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Captioning at commencement may make a jumbo difference

Manako Yabe, a deaf, international USC student, advocated on behalf of getting captions on this year's Jumbotrons during commencement. (USC Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)

When USC School of Social Work student Manako Yabe attended last year’s graduation ceremony, she and other deaf members of the audience had no way of understanding the commencement speech. And they weren’t alone: She noticed a large portion of the crowd — international families and the elderly in particular — having a similar difficulty as they watched the ceremony unfold on surrounding Jumbotrons.

For her own graduation walk, though, things will be different.

Thanks to Yabe, USC’s 2013 commencement will include captioning on all the Jumbotrons. She appealed to commencement organizers, arguing that it was a relatively simple fix that could benefit more than just USC’s deaf or hard-of-hearing students.

“When I imagine my commencement this year, I believe it will be a wonderful time when all our family and friends enjoy watching their students’ faces without any limitations,” the graduate student explained through a translator.

It was a natural suggestion for Yabe to make. Universal design — the concept of designing environments and products with maximum accessibility — has been a focus of her studies. She has researched captioning for televisions, online videos and Jumbotrons at other universities.

In 2011, she conducted an independent study to measure students’ preferences for in-class captioning. She surveyed deaf, hearing, native and international students at USC and California State University, Northridge (CSUN), about whether they would be willing to pay additional fees for that captioning. Most would find it convenient, whether it’s because they had trouble understanding a professor from a distance or understanding an accent. When she ran through the data, she calculated the total value at more than $2 million per year, significantly more than if she had only surveyed deaf students.

But the issue of access — to an education and day-to-day communication — is a personal one for Yabe. As a deaf international student from Japan, she knows how frustrating communication barriers can be. When she relocated to CSUN for her bachelor’s degree, she didn’t just contend with the disorientation of moving across the globe to study in another country and culture. She faced challenges with other deaf students as well — not all of them spoke the same sign languages. She now speaks five languages: Japanese, English, and sign languages developed in the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom.

Add to that all the normal stressors of being a college student, and she’s had a lot of learning to do. Fortunately, she has received support from mentors, her hearing parents and her deaf brother, who have encouraged her along the way.

Despite hurdles, she’s proven to be a high achiever. She was selected to be the 2013 Social Work Grad Gala Night Speaker on May 15 and will attend the 2013 Student Recognition Ceremony the following night. She was also invited to attend the School of Social Work Dean’s Recognition and the Phi Alpha Honor Society Initiation and Graduation Ceremony. At CSUN, she was twice selected as a presidential scholar — the school’s highest level of scholarship — and made the dean’s list every semester.

Yabe hopes to become an international social worker and academic, inspiring others with her leadership. Her experiences in life have committed her to helping other deaf people. Growing up mainstreamed into Japan’s education system was a lonely experience, she said. Things changed radically when she attended a Japanese high school in the U.K. Her neighbors were a deaf family with hearing children, and she socialized with other deaf students. Later, at CSUN, she met deaf professors with PhDs, such as Barbara Boyd, who earned her doctorate at the USC Rossier School of Education in the 1980s.

“These people became my role models,” she said. “That helped me to develop confidence and understand that sign language is a true language. But there are a lot of people who don’t understand that and tend to have an oppressive attitude toward people who are deaf or hard of hearing.”

There’s a refrain you sometimes hear from deaf people, Yabe said: “I’m deaf, I can’t.” Seeing successful role models is inspirational but not just to the deaf. The hearing are an important part of the education process as well.

“Being deaf in a community that is hearing, I’m looking for something we can share,” Yabe said. “That’s where universal design comes in. I also want to empower not only individuals who are deaf but hearing.”

On the USC campus, she’s met with hearing students in the deaf education classes of Mary Ann Cummins-Prager, an adjunct professor at USC Rossier who worked with Yabe while at CSUN. Cummins-Prager, who is also associate vice president of CSUN’s Student Access and Support Services, stressed the need for her students to understand the deaf experience, since many of them will go on to work in higher education in financial aid or as campus advisers.

Most people aren’t familiar with deaf culture, and Yabe is exceptionally well equipped to talk about deaf issues.

“How common is it for a student to face so many challenges, negotiate multiple languages, sign languages, cultures, have the college career she’s had?” Cummins-Prager said. “She’s multicultural in so many dimensions, both as a minority and as an international student.”

Cummins-Prager added that captioning can make a big difference to the overall experience of USC’s deaf students.

“Ensuring there are captions means a lot to people for whom signing is their first and maybe only language,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful way for USC to demonstrate its inclusive nature, and I’m glad Manako was the person that brought that forward.”

Yabe has also initiated efforts to get captions placed on screens at various campus eateries in addition to the commencement Jumbotrons.

“She’s been a consistent advocate for accessibility on the USC campus,” said Edward Roth, assistant dean and director of the USC Kortschak Center for Learning and Creativity. “She is quite simply a remarkable person with a deep passion for helping others.”

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