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Deaf-ine Meliora: A First Year’s Account on Disability

Hello. My name is Phelan Conheady. I am a native of Rochester. I am a first year and currently a triple major in French, international relations and American Sign Language (ASL). I am involved in student government as a first-year senator and as part of the campus services committee. I am also an active member of the ASL club and intramural volleyball.


Until I arrived at the University of Rochester, I didn’t know what friendship really meant.

Throughout my primary and secondary school life, I often found myself being the only deaf student in the entire student body. Naturally, this proved to be a very isolating experience. Not being able to follow conversations at lunch and only nodding at people hoping they didn’t ask a question was something I became very accustomed to. None of my “friends” bothered to learn sign language or advocate for deaf rights, and it surprises me today that I thought this was normal.

When I started my college search, I knew that my decision was going to be heavily influenced by whether it was easy to find “reasonable” accommodations for classes. Out of all my choices, the University of Rochester seemed like the right fit for me.

A culture of access
Rochester, New York, has the largest deaf population per capita in the nation. On top of that, Rochester is also the site of the Rochester School for the Deaf and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. As a result, it’s not unusual to find two people signing when roaming the shops of Park Avenue or strolling along at Eastview Mall. I’ve lived in Rochester all my life and I know firsthand how easy it is to find interpreters and other services to ensure I get the same access to education and social events.

This culture of access continues to resonate well on the River Campus. Before I even arrived on campus, Disability Services contacted me early to ensure that interpreters and notetakers for Orientation and classes were already set in place and to make sure my transition to college was as easy as it could be. I now know that should I need an interpreter or notetaker for anything regarding my college career, getting one is as easy as sending an email.

You’re not alone
However, nothing could have prepared me for the friends that I would make here on campus. Initially, I thought I was going to be a black sheep once again when it came to my deafness, and I was fine with that prospect. Throughout my life, I have dedicated much of my time to educating people about Deaf culture and debunking stereotypes. However, it’s much easier to debunk stereotypes when you have solidarity with another person who understands, and that’s exactly what I found here.

Within the first couple weeks of orientation, I was contacted by a strapping young senior by the name of Oliver. He introduced himself and told me that he was a Deaf undergrad student as well. Over time, he told me about his experience here at the University of Rochester and showed me how the ropes were different for a deaf person versus a hearing person, how there are resources to turn to for when someone is being discriminatory or ignorant, and how the ASL department adds to the vibrancy of not only academics but also student life on campus.

It was so nice to have a mentor figure for once and not be alone in the typical experience of being the “one” deaf person to represent a whole community. Oliver introduced me to his other friend who’s deaf and between the three of us, we can always have our “deaf people” time to socialize on various topics in our natural language of ASL.

Not only did I find a mentor figure in my transition to college, I also learned about what friendship really is. I have two best friends of mine who are first years like me and are majoring in ASL. Within two semesters, I have seen them flourish and really embrace Deaf culture and it is really touching when they adopt Deaf mannerisms with me when I am conversing with them. Not a day goes by when we are not having a full-blown conversation in sign and over time, I’ve come to realize: If you’re going to be my friend, sign language should be a requirement, not an added bonus.

I no longer feel isolated by missing out on what’s being said or feeling exhausted from having to read lips all day. I feel like I am respected not only as a person but also as a person with a disability, and that is a gift that with every waking moment I refuse to take for granted.

If you are a prospective student for Rochester, just know that what makes you unique is cherished and celebrated here on campus and we will welcome you with open arms. Only at the University of Rochester will you find people you identify with. I can’t say that if you have a disability, the next four years of your life will be easy. It’s not easy, and there will always be room for improvement when it comes to equal access on campus.

However, change starts with you, and we at the University of Rochester welcome change to ensure that students like me and you—regardless of ability, gender, sexual orientation, race, or any other trait that makes you who you are—get to experience the best of what Rochester has to offer and what Meliora really means.

Best of luck on your journey!

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