July 28, 2023

By Eric House

This month was the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. World Learning believes disability rights are human rights — that all people worldwide should have access to the tools, systems, and resources they need to live their lives to their greatest potential.

Fulbright Specialist Dr. Kathy Wood (left) and Fulbright Civil Society Researcher Hristina Katsipidou (right) on Gallaudet University’s Washington, DC, campus.

As a professor at Gallaudet University, a renowned institution for the education of Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Deaf-Blind students located in Washington, D.C., Dr. Kathleen Wood has worked with Deaf communities in the United States for over thirty years, but an impromptu coffee break on campus in 2017 ignited her passion to expand access to education for Deaf students abroad. With the support of the Fulbright Specialist Program implemented by World Learning, Wood and her collaborators in Bulgaria have solidified a groundbreaking partnership that is already creating more inclusive educational opportunities in Bulgaria.

On that day in 2017, Wood crossed paths with Ashod Derandonyan, a Deaf advocate and the CEO of Listen Up Foundation, which advocates for the social, political, and educational rights of Deaf Bulgarians.

Derandonyan was visiting Gallaudet as a participant in the U.S. Department of State-funded Professional Fellows Program to discuss ways to support Listen Up Foundation’s advocacy campaign for the passage of the Bulgarian Sign Language (BGSL) Act. This legislation would recognize BGSL as an official language and establish the first undergraduate degree program in Bulgaria to train BGSL teachers and interpreters.

Wood was immediately inspired. As a hearing professor who teaches in American Sign Language (ASL), she feels strongly that Deaf students can and should have access to learning opportunities in sign language.

“There are no Certified Interpreters [in Bulgaria],” Wood explains. “There is nobody that’s qualified in teaching BGSL or interpreting BGSL, and no access to captioning at all.”

It was this lack of accessibility that sprung the Deaf community in Bulgaria and its allies — like Wood — into action. Over the next four years, Wood would have the opportunity to make two short visits to Bulgaria at Listen Up’s invitation and witness the Deaf community’s powerful efforts to successfully pass the BGSL Act, ushering in a promising new era for inclusive education in the country.

Fulbright allowed me to understand that I was making the right decision to engage with this amazing Deaf community and bring some of my Deaf and hearing professor friends along for the ride.

With the development of a new undergraduate degree to support BGSL teaching and interpretation now a reality, in 2022 Listen Up Foundation submitted a proposal to bring Wood to Bulgaria as a Fulbright Specialist to help shape the new program at Sofia University.

For nearly six weeks, Wood lent her expertise in bilingual education practices to colleagues at Listen Up and Sofia University and worked closely with them to begin formulating a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Sofia University and Gallaudet University. Though not yet finalized, the MOU will formalize the sharing of resources like curricula, educators, interpreters, and subject matter experts between the two institutions.

Wood was also asked to present on the importance of educating Deaf students in ASL or BGSL at a national conference organized by Listen Up Foundation and the Bulgarian Ministry of Education.

While she was initially adamant that she should primarily work behind the scenes as an ally, her Deaf colleagues encouraged her to conduct her presentation in ASL. Trained interpreters translated her ASL into BGSL, which was then translated into spoken Bulgarian for hearing audience members as well as International Sign — all a first. While Wood emphasizes that no hearing person should act as a spokesperson for Deaf people, she said the experience was an impactful moment during the conference.

“Nobody [in this audience] had seen a hearing person give a presentation in sign language,” she explained. “It was phenomenal.”

Fulbright Specialist Dr. Kathy Wood on Gallaudet University’s campus, where she works as a professor.

As her Fulbright came to a close, Wood continued her work behind the scenes through meetings with the Bulgarian Ministry of Education to advocate for increased accessibility in the classroom and on campuses. The experience also enabled Wood to connect with even more Deaf Bulgarians, such as Hristina Katsipidou, an activist and co-founder of MOGA, a youth organization of Deaf activists in Bulgaria.

In 2016, Katsipidou began visiting Deaf communities around the world through her work with Listen Up Foundation. Reflecting on her experiences as a student in Bulgaria with no access to interpretive or other support services, she became increasingly troubled.

“We would go to different classes and events, and we just felt like we were struggling,” she said. “Where is our access? I just felt like I kept hitting this wall. I needed something more.”

With the support of Wood, who now serves as her faculty liaison, Katsipidou spent the last semester at Gallaudet as a Fulbright Civil Society Researcher. In addition to her research, Katsipidou has worked closely with Wood to move the MOU closer to fruition and further develop the new undergraduate program at Sofia University since she arrived in January. Fluent in seven signed and spoken languages, she’s instrumental in writing and translating essential documents and videos.

The Fulbright opportunities that I’ve been given — meeting different people, learning about their identities [and communities] … I feel like I’m doing good work.

Her experience at Gallaudet has been transformative. “I’ve been able to observe a lot of different classes and see Deaf teachers, Deaf students, or hearing teachers who know sign language, and they’re able to accommodate Deaf students and support them,” she said. “Everything is smooth. And I’m just so shocked because I’ve never seen that before in Bulgaria.”

It’s an experience she wants more Deaf Bulgarians to have. “I really feel like we need to bring Deaf people from Bulgaria here. They have to see this!”

That motivation drives Katsipidou’s and Wood’s work on the MOU, which would create seemingly endless opportunities for students at both Gallaudet and Sofia University. Wood is also confident that the new agreement will also lead to a stronger, more global campus for Gallaudet filled with international opportunities.

“There’s so much to bring to our students,” she said. “It means we will be able to accomplish more internships, study abroad experiences, class exchanges, remote exchanges, faculty exchanges, and research and study opportunities. We have more than 15 faculty mentors who are involved in this project [already].”

Fulbright Civil Society Researcher Hristina Katsipidou on Gallaudet University’s campus, where she’s worked alongside Wood.

“It’s all part of the Gallaudet mission to internationalize and get the word out that Deaf people deserve access,” an initiative that Wood describes as invigorating. “The Bulgarian fight for access is a model for Deaf communities all over the world.”

Already, Gallaudet is set to welcome three new graduate students from Bulgaria — including Katsipidou — who plan to study sign language education, public administration, and linguistics.

That means Wood and Katsipidou will be able to continue the important work they began during their respective Fulbright programs.

“The Fulbright opportunities that I’ve been given — meeting different people, learning about their identities [and communities] … I feel like I’m doing good work. I feel like I have the strength to see this through,” Katsipidou said.

Wood agreed. “Fulbright allowed me to understand that I was making the right decision to engage with this amazing Deaf community and bring some of my Deaf and hearing professor friends along for the ride,” she said. “And they’re as excited as I am.”

Thank you to Faith Sanders from Purple Communications for providing ASL interpretation services.