Living and learning with sign language


“KSU” in American sign language.

Davy Vargo

Learning without hearing: For deaf students at Kent State, life is normal – with adjustments from on Vimeo.

Every morning, Nebeyat Mamay’s bed shakes her awake when the alarm sitting on the nearby nightstand goes off.

“People sometimes have a hard time when it’s raining outside or if it’s loud outside, but I can sleep just fine,” said the junior American Sign Language (ASL) major. “I’m not able to hear anything. I just wake up and I say, ‘Hello everyone!’ And everyone’s like, ‘Really, you got a good night’s sleep and I didn’t?’”

For freshman ASL major Leah Norris, everyday conversations with other students often contain a surprise when she tells them she’s hard of hearing.

“People will assume that I’m hearing and that I’m not deaf, and they’ll start talking to me,” Norris said. “I have to tell them, ‘Okay, slow down. I’m not able to hear as well.’”

For junior psychology major Elexis Blake, class on Wednesday means keeping her eyes fixed on the sign-language interpreter in front of her — not on her professor.

“I had an interpreter since first grade (until) 12th grade — same interpreter, which is not common,” she said. “Typically, interpreters change. When I (got) to college, now I have different interpreters.”

To these three students at Kent State, being deaf is perfectly normal.

About 40 students with hearing loss are enrolled in Student Accessibility Services (SAS) on campus. They receive services like note-taking, an amplification unit, sign language interpreters, closed-captioned videos or real-time transcribing, according to Shannon Cowling, the assistant director of accessible communication and media at SAS.

Cowling said she is one of roughly 40 interpreters at Kent State.

“I love post-secondary interpreting,” she said. “I love that deaf students have access to education that they might not otherwise have access to.”

Mamay said it’s a bit of work to request for interpreters (two days ahead of time) to attend her classes or advising appointments.

“That’s a lot of work that an average person who isn’t deaf doesn’t realize that we have to go through,” she said.

Mamay, who has a hearing aid and a cochlear implant, struggles with reading and writing.

“Deaf children tend to have a reading delay,” she said.

While she struggles with reading and vocabulary, Mamay still loves to spend her free time reading as much as she can (mostly romance books).


Free time can be a challenge for deaf students.

Most of Norris’ friends are hearing. When they watch a movie together, Norris texts instead of watching the movie.

“My friends who aren’t deaf hate when we’re watching a movie together and I ask for closed captions,” she said. “But I tell them, ‘You know, I need the closed captions’ and they’re like, ‘Oh no, it’s annoying.’”

So Norris just busies herself with her phone instead.

“How can I pay attention to a movie if I’m not understanding what’s going on because there’s no closed captions?” she said.

Norris used to think she understood everything in a movie or show. But when closed captioning was turned on, she realized she can experience much more.

“I missed so much,” she said. “Like the music in the shows, if it sounds suspicious or something, I didn’t know it sounded like that.”

Even though Norris might have missed the music in movies, there are other details that deaf people don’t miss.


Mamay said deaf individuals have different “accents,” or nuances in the way they use their voices or signs. People who know her more can better understand her accent.

“My family is used to my deaf accent,” she said. “They grew up with me. They’re used to my voice.”

One afternoon last month, Mamay sat around a table with other students, a lecturer, a professor and interpreters. They energetically discussed deaf accents and the different ways words can be signed.

Mamay was shocked when Steve Vickery, a lecturer of ASL in the modern and classical languages department at Kent State, showed the different way Christmas is signed in Hawaii compared to Ohio.

“Here we sign Christmas this way, or this way,” he signed, moving with his hands. “But it’s strange because in Hawaii they will sign it this way, like the shape of the tree.”

“Are you serious?” Mamay signed. “Oh, come on, you should stop.”

“I’m serious — I know these things,” Vickery signed.

Farah Kish-Leland, a deaf ASL professor who used to have a hearing aid until she lost it, now mostly signs or reads lips.

She explained sign language has “parameters” like facial expressions, hand shape and location.

“For English, we have vocal intonation, but ASL doesn’t have that, so we use facial expressions to clarify what we mean,” she signed. “If I’m (irritated), you might hear (it) in my voice, but for deaf individuals, you’ll see it in their face.”


In the ASL lab in Kent State’s Satterfield Hall, a large sign hangs on the wall with the words, “Voices Off.”

Clusters of students gathered around tables say nothing — and yet communicate everything.

Light streams through the windows as hands wave energetically, faces express feelings and laughter breaks the silence.

For a newcomer, a small, lap-sized whiteboard sits on the first table, complete with a marker for anyone not equipped with sign language skill.

Someone gets up to turn on the large television hanging on the wall. Seconds later, the students are watching a “Deaf Urban Dictionary” video.

Here is where students gather to practice their sign language abilities with their friends. And here is where deaf students at Kent State spend their daily lives in pursuit of college degrees.


Sometimes, Norris wishes she couldn’t speak so clearly.

“My speaking ability doesn’t really match my hearing ability,” Norris said.

She might be talking to someone who doesn’t realize she’s hard of hearing. When the other person starts talking, she has to tell them to slow down.

“I have to explain it,” she said. “And that’s frustrating.”

Norris grew up thinking she was stupid — she didn’t realize she was hard of hearing until she was in high school.

“In high school I knew something was up — there was just something different about me,” she said. “It was kinda like that ‘aha’ moment. I just realized I couldn’t hear.”

A year ago, Norris started to learn sign language, even though her parents had wanted her to be able to speak and read lips. When she realized she was hard of hearing, she decided to learn about sign language and the deaf community.


One of the most annoying things that hearing people do, according to Norris, is suddenly look away right in the middle of a sentence if a door slams or an alarm goes off.

“A hearing person will turn their head,” she said. “(I’m like), ‘Okay, what happened?’ They just automatically turn their head, and I’m wondering what happened.”

She wishes people would explain what they’re looking at.

Norris leaned forward and waved her hand. She said that’s one of the ways to get the attention of a deaf person. With her hands, she pretended to push something out of the way — she said it’s okay to move someone aside if they’re standing right in the middle of two other people’s conversation.

“For deaf people, it’s okay to touch them,” she said. “A typical person, if you were to touch them and push them aside a bit, they would feel violated.”


When Norris rides up to the drive-through window at a fast food restaurant, she often feels that workers are annoyed when she shows them her phone with what she’d like to order written down.

“I’m not able to speak through the little microphone in the front, so I just go to window, and I give them the order of what I want,” she said. “I always feel like they’re mad at me.”

“I mean, really it doesn’t matter,” Mamay said. “There’s friendly people who will sign too, you know — there’s a lot of people who know ASL and are willing to sign. I think you’re fine, really.”

“But if I have the time, I would just go in and write on my phone,” Norris said. “I don’t want to make their day harder.”


Both Norris and Mamay laughed at the question of driving — of course they both drive cars.

Mamay prefers to marry someone in the future who can sign so that communication is easy.

“If they’re not deaf, mmm, that’s fine,” she said. “But I want to meet someone who signs.”

Friends have told Mamay and Norris that they do certain things they didn’t know other people could hear.

Mamay always felt the vibration of the clucking sound she used to make in her throat, but she didn’t realize it was audible. Norris used to sigh all of the time … until she was told that people could hear it.


Mamay and Blake started the Deaf Power Organization in September so that deaf and hard-of-hearing students could feel included on campus.

“There was a (deaf) girl that I met last year — she came here and for three months, she didn’t know anyone else — like no deaf, no hard of hearing,” Blake said. “I felt bad — no one should have to deal with that. She felt like she had no friends — just very lonely.”

Blake, the president of the organization, said they hold educational events (one event featured an expert who came in to talk about social security insurance details for the deaf). They also host social events, such as yoga nights, game nights and fundraisers.


Born deaf, Blake said that not hearing is normal. She said that hearing with her cochlear implant is more robotic than normal hearing would be.

“But then again, I can’t tell because I’ve never experienced that hearing,” Blake said.

Most of Mamay’s friends are deaf, and most of Norris’ friends are hearing. Mamay said that most deaf students can feel left out of conversations with hearing students who don’t sign—but Blake said she never feels left out with her deaf friends.

“I love all my friends, deaf or hearing,” Blake said. “I actually have a few hearing friends that sign, so that’s a big plus. When I am with my deaf friends … I know exactly what’s going on. I am not missing out on anything. So being with them is by far the easiest.”

While many students enjoy walking campus with earbuds plugged in, Blake can’t exactly listen that way.

“If it’s something new, I couldn’t tell you the lyrics … unless I studied it,” she said. “I can’t understand what the lyrics are saying on the radio when I have it on in my car. Unless it’s a song I know — I know maybe 90 percent of the lyrics.”

Davy Vargo is the student life reporter, contact her at [email protected].