IM this article to a friend!

March 10, 2003

"We cannot direct the wind... but we can adjust the sails"

From: University of South Alabama News - 10 Mar 2003

by Susan Thomas
Contributing Writer
March 10, 2003

Robby Casey is a typical USA graduate student. He commutes in his Chevy Blazer from his home in west Mobile, works as a research assistant in the Communication Department and looks forward to the day he will finish school and get a full-time job.

Like other graduate students, Casey enjoys going to movies, hanging out with friends, and watching "The West Wing" and "Friends" on television. Tall and stocky, he takes walks to exercise and occasionally writes poetry to express himself.

Unlike most other graduate students, Casey is deaf. But, as he is quick to point out, he does not want his deafness to define him. "To me, personally, being deaf is what I am and not who I am," Casey said recently via e-mail. "Instead, I try to have my accomplishments, interests, beliefs and values define me."

Casey lost most of his hearing before the age of 18 months, following an unexplained high fever. His parents, Mary Lou and Rob Casey, were told he would probably never learn to read beyond a 6th grade level. They refused to send him to a residential school for the deaf, opting instead to teach him sign language at home and to enroll him in local programs for hearing impaired students. Casey attended grade school at Mobile's Regional School for the Deaf and Blind but transferred to a "regular" highschool program at Baker.

After graduating from Baker in 1995 Casey enrolled at USA. Using an interpreter for all his classes he completed his B.A. degree in 2000, majoring in Communication. He has now completed coursework for his M.A. degree and is working on his thesis, hoping to finish by summer.

Around the Communication Department, Casey is known for his willingness to help other students, his positive attitude and his penchant for posting thought-provoking quotations on his office door. "We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails," is one of his favorite sayings.

Dr. Steve Rockwell, Department of Communication Graduate Coordinator, has been impressed with Casey's work as a research assistant. "Robby has done a remarkable job understanding complex theories. Abstract concepts are hard enough to grasp even for a person without a hearing impairment. It's impressive how far he has come in the program," Rockwell said.

Casey is one of three deaf students currently enrolled at USA, according to Bernita Pulmas, manager of Student Support Services, the campus office that assists students with disabilities. The university provides deaf students with interpreters for classes and other services, such as note-taking, as needed.

Student Support Services handles any complaints of discrimination lodged by students with disabilities. Pulmas works with faculty to understand a student's disability and to provide any needed accommodations.

Casey feels his encounters with students and faculty at USA have been positive. "For the most part, it has been a good experience for me. Most of my teachers treated me as a regular student who happened to be deaf, instead of a deaf student," Casey said. Only occasionally did he have professors who did not seem to understand his deafness, he said.

When asked about specific problems, Casey laughed and said one teacher insisted at the beginning of the course that he bring in proof he was deaf. "Like the fact I'm wearing hearing aids, signing, and have an interpreter with me is not proof enough!" he said.

Mary Lou Casey, a former special education teacher who is now principal of the Regional School for the Deaf and Blind, agrees that Casey's college experience has been positive. Overall Casey's professors have been understanding of his needs and were more than willing to accommodate him, she said. One professor, however, told Casey that he had to be "better than everyone else" to make up for his deafness. "That was discrimination," Ms. Casey said. She did not want Casey to be "coddled" by teachers, but on the other hand she did not think he should be held up to higher expectations than the other students, she explained.

Casey suggested that USA could better accommodate deaf students by providing TDD equipment in every office and at pay phones. TDD systems allow deaf students to communicate with a teletype-like device over telephone lines.

Casey primarily communicates with a form of sign language known as CASE-Conceptually Accurate Signed English. CASE uses the same finger "pictures" as American Sign Language, but, unlike ASL, the signed words are spelled-out in the same order as in standard English.

When communicating with persons who do not know sign language Casey writes notes or e-mails them using either a personal computer or a hand-held pager that has an e-mail feature. Casey prefers to communicate face-to-face in order to understand a person's body language, which is a large part of the communication process, he said.

Casey has several suggestions for communicating with deaf persons. Always direct comments to the deaf person, and not to the interpreter, he said. Using some sign language is preferable to none at all; however, he said, "Don't try to ad-lib yourself through it" if you really do not understand the signs. Note-writing is a preferred means to communicate when no interpreter is present and the person does not know sign language.

"I am sure that almost everybody will meet a deaf person at least once. The most important thing to remember about us deaf people is that we don't bite! Much. Honest. But, seriously, we deaf people are not aliens, freaks, monsters," Casey said. "We are just like you; we go to school; we have jobs; we pay taxes."

Ms. Casey agreed. "They are just people; that's the main thing. You'll find the vast majority of the time they are so glad you are making the effort to communicate with them," she said.

After graduating Casey hopes to find a job in the field of writing and visual communication. "One day I would love to open a bookstore or start an organization devoted to getting deaf children interested in reading and in their futures," Casey said, adding that he also would like to write a novel.

Meanwhile, like other graduate students, Casey's routine, centers around working, writing his thesis, and doing the same things his hearing classmates do: attending ball games, traveling, reading and going out with friends. "We can and do, do the same things you can and do. The only difference is we can't hear. Consider what we can do without our hearing; is that really a big deal?" Casey said.

© 2003 USA Vanguard