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It Takes Two
Hearing-impaired student and captioner work together to earn degrees

by Jennifer Post Stoudt

It Takes TwoDonna Reibsane ’02 can’t hear a single word of Professor Carolyn Bazik’s economics lecture. Still, she sits with a quiet confidence, staring intently at her computer screen while the class listens, scribbling notes as fast as their fingers will let them.

It’s Reibsane’s inquisitive eyes that are doing all the work, as the professor’s words appear on her computer screen. Sitting next to her, typing 250 words a minute and catching every syllable, Debora Cunningham ’02 makes it all possible.

Reibsane, who has suffered from progressive nerve deafness since the age of nine, and Cunningham, a captioner, are a learning team in Albright’s Accelerated Degree Completion Program (DCP). Cunningham provided real-time captioning of the professor’s lectures so Reibsane could instantaneously view it on a laptop computer screen. With Cunningham typing nearly 100 words a minute faster than average conversational speed, the words appeared on Reibsane’s monitor about one or two seconds after the words were spoken.

"I will never forget that first night of class," says Reibsane, who is classified as severely/profoundly deaf with an 80 percent loss in her left ear and 90 percent in her right ear. "What she (Debbie) did that night made me realize how much I was missing. For once, I actually knew what was going on." Although she uses a special phone with volume control and an amplified headset to help her at her job as a transportation clerk in the accounts payable department of Penske Logistics, such devices can’t be used in a classroom setting.

Cunningham, owner of Archive Reporting & Captioning Services in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, was hired by Albright to provide captioning services for Reibsane. Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, schools are required to provide educational opportunities to students with disabilities.

However, after sitting through several lectures, Cunningham soon realized that it was an opportunity for her as well. "I had no intention of joining the program at first. But I’m so glad I did. It was so much more hands-on and practical than any other classes I’ve taken elsewhere. It gave me the confidence to do some things differently with my business."

However, while she made the lectures easier for Reibsane, she often found comprehending the class lectures while typing at such a high speed to be a challenge. "I could walk out of class and not have any clue as to what was said." Focusing too much on the words slows a captioner down and causes them to make mistakes. "It has to be in one ear and out the other," she says. So, each night after class Cunningham would go home and relive the lecture. "Some nights I’d have to read through a nearly 200-page transcript," she says. "But it was definitely worth it."

For Reibsane, schooling has always been frustrating. "In junior high school my math teacher couldn’t understand how in the world I could do complicated algebra problems but I couldn’t do the simple stuff. I heard only what I could. And as a result, my grades showed it."

“It never even occurred to me that I had no chance. I just needed to find the right route to succeed.”

- Donna Reibsane ’02

Reibsane’s teachers weren’t always supportive of her dreams to go on to college either. But, says Reibsane optimistically, it wasn’t due to negativity, but to a lack of knowledge. "When I went to junior and senior high school there was little known facts about hearing loss. Teachers were not as receptive as they are today," she says. "In fact, in my school I was the only hearing impaired individual in my class."

As for her peers, Reibsane says, "I had very few friends because I could not interact with my classmates like everyone else." And even after getting a hearing aid at the age of 16, understanding enough to be able to participate in class discussions or ask questions was just not possible. "I just couldn’t hear like the others."

But she never gave up. In fact, Reibsane says quite frankly that, "it never even occurred to me that I had no chance. I just needed to find the right route to succeed."

With Cunningham’s help, she found that route. In DCP "I was actually taking part in discussions. I was giving my input and telling classmates how I saw things. I asked more questions than in all 12 years of prior schooling!" For once, she adds, "I was able to concentrate on learning rather than concentrating on communication."

Although Cunningham started her career as a court reporter, her first captioning job was for ABC-TV in Harrisburg.

While she was typing newscasts during the Persian Gulf War for closed-caption television, Cunningham was also working on establishing her business. However, it wasn’t until a encounter with a set of parents from Mechanicsburg, Pa. that she got involved in captioning for the hearing impaired. "They came to see me and said they wanted a captioner for their son in his high school setting. They came back several times and I finally realized that they weren’t going to leave me alone until I figured out how to do it."

So she did. Consequently, Cunningham’s company became the first provider of captioning in a school setting on the East Coast.

The experience was a first for many of Cunningham and Reibsane’s teachers as well. Richard P. Schott, instructor in economics & business, says, "Donna and Debbie had a really interesting partnership between the two of them. Actually, I have never experienced anything like it in the classroom before."

“I could walk out of class and not have any clue as to what was said.”

- Debora Cunningham ’02

Initially concerned about how the pair would manage group projects since they did not take place in the typical classroom setting, Schott says they ended up doing extremely well. "It was a great partnership. They each did well in their own performance and they also worked great together."

Reibsane and Cunningham graduated together in December 2002, both with bachelor’s degrees in business administration. "It was such a proud day for me," says Cunningham, who has already put some of what she learned to work. "My company never advertised before. But after taking Rich Schott’s class, we’re now advertising. And business is doing great!"

Reibsane shares Cunningham’s sentiments. "It was such an emotional day for me," she says. "I discovered that I have a newfound respect for myself, and that others respect me as well."

Among Reibsane’s many plans for the future, she would like to devote some time to promoting education to people with disabilities. "I’ve found that in Berks County alone, people are not educated well enough about hearing loss and other challenges," she says. "This situation needs to be addressed. There are so many intelligent people with challenges out there that could really be assets to the community."

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