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Sophia Hu rugby portrait Credit: Abby Graham , Abby Graham

Sophia Hu adeptly navigates the crowds of the Night Market in Chinatown, avoiding sloshing cups of beer. We are searching for ice cream to top off the night. This is when Sophia’s rugby skills become apparent, as she pushes through the throngs of people like she’s trying to score a goal against Princeton.

What is not so apparent is that, in addition to being a sophomore at Penn, an athlete and a chemistry major, Sophia also happens to be deaf.

She’s adamant about the terminology — she is deaf, not hearing impaired. “I’ve never thought of deaf culture as a disability,” she says. “Deaf culture is an actual culture … it means you recognize deafness as an identity and not a disability.”

Related: University approves ASL/Deaf Studies minor

Being deaf certainly has not stopped Sophia. As a member of the rugby team, she runs around and gets tackled on a field for four hours every week. “It’s awesome … I’ve always been fascinated with rugby since I was little,” she said.

Her love of rugby doesn’t stem from winning games. “Rugby emphasizes a lot of teamwork … It’s amazing how whenever I’m down and I need someone to support me, I always have a teammate there behind me to help me.”

However, there are some complications in playing rugby due to being deaf. “I have to be more visually aware. I can call out but they can’t call out to me.”

Sophia is by definition, completely deaf. But she is able to hear at least partially, because she received a cochlear implant at age three. She then lip reads to match the sounds from the implant to words. It is an imperfect process, especially when there is a lot of ambient noise or when many people are speaking.

This becomes clear as we join a few hallmates at the Night Market for bubble tea. The flurry of voices and loud music make conversation difficult, and we end up communicating through facial expressions, or in the end, inadvertently leaving Sophia out.

Sophia’s sister Jennifer, a senior at Swarthmore College, describes this phenomenon as a subtle example of the “isolation in the hearing world” that deaf people face. Called “dinner party syndrome,” it occurs when a deaf person is interacting with a group of hearing people who do not sign, so the deaf person ends up “pretty much sitting and eating dinner alone.”

The social aspect of interacting with other people can at times be difficult. Although Penn barely has a deaf culture, Sophia decided to attend Penn over the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which has a population of 1,269 undergraduates who are deaf. According to Sophia, there are two completely deaf undergraduates at Penn – she and her friend Connor McLauren, a College sophomore.

“You can keep up academically, but not socially…. I don’t go to dances [or] parties much. If it’s a debate club I’ll never join that,” Sophia said. Penn also provides less romantic prospects, since according to her, “most deaf people tend to date other people in the deaf culture.”

Connor agrees that the lack of deaf culture can be disappointing at times. “Sophia and I are pretty good friends and we have each other and that’s pretty much it.”

However, he also sees his time at Penn as an opportunity. “I think Sophia and I are going to help educate people on deaf culture.”

Sophia has experienced this lack of understanding of deaf culture in her life. She recalled an experience where a woman she met at a restaurant, upon learning that Sophia was deaf, immediately started shouting and using exaggerated hand motions to communicate. “I wish I could let them know deaf people are normal…. I tell them to think of deaf people as foreigners who speak a different language.”

But Sophia doesn’t let these experiences dishearten her. “There are things that are harder for me to do but I can still do them.” After a beat, she admits, “Of course, I can’t sing.”

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