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Donning a set of navy velvet robes and a mortarboard on her head, Ellen Hibbard placed an index finger to each corner of her mouth and then whipped them away, exclaiming “PA!”
This means “I did it!” in American Sign Language (ASL). Last Thursday, Hibbard, who is deaf, graduated with a PhD in communication and culture from Ryerson. Her dissertation titled “Impact of Vlogging on Deaf Culture, Communication, and Identity” was prepared using a mix of ASL video and English text and she delivered the defence entirely in ASL — a first for Ryerson.
Hibbard’s defence was presented to a mix of hearing and deaf committee panelists and audience members. Four ASL interpreters were present to ensure the event was accessible to all.
As she waited to cross the stage Thursday, Hibbard pulled back her robes and button down shirt to reveal a Superman “S” on her chest.
In accessing her education, Hibbard said she faced systemic barriers and a lack of resources. The barrier she faced most, however, was others’ attitudes.
“That’s been from individuals looking at me and not seeing me a whole and complete individual,” she said.
Instead, she said, she would find there was a “medicalization” when it came to looking at her as a deaf person — as though her being deaf was a condition and an obstacle for her, rather than a part of her identity.
“People … put limitations on me without seeing what I could do — and I know what I can do. I know what I’m capable of.”
Hibbard came to Ryerson as an international student from the U.S., where she had begun her PhD study. Through the Ryerson Access Centre, she was able to get ahold of the ASL materials and accommodation necessary to complete her degree.
Charles Silverman, a professor in Ryerson’s school of disability studies, who is helping implement accessible technologies in Ryerson’s classrooms, said Hibbard’s achievement is a major milestone.
“ASL is a legitimate language in Canada. Why wouldn’t she?” Silverman said about her delivering the thesis defence in ASL.
It was the lack of resources Hibbard faced while completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science that inspired her dissertation. Specifically resources in ASL, Hibbard said. This is important, she noted, because not everyone accesses English text. She said most deaf people do not read or write English above a fourth grade level.
In her dissertation, she analyzed how online video technologies have allowed deaf people to create and share content without having to depend on textual mediums, and use ASL instead.
Passing on knowledge and learning comes through language and culture, Hibbard said.
In her case, this means face-to-face transmission. What’s needed is resources, so academic curriculums can be taught and consumed in ASL.
“I wanted to impact and make change in that area.”