Deaf Ethiopian Israeli given opportunity to study graphics

"There is a translator with me at all times. The administration team is very tolerant of deaf people, and that has never happened to me before."

Ilana Mekonen 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ilana Mekonen 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ilana Mekonen, 27, is a first year student in the visual communication track at Netanya's ORT Hermelin College of Engineering. Mekonen's circumstances stand out from most of her fellow students - she has been deaf since birth. She is part of a singular program at the college that caters to the hard of hearing and the deaf. "I encountered graphic design in high school and I wanted to continue but on a higher and deeper level. Because I think that if someone wants to be an expert, then they can't just take another course. I have to learn it at the college level. I also hope that it will give me more opportunities to get a better job," Mekonen told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. The track includes courses in art, art history, typography and printing. "A potential employer can see the difference in education," Mekonen said. "Without the context, one would just be working robotically." The Post caught up with her in a four-way telephone exchange. This reporter relayed questions to Iris Wolf, the school's dean of students, who relayed them to Etti, Mekonen's translator, who signed them to Mekonen. The chain then went into reverse to convey Mekonen's replies. Mekonen was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel when she was three. She is the child of a deaf father and a hearing mother. Two of her eight siblings are also deaf, and study in an institution for the deaf. Several of her aunts are also deaf. She, her husband and daughter (both of whom are also deaf) live with five of her siblings and her mother in Hadera. The family made aliya together and lived in an absorption center in Tiberias. They moved to Nahariya and eventually settled in Hadera. Finding the right school was not simple for Mekonen. "I started at a different college to do a course that I was sent to by the National Insurance Institute. I needed a translator, so I sent an SMS to a group of translators, and Etti was the only one who was available to translate that day. "After I entered the class and even after Etti translated, I still couldn't understand the lecture. I didn't understand what I was going to study. It was Etti who realized that I was sitting in a computer programming class and that this is not what I wanted. The classroom was also small and crowded and I wasn't sitting in the right spot to be able to follow. I wanted more graphic design. The emphasis there was on the computer and not on the programs," she said. After that first mishap, Mekonen applied to another college. "I tried to get into another institution, but they rejected me because I was deaf. I tried to convince them that it was not fair. However, they didn't accept that they would have to bring a translator into every class. They said a translator was like 'dirt on the stage,' and did not reflect well on the classroom aesthetically. "I tried to work with the professor, but she said, 'Why would I work with a translator? You should try to use the hearing aid,'" Mekonen recalled. Mekonen does have a hearing aid, but still cannot hear words. "I read lips. Without the aid, I can't hear anything. With the aid, I can hear voices and it is easier to read lips but it is not at the level of words." "It takes a long time to learn how to read lips, but there are apparently sounds like my name, Ilana, that I recognize. However, someone might say something very similar and I will answer," she noted wryly. It was Etti who encouraged her to apply to ORT Hermelin. "Etti told me about the college and told me to talk to the people and bring them my credentials and see if I could fit in here. I brought diplomas, and sat with the head of the department with a translator. I was surprised that there was advance preparation on their part for my interview. Leora [Rubikoff, the program coordinator,] interviewed me and escorted me throughout the whole registration process. "It was already two weeks into the semester and I needed a little help to catch up. I got help and made up the material much faster than I thought I would. Now that I am already studying, I am even more sure that this is the profession I want," Mekonen said. At the end of her first year, Mekonen is very pleased. "The year was at first hard. I had to get used to the faculty, the college course load. As it went on, it smoothed out. The material is interesting and I feel like I have made progress professionally," she said. In terms of access and assistance, Mekonen had nothing but praise. "There is a translator with me at all times. The administration team is very tolerant of deaf people, and that has never happened to me before. In lectures, they make the professor take into account that I am there and so they write more on the board. The students have also gotten used to the fact that the professor explains more slowly and in greater depth [for my benefit]. Once, the translator came late and the professor talked slowly and wrote a lot more on the board to make sure I understood until she came. "When we learn the graphics programs, they give me an instructor who helps me fill in what I don't understand," she added. Mekonen did have some constructive criticism for the National Insurance Institute. "It is important that the NII should know there are costs over and above the tuition and translator. For example, equipment for the job, computer programs and extra tutoring," she told the Post. The school also helps her navigate the NII bureaucracy. "I have to go there in person every time [since she can't talk on the phone] and find the specific official who handles my file. I would like them to be more accessible to the deaf. There are technologies that exist already that can help, such as e-mail and SMS," she said. Wolf said the NII did help out in part. Those same modern technologies give Mekonen hope that she will be able to hold a regular job without too much trouble. "E-mail and SMS give me an advantage. I can work through the computer and they don't even need to know I am deaf," she said.