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December 7, 2004

Deaf, blind students thrive at U.

From: Daily Princetonian - USA - Dec 7, 2004

Laurel Lathrop
Princetonian Staff Writer

During a precept on the second floor of Dickinson Hall recently, the preceptor called on Jeff Mansfield '08.

Students turned to look at Mansfield, but it was a brown-haired woman a few seats away who began to talk.

Unsure of where to look, the preceptor glanced at Mansfield while some students switched their gaze from Mansfield to the woman.

This unusual exchange happens during every precept and seminar Mansfield attends. Deaf since birth, Mansfield says he is the only University student who brings an interpreter to class.

Despite his unique situation, Mansfield has been able to participate and thrive in class discussions.

In his HIS 373: The New Nation precept, for example, he signs animatedly in American Sign Language while his interpreter, Jessica Moore translates his points about 19th century reform movements for the class.

Mansfield's facility in participating in classes throughout the University reflects an environment that hearing and visually-impaired students say is accommodating.

"I am sure there is something [legal] that binds [the University] to help me," said Elizabeth Lea '06, who has a severe visual impairment. "But they have gone far beyond what that may entail."

There are very few hearing and visually impaired students on campus. While the low number of impaired students precludes a tight-knit community, those on campus say they are able to have an enriching college experience nonetheless.

Mansfield was never interested in attending one of the country's two colleges for deaf students. He had taken some classes at his local public high school with interpreters, and knew he could function in a largely-hearing classroom.

"Growing up among dozens of colleges and universities in the Boston area, I've always known that I didn't want to restrict myself to those two options," he said.

For Mansfield, what ultimately set Princeton apart from other top schools was its hockey team.

Mansfield, a goalie, had wanted to attend a school with a Division-I hockey team. At Princeton, the team is his extracurricular focus, and he says his disability hardly makes a difference on the ice.

"I've always played on sports teams with hearing kids," he said. In addition, some of his teammates are beginning to learn sign language.

"I couldn't ask for a better group of guys," he said.

When Mansfield was a child, his family tried a hearing aid with an amplifier on his chest, but it had a negligible impact. He noticed that the other children in his preschool could hear more than he could.

"Out of frustration, I threw the amplifier off my chest," he said.

Mansfield eventually decided to attend a special school for the deaf in Framingham, Mass.

"It's been an unbelievable experience, growing up with the same great group of deaf kids and having such wonderful teachers . . . [I felt] immersed in a large family of great individuals," Mansfield said.

At Princeton, he mainly communicates through a personal digital assistant and written words. The interview for this story was conducted on paper.

Mansfield knows that with his condition, he will only hear silence, at least in the foreseeable future. But one sophomore is hopeful that a winter break operation could restore her to the world of sound.

Laura Garwood '07, who has been hearing impaired since birth, will receive a cochlear implant over winter break.

While she uses hearing aids, her impairment has grown worse since middle school. "I used to be able to talk on the phone," she said, "but now I can't."

A cochlear implant is a way to bypass hearing aids for the severely deaf. An implant in the inner ear converts sound waves into electric currents, which hit the auditory nerve in the inner ear (cochlea), and are transmitted to the brain. The brain perceives these impulses as sound.

Garwood is unsure of her future plans.

"That's probably the reason why I'm getting the cochlear implant now, because the next four years are the most important of your life," she said.


Mansfield said he has been impressed with the accommodations the school has made.

"Princeton has been far more responsive than I expected, and Dean Maria Flores-Mills is really easy to work with," he said, referring to the assistant dean of undergraduate students responsible for disabled students' affairs.

Mansfield has four interpreters, a maximum of two per lecture, and notetakers.

Without this assistance, Mansfield, who watches his interpreter sign the instructor's words, said he wouldn't be able to follow discussions and write at the same time.

"I have a fantastic interpreter . . . and it's been pretty seamless in keeping up with the discussion," he added.

The experience has been a new one for some of his professors.

History professor Sean Wilentz has been teaching at Princeton for 26 years, but never had a student who required signers in class before.

The presence of signers hasn't changed the classroom dynamic at all, he said.

"In the feedback from students, there doesn't seem to be any distraction there," he said. "They're very good at sharing the stage . . . They haven't asked me to slow down."


Students who have vision impairments also praised the University's efforts to accommodate their needs.

Lea, diagnosed at age five with retinitis pigmentosa — which causes gradual blindness — has suffered worsening vision throughout her Princeton experience.

Lea receives books on tape for all of her classes, as well as note takers and housing with good lighting close to the center of campus. She can email librarians for help finding a book.

Though in an email interview Lea called her Middletown, Del. high school "a very emotionally supportive community," her academic experience there was not as well-supported as it has been at Princeton.

Administrators at her high school insisted she buy herself large-print books. But she was still unable to read them because she can only make out text within a certain range of size.

She is currently studying abroad in Paris at the Institute for Political Science.

"I did not realize how lucky I was [at the University] until I got to my school in Paris, where the administration of materials to help me is very bureaucratic. I am used to receiving emails right back from Dean Flores-Mills, but here I need to give it at least a week or two," she said.

And even at Princeton, she said she is conscious of the stigma associated with having a disability.

"I kept the fact hidden as long as possible freshman year," she said. "Once it started getting really bad, though, I wanted as many people to know as possible."


The impaired students know each other, but say there are not enough of them to form an active group.

"There is no community for that at all," Lea said.

Mansfield does not know any other deaf students here, though. "I had the pleasure of meeting one hard-of-hearing student," he said.

Thinking about the future, the students are keeping their options open. Lea is a Wilson School major with certificates in French and teacher preparation.

Mansfield, on the other hand, imagines eventually going into architecture or educational administration.

But for now, he has one hope.

"It's been my dream since I was five years old to play hockey professionally, so I would love to do that," he said.

Copyright 2004 Daily Princetonian Publishing Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.