2004 Conference Proceedings

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Karen Swartz, Coordinator,
Office for Persons With Disabilities, York University
109 Central Square, 4700 Keele Street,
Toronto, Ontario, M3J 1P3
Tel: 416-736-5140
Fax: 416-736-5829
Email: kswartz@yorku.ca

Angelo A. Tocco, Peer Educator
Ron Cope Gateway Resource Room, York University
109 Central Square, 4700 Keele Street,
Toronto, Ontario, M3J 1P3
Tel: (416) 860-2288
Fax: (416) 736-5829
Email: atocco@yorku.ca 
Email: angelo.tocco@tcdsb.org

The complexities of accessing support services for Deaf, deafened and hard of hearing (D/HH) students attending mainstream post secondary educational institutions can often lead to frustration when their academic and social needs are not appropriately met. For example, face-to-face communication can be problematic without the assistance of either an American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreter or a real-time captioner. At a large post secondary institution, D/HH students may find themselves isolated and alone (Israelite & Swartz, 2000), not knowing who to approach for support. As such, students who are D/HH attempting to foster a relationship with their professor, a staff member or hearing peer is typically not an interaction based on spontaneity but out of necessity.

The advent of technology has substantially changed the way D/HH students conduct their daily lives and at the same time, it has created a space for D/HH students to communicate with others in ways that resemble their hearing peers. Specifically, networking with individuals and groups through electronic methods such as, e-mail, listservs, chatrooms, and discussion forums without the assistance of an intermediary has undoubtedly opened up new communication possibilities for people who are D/HH (Blasiotti, Westbrook, Kobayashi, 2001).

During the summer of 2003, the authors of this paper conducted a project through the Office for Persons with Disabilities (OPD) at York University to examine online communication through electronic mentoring (also known as E-mentoring), as one way to better assist D/HH students with their transition in a large University community. The following paper will address how online environments support D/HH students as they learn to negotiate university structures and practices.


In this project, we used a qualitative research approach to explore the efficacy of mentoring online through E-mentoring. Participants were not obligated to disclose any information about themselves that might make them feel uncomfortable. All participants were D/HH individuals affiliated with York University and known to the researchers. Participants included 5 students who had participated in the E-mentoring pilot program, 2 students enrolled in the Deaf Education programme and 3 university alumni who are employed full time. Participants were provided with access to the Current Practicei email and online conferencing account arranged and approved through the Faculty of Education at York University.

E-mentoring Pilot Program

To assist D/HH students with their transition to university life an online mentoring programme was developed in the summer of 2002 as a pilot project through the OPD at York University. The original conception of this program was to pair senior D/HH students who act as mentors for new D/HH students together in an online environment. Online interactions revealed that the students appeared to benefit more from talking to the larger group rather than their appointed mentor. Several individuals cited the notion of having a mentor as "threatening" and preferred to think of their peers as 'buddies'. This view was also reflected in the current project. One participant said, "I had a mentee last year, and personally do not feel comfortable referring myself as her mentor. Peer or buddy would be a more apt description of our ties. 'Mentor' is defined as a 'wise advisor, teacher or coach'. I did not see myself in any of that role. I saw myself playing a supportive role in her life as a student at York, like a buddy who's there to chat or exchange ideas. "

Summary of Online Discussions

The following summary is a brief review of the online discussions, which took place in the summer of 2003. Overall, the participants in the current discussions commented on issues related to their support services as well as their identity as a cultural minority or person with a disability. They eagerly shared their views on how electronic mentoring could assist D/HH students' in experiencing a more effective transition to university life. The students were clearly supportive of the concept of using an electronic medium to encourage and facilitate communication. As one participant commented, "I would encourage students to share their experiences with each other and the OPD staff through the e-mentoring program."

Identity in online environments. Initially, the participants were asked to introduce themselves to each other in our welcome folder. Only a few took the opportunity to include a brief introduction. As one participant noted, "getting involvement from them [D/HH students] is always a challenging task". Gradually as the online conference ensued, participants began to reveal their identities in their discussions.

It is possible that the online discussions among the participants were naturally developing a community of its own: as participants became more comfortable in their community, they began sharing more personal information within their responses. It would also appear that in the absence of face-to-face contact the participants had a desire to feel connected to one in another in ways that go beyond simply relying on technology. In other words what seems to be important is that the participants created a community of belonging. One participant said: "If people are going to interact, it would be nice to know something about their backgrounds, especially since this online thing doesn't really promote face-to-face interaction."

In an effort to learn more about each other several participants suggested the idea of posting their own personal profiles on the website with their pictures attached. As one participant commented: "I agree with [another participant] though, about possibly having profiles of mentees as well as mentors. Perhaps that would help open up the lines of communication between everyone."

These discussions suggest that there is willingness among participants to learn more about each other and further stressed that the development of the online mentoring programme was as a necessary step in creating a positive space on campus for D/HH students.

The participants concluded that online communication is useful in the facilitation of information between students regardless of their identification with one group or another. As one HH participant remarked: "I think mentors of the E-mentoring organization can assist others by being aware of what is and what is not available to disabled students. Not just mentors but everyone in who is part of this program. We are all here for the same reason and understand what each of us need more than a "regular" student. We are drawn together and I feel that it is important to help each other out."

Another issue that emerged from the discussion was the importance of establishing a "safe" environment where students could communicate, share information and advice with other students that experience communication as a major barrier to full participation within the academy. All of the participants shared some personal information about themselves and some of the problems they have encountered while at the university. More than one student suggested that there needs to be a forum in which students who experience communication as a barrier can participate in the university community in a non-threatening manner.

The following statement made by one of the participants reflects the concern about communicating in an online environment:

"Regardless of the group's focus, if you want greater participation, there must be a positive environment, one in which individuals feel that they can express their views and experiences without fear of ridicule or rejection. Support is crucial. I was not involved in the e-mentoring program this past year, but from what I have heard, I do believe that the necessary support is provided."

Benefits of electronic networking. A large part of the discussion revolved around using E-mentoring as a medium to share information and resources that would assist them in their transition to university. One participant revealed:

"I don't think many deaf and hard of hearing students are fully aware of what kinds of support services are available to them. The E-mentoring program can help make Deaf and Hard of Hearing students aware of what kinds of services are available to them."

The E-mentoring program can also be used to assist D/HH students to become skilled at being self-advocates. A Deaf participant responded,

"Part of what helped me become more confident about advocating my needs is that I saw another deaf person advocate their needs to someone they just met very easily, I said to myself then.... if they can do this.... I can do this as well. Its also important to have role models...who can help teach the deaf and hard of hearing students how to advocate their needs."

The participants offered opinions, ideas, strategies and praise for using the technology to assist them in both their transition and ongoing needs while studying at university. Through this discussion, the researchers also noted that online communication provides a necessary link between the D/HH student and the university community. What appears to be central is the establishment of a shared network. A Deaf participant remarked on the importance of making the support services known through the disability services office. "Since E-mentoring is part of OPD, you can say that this program can really provide new students with an understanding of the different type of support services available and their benefits within OPD and on campus."


Overall, the online discussions among D/HH students that emerged from this project, suggest that there can be significant benefits in using computer technology to assist them in their transition to university life. The participants acknowledged the importance of the E-mentoring program as a networking tool where they can provide each other with access to information, resources and support in a space that they establish as a positive and safe environment.


Blasiotti, E.L., Westbrook, J.D., & Kobayashi, I. (2001). Disability Studies and Electronic Networking. In G. L. Albrecht, G.L.T Seelman, & M. Bury (Eds), Handbook of disability studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 327-347.

Israelite, N. K. & Swartz, K. (2000, July). Negotiating the university environment: Perspectives of students who are hard of hearing. Paper presented at the International Congress on Education of the Deaf, Sydney, Australia.

i "Current Practice is the online network of York's Faculty of Education. The network was established to bring online learning opportunities to the pre- and in-service programs of the Faculty, as well as to undergraduate and graduate level programs". For more information visit http://www.edu.yorku.ca 

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