Protest at Gallaudet: By, and for, the Few

By Lew Golan
Thursday, October 26, 2006

Writing about the Gallaudet protest on Oct. 22, The Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, referred to Gallaudet as the center of deaf America. On the contrary, Gallaudet is no more than the center (if that) of a very small and very self-marginalized segment of deaf people in America.

Most deaf Americans do not know American Sign Language (ASL). Most deaf Americans are not part of the so-called Deaf culture based on ASL. Most deaf Americans have little or nothing in common with the protesting students at Gallaudet, aside from lack of hearing, and do not identify with them.

Not only is Gallaudet not the center of deaf America, there is no center of deaf America.

Unlike the cohesiveness of Deaf culture, there is no such connection among the overwhelming majority of deaf people who do not use ASL. Unlike those within Deaf culture who define themselves mainly by their deafness and their language that is distinct from English, those outside the small group tend to identify themselves in other ways.

The students and faculty at Gallaudet aren't the only ones who have a stake in what communication methods are used there. The federal government provides most of the funding for Gallaudet, whose college and pre-college schools are supposed to be models for deaf education in the United States. And more than 90 percent of deaf students in America have hearing parents, most of whom want their children to become as proficient as possible in speech and speech reading, and many of whom want their children to achieve usable hearing with cochlear implants.

The protesting students at Gallaudet want to perpetuate the clannishness and resistance to change that have characterized Deaf culture. They denigrate those deaf people who prefer to communicate by speaking and reading lips in order to better interact and integrate with hearing people, and who get cochlear implants to mitigate the impact of their deafness.

All I know about Jane Fernandes is what I've been reading in the papers, so I have no opinion about whether she is the best available person to be Gallaudet's president. But I do applaud her stated intention to make Gallaudet more inclusive by making it more open to all sorts of deaf people.

The protesters hoisted the banner of diversity in complaining that the Gallaudet board, in choosing a president, passed over an African American candidate with a PhD. But they trample on the same banner of diversity when they demand that all faculty and students use ASL.

How do former students who have gone out into the real world evaluate various aspects of their undergraduate education at Gallaudet? In a survey of Gallaudet alumni several years ago, the most satisfaction was with campus social life -- which was rated superior or good by 88 percent of the respondents.

The least satisfaction was with preparation for a career -- which was rated superior or good by only 40 percent.

Some faculty members and students at Gallaudet have a real-world perspective; they understand the critical importance of preparing students to make it outside the confines of the artificial world on the campus.

But the militants who want the campus to be a haven for the culturally Deaf are giving it an increasingly pervasive image as a place where hearing, speech and speech reading -- or even the mention of them -- are politically incorrect.

They claim that their deafness is not something that needs to be fixed. That's their prerogative. But their in-your-face attitudes toward the hearing world and toward deaf people such as me who do not buy into Deaf culture definitely need fixing.

Lew Golan, a former advertising executive and newspaper editor, is the author of "Reading Between the Lips: A Totally Deaf Man Makes It in the Mainstream."

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