Signs of Change At Gallaudet

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, May 15, 2006

Protests swept I. King Jordan into the presidency of Gallaudet University 18 years ago. Now, as he prepares to retire, protest once again has erupted on campus.

But it is the differences between the two that are instructive -- instructive about changes in our perceptions of deafness and disability and about how progress in medical science may shape more change in the future.

In 1988, Jordan says, a more or less straightforward civil rights movement forced school trustees to abandon their first choice and anoint him as the first deaf leader (in 124 years) of the world's only university for the deaf.

This spring, many students, faculty and alumni are objecting to the trustees' choice of provost Jane K. Fernandes to replace Jordan -- though she, too, is deaf, would be Gallaudet's first female president and is a person of evident accomplishment, intellect and humor.

So what's the problem? "Now," Jordan said, "it's what kind of deaf person is deaf enough?"

By some measures, Fernandes is not "deaf enough" because she grew up speaking and reading lips, not signing, and she attended mainstream public schools and universities, not residential schools for the deaf and Gallaudet.

Fernandes told me that she accompanied a friend into a deaf club when she was 23 and immediately felt an affinity. "I saw that I had a right to that language, that I should have had it from birth," Fernandes said, simultaneously speaking and signing. "I learned sign language because I loved it, because it's a beautiful language that should have been mine. So I'm a convert."

Her success as a latecomer inspires others on and off campus who came to deaf culture, for one reason or another, late in life -- and who sometimes feel belittled for that reason by others in the deaf community. But others are suspicious of her conversion, of her not signing with native fluency and of what they see as her insufficient zeal in combating "audism" (discrimination against the deaf) on and off campus.

If this is hard to follow, wait: It gets more complicated.

Anthony Mowl, 21, a leader of the opposition, faults Fernandes for "not enough commitment to ASL [American Sign Language] as the dominant form of communication." But he, like many other protesters, angrily disputes Jordan's (and Fernandes's) contention that the battle is about who is "deaf enough."

Indeed, Mowl, a thoughtful former editor of the school newspaper who graduated last week, sees a different kind of prejudice at work in the assumption that every Gallaudet controversy must be about deafness. He and other protesters say their objections center on racial diversity (all three finalists for the presidency were white); on a lack of openness in the selection process; and on complaints about Fernandes's style and record as provost.

The focus on deaf identity "is making our real issues disappear," Mowl (who is white and a third-generation Gallaudet grad) told me. "Our deafness isn't always the issue."

It's impossible to listen to the various sides in this painful conflict and not accept the idea that everyone may be right -- that no one explanation is sufficient. Gallaudet's campus, a lovely pocket of green tucked into a gritty Northeast neighborhood, is, like any liberal-arts campus, a cauldron of political passion, debate and infighting.

But it's also impossible not to tap into a deep undercurrent of uncertainty about the future of deaf culture and institutions.

Which should come as no surprise. The deaf rights movement symbolized by Jordan's ascent and tenure is establishing itself. Visual learning is understood and respected as never before, and deaf and hard-of-hearing people are earning higher degrees in unprecedented numbers. Many deaf people reject any notion of disability; "we're humans who are visually oriented," Prof. Martina J. Bienvenu told me.

Yet at this moment of success, technology and science are raising questions about the nature of deafness in the coming generation.

"Hearing aids are better than ever. Implants are better than ever," Fernandes said. "Progress in genetics is leading to the idea that you could choose not to have a deaf child. All that puts huge pressures on these deaf students."

Fernandes says that Gallaudet's response must be to welcome all kinds of deaf and hard-of-hearing people -- those with implants and those without, poor and foreign students and those from diverse racial backgrounds who may come later to the new technologies -- and to offer academic excellence to lure students who will have more options than ever before. But none of that will come easily, which is why Jordan says the protests are "really about what it means to be a deaf person in the 21st century."

The retiring president welcomes the protests as evidence of new assertiveness among the deaf. "If you oversee a university and you have to choose between apathy and empowered students, obviously you'd choose empowered students," he said. And then added, with a laugh: "Until you disagree with them."

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