Georgetown University student Andrew McAllister strides into O’Donovan cafeteria hungry for lunch. Grabbing silverware, a tray and a pile of chicken fingers, he parks himself at a window table to eat with his friend, Aaron Holland . A couple of bites later, McAllister looks up to chat about his poker game the previous night. He doesn’t have to project over noise around him because he uses his hands to talk about his $45 dollar win.
Holland chuckles, putting his spoon in his granola and raisin cereal. He then uses his fingers to spell out his happiness at McAllister’s success. Their hands and faces do all the talking.
McAllister said he is the university’s only full-time student who is deaf. But deaf students from other universities attend classes at Georgetown occasionally. Being the only one, however, has not hindered him from having a good time with friends, he says.
“We party, we hang out at the gym, we go to nightclubs, we go to sports games, all that stuff,” McAllister notes, typing his responses on a laptop during an interview in Hoya Court.
His freshman year, he taught some of his friends how to speak American Sign Language. Back then, it took him some time to adjust to speaking with hearing friends who didn’t know ASL like his family did or his friends from high school, the Maryland School for the Deaf.
McAllister says his freshman year resident assistant spoke ASL and helped him communicate with other New South residents.
“But after the first month or two, I stopped depending on her, and started to learn how to communicate with hearing people better,” he says.
That’s when McAllister met his friend Benjamin Hogan who lived a couple of doors down from him.
“I learned ASL so that I could communicate with Andrew,” Hogan explains. “First, he taught me the alphabet, and then as time went by he would teach me common words that I wanted to use.”
Over time, Hogan says he’s gotten better at ASL and has become better friends with McAllister.
“My relationship with Andrew is different in that I can’t talk to him over the phone, so I have to [instant message] or e-mail him. I also have to focus on what he is saying since it is visual communication,” Hogan notes. “Other than that, it is a pretty normal relationship.”
When they hang out in public, Hogan says, “People stare because they are not used to seeing a deaf person communicate.” But he adds that he has gotten used to it.
For McAllister, coming to Georgetown has been a challenging adjustment process. But he was up for it.
“After attending deaf schools all my life, I felt that I had to experience an education in a hearing environment,” he explains.
The transition was easier, McAllister says, because he has a strong family tradition here, being the seventh person in his family to attend. Often growing up, he watched his uncle play for the GU basketball team in the 1980s. Also, he has relatives who work here and who helped make the transition easier for him.
Still, there have been some challenges. He says that it took a while before he found the best interpreter for him.
While he’s managed to get through some classroom difficulties, McAllister has experienced housing ones, too. He states that it takes a long time for housing to provide him with special doorbells that flash when someone is at his door. Also, McAllister explains that his rooms need flashing fire alarms, since he would not be able to hear the sounding alarms.
Other hearing-impaired students, such as McAllister’s friend Timothy Riker (MSB ’02) who is hard of hearing and speaks ASL, have experienced similar challenges.
“While I thought Georgetown did try to provide the best accommodations in the classrooms, I noticed the biggest barrier for me was having full access to what so many take for granted,” Riker says.
For one thing, he notes, many of the films in Lauinger Library do not have captions.
“During my senior year, I had to request a viewing station with a captioned decoder so I could watch the films in caption,” he remembers. “A majority of the audio tapes did not have transcripts or any aids to ensure hard-of-hearing or ESL students could benefit from them as well.”
One of Riker’s major frustrations while here was that he couldn’t really attend guest lectures.
“Obtaining adequate accommodations was nearly impossible,” he says. “If accommodations were available, they were usually in the form of inexperienced interpreters.”
In addition to the educational challenges, McAllister points out that there are some myths that hearing people sometimes have of those who are deaf.
For example, he says, “They think if you’re deaf, you like to be isolated and only talk to deaf people. But that’s not true at all,” he maintains. “Deaf people are very receptive to hearing people and really enjoy talking to them.”
So he doesn’t let the myths get to him too much.
“Myths don’t bother me that much because myths exist about all kind of people. But as a deaf person at a hearing university, I feel obliged to clarify or dispel those myths,” he explains
So he’s approachable and likes meeting new people, he says. He gets to do this on campus at his job at Hoyas Unlimited in McDonough Gymnasium as well as when he works at a golf course in Maryland about two weekends a month.
And being deaf has never bothered McAllister, he says. Though he’s often been encouraged to get cochlear implants (an implanted device to help deaf persons hear), McAllister has resisted. “They often become too occupied with the fact that I would be able to hear,” he says. But there are downsides to getting the implants, he adds, such as surgery and training.
He prefers to stick with ASL and other methods.
“Most people ask me, ‘What if you could hear? Would you seize the chance to do so?'” he recounts. “Oddly enough, I’ve never felt that desire to hear for one day.”