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Willits, California (CA)

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Chrissy Sullivan

Class of 1968

Chrissy Sullivan
When a faculty member planned a sabbatical leave, Kathy Logan, chair of the department of natural sciences at the College of Notre Dame (CND) in Belmont, California, began searching for a replacement to teach first-year chemistry. Logan invited Chrissy Sullivan for an interview. "Chrissy accepted with a telephone call relayed to me by the TDD [Telephone Communications Device for the Deaf] service," Logan recalled.
The ensuing events were a revelation for Logan, faculty, and students at CND, which in 1851 was the first women's college chartered in California. Located about 25 miles south of San Francisco, CND became coed in 1969 and now has 1,745 undergraduate and graduate students.
Sullivan's interview and sample lecture were as impressive as her curriculum vitae, Logan said. Accommodations for Sullivan required just one major activity from the college--hiring a student as a part-time note taker for Sullivan's lectures and labs.
"Once we saw how capable Chrissy Sullivan was, we really wanted to hire her," Logan said. "Her lectures are well prepared, and she is a talented teacher who obviously loves her subject. And Chrissy provides something extra. It's a very positive experience for the students and faculty to see how someone has done so well in overcoming a difficulty. She seems to have looked squarely at a physical disability and found very effective ways to accommodate it."
Sullivan became deaf in 1984 as a result of complication of spinal meningitis. Because the deafness occurred when Sullivan was an adult, it did not affect her speech. Although she had received a B.S. degree in biology from Sonoma State University in 1975, she was not working in science when the illness occurred. After the illness, Sullivan decided to change career paths. She obtained a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Western Regional Research Center in Albany, California, in a microbiology lab and required no accommodations. At the same time, she began taking chemistry courses at the University of California at Berkeley and California State University at Hayward (CSU¬Hayward).
After receiving an M.S. degree in chemistry in 1988 from CSU¬Hayward, she entered a doctoral program at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UC¬Santa Cruz). Sullivan did laboratory research on structural proteins that make up the crystalline lens in the eye of mammals. She required no accommodations for her research work. Sullivan also taught chemistry courses to undergraduates for several years as a teaching assistant (TA) before getting a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1994.
Then Sullivan spent two years in cancer research as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at San Francisco (UC¬San Francisco). She worked in a research group studying proteins in cancer cells that are regulated by cytokines. Cytokines are molecules such as interleukins, interferons, and tumor necrosis factor that modulate the human immune system and inhibit the growth of cancer cells. To understand how cytokines inhibit malignant cell growth, the UC¬San Francisco group identified proteins that increased or decreased in cells treated with cytokines. Sullivan worked on improved methods for detecting, isolating, and identifying cytokine-regulated proteins.
Throughout this period, Sullivan relied mainly on lipreading and hired note takers. She did take two semesters of sign language following her illness but did not become proficient in signing. In a lecture course at Berkeley, Sullivan used transcripts prepared by a professional note-taking service. The service operated in large classes when the professors approved. Any student could purchase a subscription, getting a full set of notes on a weekly basis. It allowed students to concentrate on lectures without having to take notes or to supplement their personal notes. The service proved particularly useful to Sullivan, helping her to fill in gaps in her own notes.
Most of the gaps occurred when professors turned away from the class to write on the chalkboard or the overhead projector but continued speaking. Sullivan sometimes did make professors aware of the need to face the class while speaking. But even in these instances, there were lapses as professors forgot and turned away in their enthusiasm to diagram molecular structures and illustrate points. At no time, however, did she find this a serious barrier to learning.
At CSU¬Hayward and UC¬Santa Cruz, Sullivan relied mainly on lipreading. She used textbooks and published articles to fill in gaps in her own notes. In retrospect, Sullivan believes a benefit of her disability was that she became encouraged to do independent study. She delved deeper into subject matter and used information from many different sources aside from the professors' lectures. Both UC¬Santa Cruz and CSU¬Hayward did offer note takers and interpreters for deaf and blind students. Sullivan, however, was doing well with her own approaches and did not feel a need to use the services for lecture sessions. She did use a note taker for meetings of her research group at UC¬Santa Cruz and UC¬San Francisco. The notes helped her to follow conversations when several people spoke at the same time or when someone turned away but continued speaking.
"In a one-on-one situation, I usually could understand what was being said quite well," Sullivan said. "But with more than two people in a conversation often speaking at the same time and overlapping, it was impossible. With a note taker, Sullivan also could relax and deal like so many hearing people do with irrelevant chatter and side conversations that are fixtures at meetings: She could ignore the casual banter without being concerned about missing crucial information.
In her own teaching, Sullivan began using a note taker while at UC¬Santa Cruz. The note taker's main function is to take questions from students seated too far away for Sullivan to lip-read. The note taker stands or sits near Sullivan and writes down the questions or simply repeats them so Sullivan can lip-read. "A note taker just speeds things up," Sullivan said. "I really could get along with just having students write down the question and bring it up or come forward where I can see their lips. But the note taker is a lot faster and more efficient. It really is more a convenience than a necessity."
As part of overall student orientation at the first session of each class, Sullivan takes a few minutes to explain her hearing loss to the students and how she deals with it. "I remind the students to look directly at me when they're speaking," Sullivan said. "I tell them not to be insulted if I don't respond to a question or acknowledge a greeting in the hall or on the campus. I'm not being rude. It probably means that I just haven't heard it. Sometimes I may ask a student to repeat a question or write it down."
The note taker serves the same functions in the three weekly lectures and three lab sections that Sullivan teaches at CND. In lab sections, students benefit from the approach because the note taker, an upper-level chemistry student, also provides the same kind of assistance and advice as a TA. Professor and note taker¬TA constantly circulate among the lab benches to interact with students. Sullivan's years of college teaching experience allow her to anticipate many lab-related questions. Often she nods after the first few words from a student, and then patiently and clearly explains a problem or a procedure. "The context of a question helps a great deal," she explained.
Sullivan said her hearing impairment does not pose any unusual lab safety concerns. "It's made me more safety conscious, especially with respect to protecting eyesight." Logan agreed, noting that Sullivan is very cautious and safety conscious. The presence of the note taker provides additional assurance, Logan said.
Other accommodations are made in addition to the note taker. In her college office, for instance, the desk faces toward the door so Sullivan sees when someone enters or approaches to knock. With a hearing aid, Sullivan can hear noise. Without the hearing aid, there is only silence. Sullivan can sense some sounds, including loud motors and dog barks, from the resonance that sound waves create in the chest and abdomen. She often can sense another person's approach by noting changes in light, shadow, and air currents.
Sullivan uses a TDD, a nonvoice terminal for keyboarding conversations to another person with a TDD. She also uses the nationwide telecommunications relay service, which allows a person with a hearing impairment to communicate, via a relay operator, to individuals who do not use a TDD. In some instances, however, Sullivan uses her hearing impairment as an opportunity to get acquainted with other faculty and staff on the Belmont campus. When ordering textbooks and lab manuals for her class, for instance, she strolled over to the campus bookstore and placed the order in person. In doing so, she met the store manager and had an opportunity to chat with students and faculty members. When her classes needed to do computations, Sullivan dropped into the campus computer center to make arrangements. As a new faculty member, she finds the personal contact useful in making acquaintances and familiarizing herself with buildings and personnel.
Sullivan got the part-time faculty position at CND after sending several letters with a curriculum vitae to colleges in the San Francisco area. The letters noted her qualifications and availability for teaching positions. As with many other people with disabilities, Sullivan chose not to mention the disability in the initial letter. "You always worry about mentioning a disability at that early stage," she noted. "It may stop everything right at that point, and you're not considered further. That's a risk if the department chairman has never had experience with a disabled person. There's a misguided tendency to focus on the disability, rather than on the person's background and experience. The employer may not realize how easily the disability can be accommodated."
CND's Logan, of course, was interested in learning more about Sullivan. When she did, the initial concerns vanished. Indeed, Logan is so impressed with Sullivan that she has asked her to remain at CND to teach an analytical chemistry course next semester.
What advice would Sullivan give to a deaf high school student, interested in science but worried that the hearing loss may interfere?
"It hasn't stopped me from getting degrees, teaching, doing research, and getting jobs. The important thing for me has been to keep my attention on short-term goals along the way and not focus on my hearing loss or regard it as a problem. It shouldn't stop you, either. Just work hard."

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