator (e.g., wave or learn to sign "hello") to invite her to begin the session.


Always look directly at the deaf student-writer throughout the session. Do not allow your eyes to wander, and do not converse with an interpreter if one is present. Instead, speak directly to the student-writer and remain focused on him during the entire exchange: the interpreter conveys your message in sign, the student-writer replies in sign, and the interpreter conveys the student-writer's response in spoken English. It is imperative to remember throughout this exchange that you are having a conversation with the deaf student-writer, and your attention should remain on him, as if no third party is involved.


The term "deaf" includes both complete and incomplete hearing loss, and each deaf student-writer may differ in communication needs based on her particular degree of hearing loss. Thus, always ask the student-writer who is without an interpreter to identify the type of communication with which she feels most comfortable: writing to communicate, lip-reading, or both. For the student-writer who opts to write, offer the option of sitting at a computer together.


1. Sit in a well-lit area to enable a deaf student-writer who is lip-reading to easily see your mouth and the words you are saying.

2. Do not chew gum or eat candy at any point during the session.

3. Speak clearly, without physically overemphasizing words.

4. Use short sentences.

5. Avoid jargon.

6. Use universal gestures (e.g., waving, head nod, thumbs up) in communicating, especially if the deaf person does not lip-read. Even for a deaf person who does lip-read, gestures can be helpful by keeping the conversation lively and interesting.

7. In Deaf culture, several conversation-related actions can be interpreted as rude; thus, avoid breaking eye contact with the student-writer, leaving the conversation too abruptly, or rushing her while engaged in conversation.

8. Do not say, "Never mind," or "It's not important." Such phrases often make a deaf student-writer (and hearing student-writers, for that matter) feel excluded or that you are frustrated with him. More than likely, the client will appreciate the effort you take to share the information with him, no matter how trivial you may believe it to be.

9. If you improvise a visual aide, do not talk at the same time or it will force the student to choose between attending to the example and lip reading, or watching an interpreter.


If problems arise when verbally communicating with a deaf student-writer, use a writing utensil or sit at a computer together to get your message across. Remember that when you resort to written exchange, short phrases will suffice (i.e., do not worry about writing every single word).


Much has yet to be explored with regard to tutoring writing in situations where talk is not always possible. Fortunately, however, our long-time client Casey placed us in a unique position, as her solicited advice engendered permanent changes in our environment. As a direct result of our work with her, our writing center has taken steps to place the writerly needs of deaf student-writers in an ordinate position in our training and daily workings: an ASL major has joined the tutor crew for the 2007-08 academic year, we have developed a unit on deaf student-writers for our training manual, a deaf-literacy expert is scheduled to serve as a guest speaker during fall training, and the director plans to enroll in the Deaf-culture class offered by the College of Education. Additionally, however, Casey recommends that writing consultants consider the following: attempt to learn a few basic signs; become familiar with Deaf culture and the nuances of ASL itself; allow for extended time when meeting with deaf student-writers, especially those who work with interpreters; and coordinate with the office of disability services to post schedules in the writing center that advertise interpreters' schedules of availability and contact numbers.

On a more global level, however, writing center practitioners need to vigorously construct intersections between writing center scholarship and deaf-literacy research. By exploring how we can best serve deaf clients and by learning how we can position ourselves as cultural informants for colleagues who view deaf writers through audist lenses, we begin to lessen the divide which currently exists between hearing consultants and deaf student writers.


Baker, Charlotte, and Carol Padden. "Focusing on the Nonmanual Components of American Sign Language." Ed. Patricia Siple. Understanding Language through Sign Language Research. New York: Academic, 1978. 27-58.

Bober, Gail. Deaf Adult Literacy Tutor Handbook--Revision. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, 1992.

Brueggemann, Brenda Jo. "'Writing Insight': Deafness and Autobiography." American Quarterly 52.2 (2000): 316-21.

Cook, Peter, and Kenny Lerner. "Flying Words Project." Deaf Directions of Northeast Ohio. Kent State U. 2007. Retrieved 24 April 2007. <http://faculty.trumbull.kent. edu/robinsoc/DEAFDIRECTIONS/ deafdirections.htm>.

Michaud, Lisa, Kathleen F. McCoy, and Chris A. Pennington. "An Intelligent Tutoring System for Deaf Learners of Written English." In Proceedings of ASSETS 2000, November 13-15, 2000.

National Association of the Deaf and Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. RID/NAD Code of Conduct. Item 2.3. Retrieved 20 Dec. 2008. <http://www.rid. org/ethics/code/index.cfm>.

Weaver, Margaret. "Transcending 'Conversing': A Deaf Student in the Writing Center." St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. NY: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 221-32.

Katherine Schmidt, Marta Bunse, Kynzie Dalton, Nicole Perry, and Kayla Rau

Western Oregon University

Monmouth, OR
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Author:Schmidt, Katherine; Bunse, Marta; Dalton, Kynzie; Perry, Nicole; Rau, Kayla
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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