In the third installment of our series on issues of disability, accessibility, and accommodations in postsecondary education in prison programs, we spoke with Ben Wright on his personal experience with disability and higher education in prison and the many challenges people with disabilities face inside. This follows our interview with Dr. Jenifer K. Montag, Director of Disability Services, at Marion Technical College, which highlights the issues that service providers face. Last April, Ben also took part in a webinar for Second Chance Month hosted by our colleagues at JSTOR, where he spoke to some of the wider challenges faced by individuals who are deaf in the criminal legal system.

A note about language: Capitalization variations of the word “deaf” throughout this interview are intentional, not accidental. Ben has capitalized the “D” when referring to “Deaf” as a culture, an identity, or a community, and maintained the lowercase “d” in “deaf,” when referring to conditions, services, etc. The National Association of the Deaf addresses this language debate in their website’s Frequently Asked Questions page. We recognize that language is important and that debates on capitalization and slash spelling (i.e. d/Deaf) are ongoing. As noted in our previous blog post on humanizing language, when posed with such debates, we respect and maintain self-identification and defer to experts in the field and/or the community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself.

Photo of Ben Wright holding a small dog.Hello! My name is Ben Wright, and I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. I was born deaf—a bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. As a result, my parents put me in a program for D/deaf and hard-of-hearing students—some who learned how to talk, some who learned how to sign. At the time I did a little of both, but it was clear that I was a talker. In the second grade, I was transferred to a public school, which I graduated from in 2007. Upon graduation, I got my bachelor’s in English literature from Ohio State University. After that I completed a master’s program in Deaf and special education. I went on to teach in deaf education for about ten years.

After I was released following three years of being incarcerated, I struggled to find employment and decided to join an MA program for English literature at Southern New Hampshire University. I have since also joined the MFA program for creative writing, and I work part time for Project AIM. Project AIM has an initiative to help incarcerated individuals get higher education opportunities in the prison system. I am set to graduate next year with my MA and MFA, and will go on to an EdD program. I am also on the Board of Directors at the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network.

Can you tell us a bit about how your disability or disabilities affected your experience in the correctional education setting?

I am deaf and was raised orally, meaning that my main modality was verbal speech. I had hearing aids until I was 18 years old, when I got a cochlear implant. When I was 20 I got a second implant. At about 22 I had to have both of them removed for medical reasons. Due to this, I had absolutely no hearing (aided or unaided). Luckily, when I was about 20 I started to learn American Sign Language. I eventually became proficient to the point where I taught college ASL classes. Due to this, I presented as a bit of an anomaly because I could talk but had zero hearing. Typically (but not always), D/deaf and hard of hearing individuals who can talk (to an extent) have at least a little bit of hearing. When you get cochlear implant surgery, your residual hearing is diminished. This means when you’re not wearing the implant, there is essentially nothing happening. This throws off a lot of people, including people in law enforcement, the court systems, attorneys, and prison staff.

As one example, at the correctional reception center, there was a videophone on site. However, they did not even know that I was deaf, and when I tried to explain it, they thought I was faking.

Eventually I was transferred to the prison that had videophones and interpreters on staff from 8am to 3pm Monday to Friday. This is relatively unheard of, and even this came with limits.

What educational program(s) did you participate in while you were on the inside? What was the educational experience like?

I was a tutor for the Adult Basic Education program and also a student with Marion Technical College.

As far as the correctional educational setting, I found myself fortunate. In the prison I was at, there were educational programs provided by the Department of Corrections and the prison itself—in addition to the college programs. The prison offered educational opportunities such as horticulture, automotive, and GED programs. The state was a bit ahead of the game by providing an interpreter in the first place—but there were over 15 deaf people in the prisons, and one interpreter. This meant that the interpreters had to prioritize what they could do. If I remember right, medical came first, then legal, then education. Anything else was pushed to the side because those three were the priority. This means that if Deaf person A wanted to do horticulture and Deaf person B wanted to do culinary, the interpreter would have to “pick” which program to interpret. Sometimes we would get lucky and they would have opposite times, but class times were limited and often ran at the same time. I do not fault the interpreter for this—there’s only so much they can do with the resources they are given.

The problem with this, though, is that these educational opportunities provide incentives that all incarcerated individuals should have the opportunity to achieve. The first one was “good days” or time off their sentence—if you go to a class, you can get credit for it and time would be shaved off your sentence. Unfortunately, these could not be taken advantage of without adequate interpreters. The second incentive is self-improvement. Statistics very clearly show that those who take advantage of educational and vocational opportunities in the prison have a much lower rate of returning to prison. But if they have no interpreter for the class, they will have no idea what’s going on and will not benefit at all. This is not even including things like church activities.

I was first a tutor for an Adult Basic Education class which had three or four Deaf people in it. The instructor had no experience with Deaf students and really did not know what to do with them. The skillsets of the four Deaf individuals in that class were all over the place. The woman teaching the class would give them worksheets and let them be self-guided. No differentiation was given. No testing was done to find their baselines, and their reading levels were unknown. None of them knew how to fill out a [written request for services or relief, colloquially known as a] kite, to even request additional classes for early release. One of the men wanted to take more classes because he was tired of just sitting around and doing nothing. I helped him fill out a kite for a class in keyboarding. His request was denied—I was told that no interpreter could be there so he couldn’t take the class.

While the prison itself had no idea what they were doing, Marion Technical College went above and beyond to try to meet my needs. Jenifer Montag, the director for disability services, made sure I always had an interpreter for classes. This proved hard at times because one term I took five classes! Disability services were very limited in what they could do to support students. Audio books were not allowed, certain SSP equipment was not allowed, etc.

What challenges did you face in terms of accessibility, accommodations, and environmental constraints, and how did you work through or around them?

I think the biggest challenge regarding interpreters at the prison is getting them to come in the first place. The prison I was at was “in the middle of nowhere” and the biggest cities were an hour or more away. A lot of prisons are out in the middle of nowhere, and this causes a problem with staffing. There’s also the stigma behind prisons—interpreters are quite frankly too scared or intimidated to go into the prison walls. When you have to drive an hour just to get to the site, spend 30 minutes going through security, then walk through the prison grounds to get to the classroom, it can take a lot out of you. Multiple interpreters were verbally harassed by men in the prison because they were female. I got really lucky that Dr. Montag works out in the middle of nowhere and was/is doing everything she could to provide what was necessary for students. I have talked to disability service providers who told me that the warden of the prison or the educational supervisor will say “We don’t have time for that” when it comes to accommodation. Unfortunately, ADA supervisors in prisons are inadequate and do not have proper training for their positions either.

How did we work around them? Perseverance and determination. Sometimes it is easy to think that one person cannot make all that much of a difference, but difference starts with one person and goes from there. The work Dr. Montag is doing will influence others, and set a precedent that will help services in the future. It helps a lot to beat that stigma and realize that we are people too, who will get out of prison and be productive citizens.

Please tell us about the disability services, tools, or technologies that were available to you as a student.

I was lucky to get the interpreters I needed. There were times when they couldn’t come, which meant I would get nothing out of the class. They would offer that I get a notetaker, but those are not helpful as they just make bullet points that you can find in the book. Prisons need to start being more open minded with technologies that disabled students need, such as audiobook recordings, and remember that most people get out and will join society again.

What do you want people to know or understand about the student experience of disabilities, accessibility, or accommodations in prison education? What advice do you have for students, educators, or administrators?

As I mentioned, we need to stop the stigma. We need to remember that incarcerated individuals are still citizens, and they deserve equal opportunity to improve and better themselves. As it is now, we don’t even have equal opportunities to go to church!