Class Act

Two people conversing in sign language

Almost getting shot at a shopping mall in Israel helped Daniel Nead experience what it's like living as a deaf person in a hearing world.

A psychology doctoral student at Gallaudet University, Nead spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in Israel in 2007–08. A few weeks after arriving—and still struggling to learn the basics of Hebrew—Nead was stopped by a security guard at a Tel Aviv shopping mall. The guard checked his bag, and Nead assumed he was cleared to go. He heard shouting but kept walking, not understanding that the commotion was all about him. Turning around, he saw the guard rushing toward him, his hand on the holster of his weapon.

"I was telling a deaf person about it, and he said, 'Welcome to my life,'" Nead says.

People who know Nead say he'll go wherever his quest for knowledge leads him. He went to Israel, for example, to learn how deaf people are affected by traumatic experiences. Now Nead is recruiting a pool of deaf people to serve as research participants.

As a hearing student, Nead is in the minority at Gallaudet, the liberal arts college for the deaf in Washington, D.C. He hopes his research will help psychologists who work with deaf people who survive such disasters as terrorist attacks or hurricanes.

Nead's research fills an important need, as deaf children and teens are disproportionately likely to be victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, says his adviser, Carolyn Corbett, PhD. According to a study published in 1987 in American Annals of the Deaf (Vol. 132, No. 4), deaf girls are twice as likely to have been sexually abused than hearing girls, and deaf boys are five times as likely to have been sexually abused as compared with hearing boys.

"There's very little research in psychology on deaf people, period," she notes.

Psychology and deaf culture

As an undergraduate at Wright State University, Nead signed up for American Sign Language class for fun and as a favor to a friend who wanted to take the class together. As he learned ASL, he loved the novelty and beauty of communicating with his hands.

On Fridays, he'd go to a local deaf club for Bingo Night to work on his signing skills.

"Here's another group, another culture, that I could learn about and interact with, and I didn't have to travel across the world to do it," he says.

To become more fluent, Nead enrolled at Sinclair Community College and trained to be an interpreter for the deaf.

In addition to picking up new vocabulary, Daniel quickly learned the social skills needed to communicate effectively in deaf culture—including how to open up a conversation and follow strict turn-taking rules, says Jean Koverman, MS, assistant director of Sign Language Interpreting and Deaf Studies at the University of Cincinnati. For example, in signed conversations, it's considered rude not to wait your turn to sign in response to a question.

To earn his degree in interpreting for the hearing impaired, Nead completed practicum training at a mental health clinic where he translated between psychology graduate students who were conducting therapy in supervised practicum and their deaf clients. The experience taught him about the challenges of assessing deaf clients with measures developed for hearing subjects, and how to phrase questions in sign language to convey the clearest meaning. For example, if a therapist asks a deaf client "What brings you here today?" the correct answer for someone who communicates through ASL would be "my car" or "the bus" or "I walked"—not the underlying reason for their visit to a mental health clinic, Nead says.

"The better question to ask is 'Why did you decide to come in today?'" he says.

As an interpreter, he also witnessed the psychology students grow comfortable with interacting with deaf clients.

"By the end of the year, they knew how to work with interpreters. They knew more about sign language and about deaf culture," he says.

A deaf world

With a bachelor's degree in psychology from Wright State and an associate's degree in interpreting from Sinclair Community College, Galludet's clinical psychology program was a natural next step for Nead. But the transition to a school where the majority of the student body is deaf and all lectures are conducted in sign language wasn't always easy. Nead was struck by how the cafeteria, crowded with hundreds of students, was quiet as a library. But Nead quickly adapted to his new environment and hit on what would become his main study area: trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Nead recruited 60 undergraduates at Gallaudet for his master's thesis on trauma. For his Fulbright year and dissertation research, Nead proposed to administer an English-to-Hebrew translation of the Brief Symptom Inventory to deaf Israelis. He chose Israel for his research because it's a place where suicide bombers and rocket attacks are a fact of life and also because the country is linguistically, culturally and religiously diverse, he says.

"It's opened my brain up again to a whole new type of diversity," he says.

Nead is still building contacts in the deaf community and recruiting subjects for his study, but once the measures are taken from both groups, he wants to compare the results and try to find out if they react to trauma in the same way. He hopes the results can help evaluate interventions meant to help people cope after a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

"Are the services we've set up for hearing people appropriate for deaf people in Israel and the U.S., and why, or why not?" he says.

Once he returns to Gallaudet this summer, Nead aims to spend his internship year working in a hospital emergency room. But after that, he's undecided about what comes next—possibly teaching, research, practice or a combination of all three.

"I like having my options open," he says.

Whatever route he chooses, Nead will be a natural, says Jeff Pollard, PhD, his supervisor with George Mason University's Counseling and Psychological Services, where Nead worked on an externship in 2006–07.

"I suspect he's the kind of guy who's going to make a difference throughout his life," Pollard says.

By Christopher Munsey
gradPSYCH Staff