Studying with an interpreter

The deaf notary

Oscar Dreuning is deaf. He relies on an interpreter to be able to take his notarial law classes. But for the past nine months, he was able to do without: he studied at the very first university for the deaf in the US.
By Anne Floor Lanting / Photography by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Oscar Dreuning relies on an interpreter to be able to take his classes at the RUG.

The student of notarial law does not always have an easy time of it at the university. Especially group discussions can be hard for him to follow.

Dreuning studied at the Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. for two semesters. It is the only university in the world where everyone is deaf, and the main language, in addition to English, is sign language.

In order to understand the classes at Gallaudet, the student had to make the switch from Dutch to American Sign Language.

Dreuning also had to get used to the curriculum at the American university (which is at a level below the Dutch one) and the Americans themselves.

In September, Dreuning will start his master’s in notarial law. His ultimate goal is to become the first deaf notary in the Netherlands.

Reading time: 6 minutes (913 words)

Dreuning does not always have an easy time of it at the university. Group discussions, for example, are hard for him to follow. An interpreter comes in handy in those situations, but it remains difficult. ‘Everything goes so fast. Once my interpreter has translated what one person’s said, someone else has already moved on to the next subject. So it’s difficult to engage in group discussions’, the student says.

He is usually fine without an interpreter during one-on-one conversations. Nevertheless, deaf interpreter Martje Kuijpers (38) joins the UK interview. She translates our questions into sign language and Dreuning answers by speaking. The student sounds like a hearing person with an accent; we only have to ask his interpreter to clarify something once or twice.

Dreuning explains for himself that, fortunately, those group discussions that are so difficult for him do not happen very often. But discussions can also be a problem in other facets of student life, such as committee or board work. But Dreuning is eager to overcome this, and did so by joining the board at student room festival Stukafest.

Gallaudet University

Dreuning is having a fine time in Groningen. Nevertheless, last year he decided to broaden his horizon by getting a new experience abroad. He travelled to the American capital, Washington D.C., where he studied at Gallaudet University for nine months. ‘It’s the only place in the world where absolutely everyone is deaf: students, instructors, all the other staff members. That also makes it the only university where sign language, in addition to English, is the main language.’

It allowed him to work on his English and take classes to earn credits for his law degree. ‘All in all, it was a great opportunity’, says Dreuning.

It did take some getting used to, however, because the sign language at the American university for the deaf was different than the Dutch sign language. ‘I hadn’t really prepared’, he admits. ‘At first I could barely understand anything. They sign and speak English, so I could figure things out by reading their lips. I tried to figure things out further by then matching the signs to what they were saying. I got the hang of it after two weeks and became fairly fluent.’

Different world

By now, Dreuning has finished his ‘year’ in the US. He returned to the Netherlands in May. ‘Being in that completely different world was a great experience. But those nine months, two semesters in total, was a long time.’ Apart from the language, it also took Dreuning some time to get used to the curriculum, which was very different from the one here. ‘The work was much less difficult in the US, but I had to do much more in a shorter period of time. Everything you do counts towards your final grade, while here it’s usually only the final exam.’

Trump wanted to cut the budgets for education, for handicapped people, for immigrants

Dreuning found that not only was the American university totally different than the one in Groningen, but so were the American people. ‘Americans are really open. Whenever I told people outside the university that I was deaf they would be really accommodating, and even try to use sign language to communicate with me. People don’t do that in the Netherlands.’

Politically speaking, Dreuning had picked a great time to be in Washington D.C. ‘This was the year that Trump was elected president, of course. He was only two miles away, and not a day went by that people didn’t talk about him.’ Dreuning was fascinated by what was happening in the White House. Now that he is back home, he still follows the news from Washington closely.

At Gallaudet, the student saw that people were not happy with their new president. ‘Trump wanted to cut the budgets for education, for handicapped people, for immigrants. The university depends on those funds and is worried about how they’ll manage in the future.’

First deaf notary

Dreuning would love to attend a deaf university in the Netherlands, but such an institute does not currently exist. The student does not think there will be one in the future, either. It being such a small country, the Netherlands have a much smaller deaf community than the US. But at the RUG, there are plenty of amenities for the deaf and hearing impaired. ‘Although it would be great if everyone here knew sign language’, his interpreter says, laughing. Dreuning agrees.

But they also have some serious suggestions for the RUG. ‘I’d like it if the video classes had subtitles. That way I would have proper access to the full material’, Dreuning says. Kuijpers: ‘I’d like it if the instructors could give me their presentation a day or two beforehand, so I can prepare for a class at which I need to interpret. Some instructors already do this, but not everyone is willing to help out.’

In September, Dreuning will start his master’s in notarial law in Groningen. After that, he wants to get his licentiate in notarial law. It is his ultimate goal to become the first deaf notary in the Netherlands. ‘I would like to open my own practice, and provide the deaf and hearing impaired with notarial legal advice in sign language. Then they wouldn’t have to bring an interpreter to their notary.’


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