Rising numbers of Gallaudet students are products of a hearing world. The share of undergraduates who come from mainstream public schools rather than residential schools for the deaf has grown from 33 percent to 44 percent in four years. The number of students with cochlear implants, which stimulate the auditory nerve to create a sense of sound, has doubled to 102 since 2005.
Gallaudet is also enrolling more hearing students in programs to train sign-language interpreters and teachers. Together, the changes are redefining a school that sits at the very epicenter of American deaf society.
A new generation of deaf and hard-of-hearing children can study where they please. Changes in federal law have rerouted deaf students from residential deaf schools to mainstream public campuses, which are now obliged to serve them. Cochlear implants are gaining acceptance and changing the nature of deafness, although the deaf community remains divided on their use.
The influx of “non-signers,” who can hear and speak or who read lips or text, may be necessary for Gallaudet’s survival. Yet it has sparked passionate debate on whether the university is becoming “hearing-ized” and whether deaf culture is slipping away.
“We want a signing environment, because how often do deaf students get that environment?” said Dylan Hinks, 20, student body president. “This is the place where I want to have comfort and ease in my communication.”
There was talk of a vanishing deaf culture at Gallaudet five years ago, when protesters shut down the campus over the appointment of then-Provost Jane Fernandes as president. More than 100 demonstrators were arrested. Trustees eventually revoked the appointment.
The consensus on campus today is that the protest centered on the propriety of the presidential search. Protesters said outgoing President I. King Jordan hijacked the proceedings to elevate Fernandes, his protege.
But Fernandes portrayed herself as a casualty in a deaf-culture war. Born deaf, Fernandes grew up speaking English and learned to sign as an adult. She claimed that, to students advocating the primacy of sign language, she was “not deaf enough.”
Fernandes now serves as provost of the University of North Carolina at Asheville. In an e-mail interview, she said, “There remains entrenched at Gallaudet a strong deaf culture that perpetuates a very narrow way to live as a deaf person.”
One year during her tenure as provost, Fernandes said, upperclass students hazed freshmen, ordering them not to speak in any of their classes so that they were forced to sign.
“I had freshmen in tears, telling me that Gallaudet recruited them under false pretenses, because they were told Gallaudet welcomed all deaf students,” she said.