Eric Nooker and Kate Skarda are Deaf. The capital “D,” they point out, is the difference between Deaf culture and deafness, the disability. Although the University of Wisconsin seniors are both registered with the McBurney Disability Resource Center, “disabled” is a word they avoid.
“If you want to look at disability, that means the inability to access something,” Skarda said. “So, there is a duality there, but if I were to label myself, I’m Deaf, I’m not disabled.”
As finals draw nearer, many UW professors will request “McBurney students” to consult them about alternative testing. This, and requests for note-takers at semester beginnings, are two of the few times when the student body at large is exposed to the McBurney student community.
Established in 1977, the McBurney Center serves students who are deaf, blind, have mobility disabilities and have chronic conditions, as well as those with learning disabilities, autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and mental health conditions.
The range of services at McBurney is even more varied. Each of the over 800 currently registered students receives a customized plan of accommodations called a VISA. Services include everything from captioning and sign language interpreters to the conversion of documents to audio files or Braille, among others.
“The most-used service that we recommend for students is generally in the area of test accommodations,” McBurney Center Director Cathy Trueba said. “This idea of things taking more time can cut across a lot of disability categories. It really is a unifying element.”
Nooker said he has requested a note-taker for classes in the past, which he says makes it easier to focus on the material in lecture.
“It can be a challenge to take it all in,” Nooker said. “You guys can listen to what [a professor is] saying while reading the newspaper. I can’t do that. Everything’s visual.”
In conversation, Nooker and Skarda intently lipread, responding vocally without missing a beat. When communicating with one another, the friends slip organically in and out of sign language.
For them, signing is first nature, as fluid and intuitive as breathing.
Nooker and Skarda are used to working as a team. The two were president and vice president, respectively, of Accessibility Advocates, a student organization affiliated with the McBurney Center. Under their leadership, Accessibility Advocates brought paralympian and speaker Jean Driscoll to campus, held a Deaf awareness event and worked with the Associated Students of Madison’s Diversity Committee to ensure funding for equal access beyond the classroom.
“I feel that co-curricular activities contribute just as much to someone’s experience at the university as classroom experience does,” Nooker said, adding the initiative will enable student organizations to provide interpreters, captioning, accessible transportation and document conversion to participants that require the services.
Among their triumphs, Nooker and Skarda have had their share of setbacks.
“I’ve had one professor assume that because I was deaf I could not speak,” Skarda said. “Of course, that was a bad way to begin the class.”
While Nooker said most of his instructors are “great,” he recalled when a professor was distracted by his interpreter and demanded that he move across the room. The incident has stuck with Nooker and still makes him uneasy.
UW physical therapy professor Edward Bersu calls making the classroom accessible “just the right thing to do, period.”
He first learned of the McBurney Center shortly after starting at UW 33 years ago, when some students in his class were struggling with learning disabilities. Taking the initiative, Bersu not only referred the students to the McBurney Center but accompanied several to the office himself. Since then, Bersu added he has tried to make every accommodation possible.
“I can appreciate where, in many instances, it can be very, very difficult,” Bersu said. “[Staff] may not receive support from the department in which they’re working, and that was never a problem with me.”
Even when professors go above and beyond, however, Nooker said there are some limits he confronts on a daily basis that are unavoidable. When professors announce exam reviews a mere week beforehand or work on a project that extends outside of business hours, securing an interpreter is uncertain.
“I have to work my schedule around their availability,” Nooker said. “As students, we pull late nights, but interpreters aren’t working.”
Yet, even in the face of such challenges, Nooker and Skarda manage to thrive on campus and continue to advocate on behalf of other McBurney students. Currently on the table are plans to work with the new Union South to make it accessible for students across all ranges of ability.
“By and large, the students who are admitted here are really bright, they’re engaged, they’re going places,” Trueba said. “Students who have disabilities are no different — they’re going places. It’s really the students who make it happen. We offer a little bit along the way.”