One-of-a-kind college program in Netanya trains deaf engineers

"Our motto is to integrate the students with hearing students."

"Aleph," who is deaf, used to be a dishwasher at a restaurant. An immigrant from the former Soviet Union, he did not even know Hebrew sign language. Now he's a second year student at ORT Hermelin College of Engineering in Netanya. What's more, he's such a good student, he is tutoring a second year hearing student and a first year deaf student, Iris Wolf, the college's dean of students, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. The only engineering program of its kind in the country provides a comprehensive environment for hard of hearing and deaf students to study at a high level and subsequently get them into the workforce. "Our motto is to integrate the students with hearing students," Wolf told the Post. "That obliged us from the moment we accepted the student for the program coordinator to sit with them and assess their level of disability, their ability to communicate, and from there to build an individualized program." The coordinator, Leora Ribofsky, was a sign language translator and a special education teacher for the hard of hearing, Wolf said. Figuring out how to adapt the learning atmosphere to a deaf person's needs requires thinking about everything from the most elemental to the most sophisticated. "Say a deaf person sits in the computer lab or class and needs to both look at the computer and at a demonstration. How does he do that? He sits where the translator decides is best and not where the professor might assign him. That spot is then saved for each class," Wolf said. In addition, "a strong student acts as a tutor and helps him out personally. There is also private tutoring from either our staff or an outside staff person so that he can see the lesson in front of his own eyes," she said. If needed, the student receives an additional lesson on the same material. "We write more on the black board, and distribute more written materials. The professor and the translator have developed a professional sign language to encompass technical terms that take too long to sign letter by letter," Wolf added. The project was initiated five years ago by the then-head of the college, who looked around and saw that few people were teaching this particular community. Moreover, the programs that existed were not on a very high level. The program caters especially to those ostensibly weaker students who might not have had enough support previously to achieve the grades necessary to get into one of the universities. The college grants a degree in practical engineering as well as supplemental programs to enable students to move on to university. Degrees are offered in electronics, electricity, mechatronics, industry and administration, and visual communication. Graduates can work as anything from private electricians to hi-tech engineers, Wolf said. Between 10 and 15 hard of hearing or deaf students study among the 500 students at the college, the dean said. At first, there weren't many applications, but now the school get referrals from all over, including from the National Insurance Institute, high schools, and organizations that assist this community, she said. The program goes far beyond technical training. "We invest a lot more in education and turn out students who can support themselves in the real world," Wolf said. "We maintain contact with the NII and the student's parents, and are in touch with support organizations. We also offer seminars specifically for them such as communicating for life, personal development, and how to elicit responses from the hearing. We also help raise their self-esteem, and help them find a job," she said. Another benefit was the exposure the hearing got to working with hard of hearing and deaf people, which made them more tolerant later on, Wolf said. The school had received feedback from parents who noticed an overall general improvement in their child, Wolf said proudly. Wolf fears for the future of the program because of the cost. The college receives some funding through the students' National Insurance Institute disability benefits. Additional costs are covered by ORT and through hours of volunteering by faculty. "With all due respect to ORT, which is generously covering the costs right now, this project needs national recognition from the government to sustain the cost over time," Wolf said. The college is in the midst of establishing a partnership with the NII to develop teaching modules to be used with the larger deaf community based on its unique project. In fact, Wolf said, when she first became dean they considered shutting down the program. "We were going to shut down the program, but then Avishai Negev's father called up and said he was bringing his son to the program. Avishai had had bad recommendations from high school. But he came in so full of excitement. I looked into his blue eyes and couldn't tell him there was no program. I told Carmela [Dekel, the college's director,] that she had to do it. She went out and looked into his eyes and came back and said, "We can't tell him there is no program." "Since then, Avishai has completed supplemental studies to get into engineering, finished his engineering studies, successfully defended his final project, was a representative in the student union, became a certified electrician, found work and got married. What's more, his wedding invitation was designed by a fellow student who is in the visual communications track and who is deaf," Wolf said with obvious passion. "Now, there is no going back - this project must continue," Wolf said.