During my senior year of high school, I was debating between two choices for college: Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and Williams. This comparison is unusual in a variety of ways and reflects my unique background and approach to the college admissions game. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem like most people were making this comparison. As someone who has talked to many other Williams students, most of the other schools they considered were among the elite liberal arts colleges (LACs) such as Amherst and Swarthmore, or they were renowned research institutions such as MIT and Cornell. From what I can tell, I might have been the only student in my Williams College graduating class to have seriously considered RIT. A few years ago, I discussed my situation with another Williams student, who promptly told me: “an obvious decision, right?” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The catch is that while Williams can claim to have benefits such as a significantly larger endowment and better college rankings, one of RIT’s advertised advantages is its accommodation policies that have been specifically catered to its large deaf and hard of hearing student population. Here are some of the interesting facts about RIT taken from their website (emphasis mine):

The RIT student body consists of approximately 15,000 undergraduate and 2,900 graduate students. Enrolled students represent all 50 states and more than 100 countries. RIT is an internationally recognized leader in preparing deaf and hard-of-hearing students for successful careers in professional and technical fields. The university provides unparalleled access and support services for the more than 1,300 deaf and hard-of-hearing students who live, study, and work with hearing students on the RIT campus.

The same page lists additional benefits for deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) students, such as paying reduced tuition. In addition, RIT is also cognizant of how deaf students may not be able to or may not want to use a traditional phone. When they provide a phone number for prospective students to call and ask questions, there is an alternative videophone number to call. A videophone is similar to Skype, except it is often used to call a regular phone number and allows a sign language interpreter to act as an intermediate messenger in relaying the hearing person’s voice over to the deaf person’s eye, and in some cases, relaying the deaf person’s signing to the hearing person’s ears.

Hence why I was forced to make a unique decision. On the one hand, I had a spot at a college that was ranked number one not just for small colleges, but for all American universities for two consecutive years (2010 and 2011) in the Forbes college rankings. On top of that, Williams had a renowned mathematics program, which was my intended major at the time of applying (I did not consider the computer science major seriously until my second year). But on the other hand, I knew that because they had no experience with deaf students, that I would have to continually advocate for myself and explain what was necessary to allow me to succeed. That presumably would not be a problem at a place like RIT which as mentioned earlier has over a thousand such students and has a whole staff of sign language interpreters employed by the college. The social aspect was also a positive for RIT; I can communicate with other students in sign language if necessary and have an easier time engaging in group discussions as compared to a situation with hearing students. I had to consider how much my family would pay. A Williams education costs significantly more than an RIT education (even with my needs-based financial aid), and I also received the best available scholarship for an RIT student, which would have reduced tuition to just a few thousand dollars a year. How, then, did I decide to attend Williams College? And after a few years of being able to reconsider my situation, can I say I pleased with my decision? Are there other things I’ve learned from RIT that affected my stance? I’ll investigate most of these questions in future blog entries.

Today, I want to focus on what I’ve learned from RIT and its accommodations over the past few years. Notice my wording earlier about RIT’s advantages. I mentioned that these are advertised advantages. But what is advertised may sometimes gloss over the truth, and I hope to shed light on this issue. As a disclaimer, please don’t view this article as an attack on RIT, even though it may seem like that occasionally. I still have an enormous amount of respect for RIT providing this much assistance to DHH students. I just want to emphasize that RIT, like any university, is not a “Utopia.” There are flaws in their accommodation policies system that I would like to point out. Many of them can be fixed.

But since I am not a student there, how much information can I know about RIT? And is it fair to emphasize my view of RIT, which is no doubt different from those of many other DHH students? I’ll present my case here and you can be the judge. First, I have visited the RIT campus many times, most notably during the summer before my senior year of high school. I participated in a weeklong residential program for prospective DHH students. Furthermore, I have also gleaned insight from other RIT students. Outside of Williams, I probably know more students at RIT than any other college. I have had the fortune of being able to interact with many DHH RIT students in my life, such as those hailing from my high school or the Summer Academy. Finally, my brother is a student there. Like me, he’s also deaf, and we have similar academic interests. Both of us are computer science majors and will be working at REUs this summer. But his experience at RIT thus far has revealed some inadequacies in their access services. I now focus on two of them in particular.

One of the defining points of RIT is its accommodation policies. On paper, if a deaf student requests interpreting services for a class, he or she should get it. What’s not entirely clear is whether a deaf student can have these services for classes that have multiple sections. During his first quarter at RIT, my brother wanted to enroll in a psychology elective course. As is the case in many universities, psychology is a popular subject, and the introductory course has multiple sections. Unfortunately, only one of the four or so sections offered that quarter had ASL (American Sign Language) support. The session with ASL services was in a poor time slot; it met just once per week from 6:00 to 10:00 PM. Furthermore, my brother had to take a required computer programming course the following morning

Now, you could argue that my brother had to live with this schedule. But if a hearing student wanted to maximize his or her study productivity and flexibility, it makes sense that such a student would sign up for a psychology course in a better time. DHH students are therefore denied the ability to have schedule flexibility. What RIT really tries to do is save money by packing as many DHH students in one section as possible. When my family tried to resolve this issue by emailing my brother’s academic advisor and the disability services department, we got no response. (The academic advisor, by the way, has to help about 700 students and can only offer generic high-level advice, which isn’t my idea of a helpful advisor.) After a week of negotiation and getting dangerously close to the start of the quarter, my brother was finally able to get services for a better class time after we emailed the Provost of the College with a lengthy written request. Discussions with other deaf RIT students — such as my brother’s roommate — confirmed these sentiments that RIT can “hurt” their schedule by forcing them to take classes at possibly undesirable time frames. I fortunately do not have this problem at Williams College, because the policy there is that I pick my courses, and the accommodations are then built in for me, not the other way around.

A second issue is that RIT’s classes can sometimes violate their own principles. During the spring 2013 quarter, my brother enrolled in an elective course about Viking history. Unfortunately, the class violated RIT’s accommodation policies. About half (literally) of the Viking history class time was devoted to watching movies that had no closed captioning. (This, by the way, seems ridiculous to me — why waste half of valuable lecture time watching movies?) This is despite how RIT has a rule stating that videos shown in class need to be captioned. When grading is weighted so heavily on participation and understanding movies, how is that class not able to escape such a basic requirement for deaf students? As every deaf student should know, sign language interpreters and other popular accommodations such as CART are no substitute for captioning. So I am certainly a little confused about this situation.

Even worse, when my brother wanted to drop the course, he couldn’t because the drop period (one week from the start of school) had passed.  The course was taught in one four-hour session each week, and my brother learned in the second class that uncaptioned movies would be routine for half the class time.  My brother’s only option was to withdraw from the course, but he would have received a “W” on his transcript, which would indicate to future employers that he was struggling in class due to his academic deficiencies. (Hint: he wasn’t.) He then had to do a lot of additional work to convince RIT to drop the class and avoid receiving an unjust “W” on his transcript.  After another long and time-consuming effort, he was finally allowed to drop the course.

The previous two scenarios indicate the difficulty my family experienced in trying to protect my brother’s academic needs and rights. I don’t believe it should take a full family struggle to achieve two basic academic rights. My parents know the intricacies of both RIT’s policies and the American legal system and are willing to use this knowledge to achieve basic rights. What about the many other students who do not have this advantage and do not know they can petition to earn them? I suppose the message I want to send to prospective DHH students to RIT is that, while for the most part you’ll have what you need, you will still be at a disadvantage as compared to other hearing students and will continue to have to work extra hard to obtain privileges that hearing students might take for granted.

On a final note, another unfortunate incidence has popped up relating to RIT’s accommodations policies that I didn’t know of until the final draft of this post. I’m going to keep it confidential until I know more information, but it might be something I’ll investigate later.