Deaf Students Express Dissent Along a High-Tech Grapevine
Saturday, June 3, 2006
The instant that the name of Gallaudet University's new president was announced -- spelled in sign language to a tense, waiting crowd -- Ricky Taylor's pager went off in Virginia.
Within seconds, Taylor, a graduate of the liberal arts university for the deaf, posted on his blog a prewritten article about the choice, provost Jane K. Fernandes.
The selection of Fernandes on May 1 shocked many. As she began her speech and some angry students walked out, Taylor's friends were filming and snapping photos, e-mailing them with Sidekick cellphones and typing in updates as a crowd surged to the front gates of the Northeast Washington campus to protest.
At the height of the demonstrations -- which a coalition says will continue, more quietly over the summer, despite worries about reprisals -- Taylor had 7,000 readers a day. His Web site, using his tag Ridor and the slogan "Home to arguably the most controversial deaf blogger in America," was just one of dozens trading news and rumor, filming life in the tents that sprouted by the front gates, drawing in people around the world. Pagers, video and broadband turned into engines fueling the protests, giving immediacy, reach and clout.
"It was like a supernova," Taylor said.
Technology has transformed deaf culture by making it easier to communicate. Last month, it propelled the debate over the future of the school and gave deaf people more independence and a stronger voice.
Eighteen years ago, Gallaudet students pulled fire alarms and passed alerts person to person for the Deaf President Now protest, which became a civil rights slogan and brought I. King Jordan into the president's office. It was the first time, many said, that the world had heard them.
Now, as Fernandes prepares to replace Jordan in a role that has become for many the voice of deaf culture, there are more ways than ever to communicate.
It's a watershed moment, said Jared Evans of San Diego, because deaf people can broadcast information widely and instantly. Like so many in the deaf community, he tracked events at Gallaudet almost in real time. That spurred rallies at other deaf schools and letters from national groups, and compelled alumni to travel to Washington.
Just as in the hearing world, new technology changed the rules and the balance of power: It gave voice to everyone, with bias, rumor and insults flying freely. It made it more difficult for the university to control the message or celebrate the new president.
For the deaf, the impact was magnified.
Medical technology such as cochlear implants has allowed some to hear and speak more easily, and fewer children are going to deaf schools and are growing up with American Sign Language. "This hurts our minority culture and linguistic community," Daniel Koo of Georgetown University Medical Center wrote in an e-mail, "and can cause divisions."