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October 7, 2005

Knit by a common thread

From: The Diamondback - College Park,MD,USA - Oct 7, 2005

Small community of deaf on the campus a closely bonded group

By Roxana Hadadi October 07, 2005 In the front row of her organic chemistry class, university student Anna Bitencourt laughs as two friends make light-hearted jokes. The professor and surrounding students don't catch on — because Bitencourt and her friends are using the fluid movements of sign language.

Unlike the dozens of students around her, Bitencourt, a junior biology major, is deaf. But for her, being deaf has never been an obstacle — it's just been another part of her life. Her two friends, Lindsey Snyder and Josh Hushes, are interpreters.

There are about 30 deaf students, faculty and staff at the university, said Disability Support Services and Hard of Hearing Support Services Coordinator Don Thompson. The number fluctuates each year, he said, but the hearing services office does not have definite statistics.

Despite the lack of publicity surrounding the recent Deaf Awareness Week — recognized worldwide as the last full week of September — the deaf community at the university perseveres, receiving attention from groups such as the Sign Language Club and the hearing services office. The university did not sponsor any events for the week.

For students who are deaf or majoring in special education, Maryland does offer a consortium program with Gallaudet University, the nation's only liberal arts university for the deaf. The university is located in Washington.

Regardless of its minority status, the deaf community at Maryland is a group tightly knit together because of its small size.

"The deaf community is such a small world that you are prone to knowing or bumping into someone you have already met," Bitencourt said.

Bitencourt, who has the most severe classification of deafness, lost her hearing at age two from meningitis, but her skills at lip-reading and speech therapy were coupled with a fluency in her native Portuguese. After moving to Maryland from Brazil at age 12, Bitencourt's disability still didn't stand in her way — she mastered English and American Sign Language nearly immediately. She has now moved on to her next challenge: Italian.

Bitencourt said she believes from her personal experience that all deaf students can benefit from resources provided by the hearing services office.

"Although I've always considered myself an independent person, I do depend on some people to make my life as a college student easier," Bitencourt said. "I depend on interpreters to help me get the full benefit of [a] lecture, [and] I sometimes depend on notetakers to take notes for me so that I can visually focus on the interpreter."

Snyder, a third year doctoral student in the Department of Theatre, and Hushes, a 2000 graduate in political science, have worked with Bitencourt on a number of different occasions. Hushes recently began signing for Bitencourt, while Snyder has been doing it for two years.

Emily Mudrick, a hard of hearing freshman letters and sciences major, also touts the benefits of the hearing services office.

"When I was accepted in the fall, I immediately looked around for disability services, and UMD has a great office," Mudrick said. "They're always there for you."

Deaf students are registered at the hearing services office automatically after enrollment, but some decline to use it, Thompson said. Others, he said, encounter problems when attempting to receive help, despite the office's best efforts.

"Some come to us right away and some come to us later," Thompson said. "I have discovered that students will randomly come in and tell me they've been in school, and I'm the first person that they've ever seen in this office."

Although Deaf Awareness Week is over, the university is planning a Deaf Awareness Day for the end of October. The event has not been finalized.

"Officially, we have nothing scheduled; unofficially, we are bringing in various types of technology to conduct demonstrations about how they help the deaf," Thompson said. "We will also bring in speakers."

Barbara Libbin, a graduate student in audiology who co-founded the Sign Language Club in 2000 as an undergraduate, hopes that events like Deaf Awareness Day raise the level of tolerance and knowledge about the deaf community within the campus.

"People need to understand: Deaf people are the same as hearing people and can accomplish the same things," she said. "The only difference is that they cannot hear — they have a language and a culture."

Contact reporter Roxana Hadadi at

© 2005 Diamondback Online