Magazine Perspective

Full Access to a Full College Life

Serving Deaf and hard of hearing students on our campuses

By T. Alan Hurwitz

Fall 2021

On my first day of orientation as a new first-year student in the fall of 1961, I sat across a desk from Morningside College’s registrar. In his late fifties, with black-rimmed glasses and dark eyes, he peered at me thoughtfully. Since it was difficult to read his lips, and he didn’t fully understand me when I spoke orally, we resorted to writing back and forth on a piece of paper.

“Mr. Hurwitz,” the registrar said, “you will need to arrange support services to help you through college.”

I was offended because I didn’t want to appear to be different from my classmates, especially during my first year in college. “But I did fine in high school with no support services, sir,” I pointed out.

“College isn’t high school,” he said. “Here, professors rarely use textbooks for classroom lectures, so you won’t be able to catch what you missed by going to your books.”

“I can give it a try without help.”

“I’m afraid having support services is a condition for your enrollment,” he said. “There’s no point in enrolling you just to set you up to fail. The Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services will cover the cost of a notetaker.”

Having no choice, I relented.

I had notetakers throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies. It was not until I entered the University of Rochester for my doctoral studies that I finally had sign language interpreters.

I managed to get through my college years as the only Deaf student at Morningside College and then at Washington University in St. Louis after I transferred. But believe me, although I did satisfactory academic work, it was a lonely journey. Because of the limited communication with my peers and the lack of access services, I was not involved in college student activities. I spent most of my social time off campus with Deaf people in the community. But my sense of isolation and need for better support services—such as real-time captioning, sign language interpreters, and services for cocurricular and social activities—were important lessons I carried with me when I became an administrator in higher education. They are also lessons that I worked to convey to other college and university leaders, faculty, and staff to improve learning and postgraduation outcomes for Deaf and hard of hearing students, no matter the campus.

Proper support can make the difference for Deaf and hard of hearing students to succeed in earning a degree.

In 1970, I began working at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), one of ten colleges at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). I served as an academic advisor to Deaf and hard of hearing students majoring in engineering and computer science. I arranged support and access services for these students, coordinating tutors, notetakers, and interpreters to aid them. I also worked closely with RIT faculty to help them effectively use support and access services in their classrooms to enhance student learning for Deaf and hard of hearing students alongside their hearing classmates. Students vary in their individual needs for access and support services. Some rely on American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, while others may prefer to use real-time captioning. Still other students may request a combination of interpreting and captioning services. When they meet with professors, some students may want an interpreter to accompany them. Others may elect to meet with professors without an interpreter and find ways to communicate one-on-one—writing on a paper or on a whiteboard or even texting back and forth by phone.

Proper support can make the difference for Deaf and hard of hearing students to succeed in earning a degree, which affects their future employment and job security. Indeed, an NTID analysis of graduates and nongraduates found that those who graduate with a baccalaureate degree will earn about 68 percent more over their working lives than those who attend but withdraw without a degree, according to a 2002 paper in the Journal of the American Deafness and Rehabilitation Association by Gerard G. Walter, Jack R. Clarcq, and Wendell S. Thompson.

Bolstering Deaf and hard of hearing student success and increasing opportunities for postgraduate studies and employment were priorities for me when, in 2010, I became president of Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, the only liberal arts university in the world created to serve Deaf and hard of hearing students. While at Gallaudet, I served on the board of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, which currently has seventeen member institutions. The consortium offers, among other benefits, the chance for Deaf and hard of hearing students to take courses and pursue doctoral fellowships and federal grant programs at other colleges and universities. Likewise, hearing students have the opportunity to take courses at Gallaudet on Deaf education, Deaf culture and heritage, and audiology, speech, and language. Gallaudet University also developed pre-majors in medicine and health care, law, and business to enable Deaf and hard of hearing students to pursue graduate studies. For instance, Gallaudet graduates were admitted to law schools at the George Washington University, Georgetown University, and Howard University, all consortium members. Other Gallaudet alumni matriculated in various graduate programs—including business, linguistics, and behavioral and social sciences—at different consortium universities, which accommodate the access needs of Deaf and hard of hearing students.

The range of opportunities at Gallaudet and through the consortium have also allowed Gallaudet students to pursue postgraduate studies at non-consortium member institutions. Recently, two Gallaudet graduates, one who majored in biology and one who majored in chemistry, were admitted to the University of Virginia School of Medicine and the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, respectively. Both were provided with a full range of access services—interpreters, notetakers, and real-time captioning—and both completed their medical studies and are now in their residencies.

As president of Gallaudet, I was also invited to serve on the boards or attend meetings of high-profile groups such as the Federal City Council, the DC Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and what is now Campus Compact Mid-Atlantic. These interactions have provided me avenues to explore and expand opportunities for Deaf and hard of hearing students to pursue their academic studies, as well as to find employment and internships in the greater metropolitan area of Washington, DC; Maryland; and Virginia. As a result of these collaborations, many Gallaudet students and graduates have been hired as interns and employees in various federal agencies, nonprofits, and private companies.

In my bookLet’s Go In:My Journey to a University Presidency, I describe a discussion about transfer students that I had with other college and university presidents at an annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. One of the presidents asked us to share the percentage of incoming students who were transfer students at our individual institutions. Everyone else gave the response of between 3 and 4 percent. (A 2019 report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation estimated that at one hundred of the most selective colleges, 14 percent of students transfer in.) When it was my turn, I said that at Gallaudet University and NTID, Deaf and hard of hearing transfer students made up 25 to 30 percent of incoming students. The other presidents were surprised. I explained that most transfer students who came to our institutions shared that they were searching for better opportunities to become fully engaged in college life. They were frustrated by the insufficient quality of access and support services at institutions they had previously attended, where the vast majority of students are hearing and unaware of Deaf culture. Gallaudet and NTID students have full access to classroom instruction and extracurricular activities through ASL and receive appropriate access and support services tailored to meet individual needs. This allows students to have a full college experience, which is about so much more than books, labs, lectures, and examinations. Student government, intercollegiate athletics, student publications, and clubs help students develop leadership skills and form personal networks that can extend over a lifetime. Gallaudet and NTID graduates are likely to possess the leadership, teamwork, and communication needed to succeed in both the Deaf and hearing worlds.

All students come to college from different educational and family backgrounds and with different needs that must be supported. As educators and leaders, we must strive to inspire all students—including young Deaf and hard of hearing people—to manage the trials and tribulations they will face in their lives and still work to achieve their dreams.

Learn More

Gallaudet University

National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology

National Association of the Deaf

Association of College Educators–Deaf & Hard of Hearing

Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area

Image credit: Rochester Institute of Technology Archives


  • Alan Hurwitz

    T. Alan Hurwitz

    T. Alan Hurwitz is president emeritus of Gallaudet University. His memoir is Let's Go In: My Journey to a University Presidency.