Many Ways of Being Deaf

By Jane K. Fernandes
Saturday, October 14, 2006

It was 3 a.m. on Tuesday. I had been up all night negotiating with student protesters occupying Gallaudet University's Hall Memorial Building, home to classrooms, department offices and labs. Negotiations had broken down. The protesters did not approve of my appointment by the board of trustees to be the next president of Gallaudet University. How had things at the world's premier university for deaf and hard-of-hearing people come to this?

Our Gallaudet community is varied. There are many kinds of deaf people. Some are born to deaf parents; most are not. Some are lucky enough to grow up using American Sign Language. Others -- like myself and increasing numbers of Gallaudet's students -- learn and embrace ASL later in life. Some are deaf from birth; some become deaf later in life. Some benefit from the use of hearing aids or cochlear implants; others don't. Some have visual impairments or other disabilities.

What unites all types of deaf people at our university is the rich history of the deaf community, American Sign Language and Deaf culture that has shaped Gallaudet's mission and character. As divided as we might seem right now, we are united in our commitment to that mission and character.

But what we see happening at Gallaudet is not just about being deaf. Just as there is diversity in ways of being deaf, the deaf community shares with the larger society diversity of age, gender, disability, racial and ethnic background, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic class. Just as in the larger society, racism exists within the deaf community. Deaf people of color face discrimination not only because of their hearing status (termed audism) but because of their race -- even from within the deaf community. Deaf people of color and others from diverse groups must be included and are just as central to Gallaudet's mission and character as are our commitments to American Sign Language and Deaf culture. Currently, they are not.

During the presidential search and selection process, the issues of audism and racism that have plagued the deaf community for centuries came to the forefront. Long rumbling under the surface, they erupted like a volcano. I happened to be the person standing next to that volcano. The heat and fury of the eruption are the result of suppressed frustrations due to racism and audism, disagreements on how best to address them, and how best to preserve and support Deaf culture and American Sign Language in an age when deaf people are more diverse than ever.

There are those who would have us hunker down, fighting audism by excluding those who are not already like us. If Gallaudet took this approach, we would find ourselves shrinking to insignificance as the diversity of deaf, hard-of-hearing and deaf-blind people looked to other institutions to welcome them, however imperfectly.

Let me make very clear my complete commitment to Deaf culture and American Sign Language as fundamental to Gallaudet University. Having devoted half my life to improving and extending deaf education, I want to see our university grow in preeminence as an institution of higher learning. The best way for Gallaudet to thrive in the 21st century is to strengthen our community by sharing American Sign Language and Deaf culture and by growing as an inclusive university for the deaf. American Sign Language and Deaf culture are the birthright of every deaf, hard-of-hearing and deaf-blind person who wishes to claim them. By welcoming and including the diverse spectrum of deaf people, by respecting and appreciating our differences, we strengthen our core.

At age 23, when I learned ASL and was embraced by the signing deaf community in Iowa, I found my home; I became a whole person. By including me and sharing their language and culture, the people of the Iowa deaf community made me whole and at the same time strengthened their community just a little bit. Becoming an inclusive deaf university will strengthen Gallaudet and its students in the same way, many times over.

Having grown up deaf, I know what it means to experience audism. In high school I was the only deaf person in all my classes. My best friend was an African American student, the only person of color in most of her classes. We shared a bond based on similar experiences of discrimination and a determination to address them. I maintain that determination today, and I am devoted to making Gallaudet University a place that welcomes, respects and provides a top-quality education to all students. It's time to break the impasse and work together on our common goals.

The writer is president-designate of Gallaudet University.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company