Making Himself Heard

By Jim Haner
Sunday, February 18, 2007

WHEN THE FEVER FINALLY PASSED and Godwin Irokaba woke up, his mother was crying, and a look of worry was working in the lines of his father's face. His brothers and sisters were gathered around his hospital bed. Their lips moved, but they made no sounds. Between the first flush of a spiking temperature and this moment, Irokaba's life had been irrevocably changed in a span of days.

"I saw my family around me," he recalled in an interview, "and I saw they all seemed to be quite sad, and I was wondering what was going on. Later, my mother explained that I was now deaf. I didn't even understand what that meant. I was 9 years old, just a boy. I didn't feel any different . . . I didn't feel that I was lacking anything."

Speaking emphatically in sign language, he said: "I was the same person."

He was about to learn different. Almost from the day he lost his hearing to an outbreak of meningitis in Nigeria in 1976, Irokaba saw his social status diminished -- and it lit something inside him: a rage that transformed him by age 12 from a "lazy student," he said, into a voracious reader and "boy revolutionary" whose hero was Alexander the Great. Now 39, Irokaba is pursuing a master's degree in deaf education, with an emphasis on bilingual teaching (in English and sign language) and charter school administration, at Gallaudet University -- the world's leading institution of higher learning for the deaf.

His education here is being financed by the Ford Foundation as part of a $355 million campaign to provide postgraduate degrees to 4,000 students from developing countries by 2014. As a condition of the program, begun in 2000, recipients must agree to return to their homelands upon graduation to work for social change.

Irokaba is one of 2,400 Ford international fellows so far, all of whom have had to overcome enormous odds to attain the undergraduate degrees to even be considered for the pool of 100,000 applicants worldwide. About 5 percent of the fellows are handicapped, including about 10 who are deaf.

"Godwin had to teach himself American Sign Language in order to study here, and that's in addition to the four or five other languages he had to acquire just to complete his primary education and undergraduate degrees in Nigeria,'' says Joan Dassin, who administers the Ford program. "It's an enormous testament to his fortitude that he has gotten this far."

Irokaba still laughs at the culture shock he experienced when he first arrived on Gallaudet's historic Florida Avenue NE campus in 2005 -- "In America, deaf people are permitted to drive!" he said with mock marvel. But it was mere prelude to a much larger epiphany about what achievements are possible in a country with a functioning deaf culture.

"In truth, I say now, I belong to the Deaf Nation," a worldwide republic without borders, he said. "I was lucky to come to Gallaudet when I did, because I got to see what happened here with my own eyes."

THE STUDENT PROTESTS THAT SWEPT THE CAMPUS IN OCTOBER offered an object lesson that Irokaba had never experienced in Nigeria. In a nation of about 140 million people where hearing loss among the young occurs at a rate at least two to three times greater than in the West, a disabled-rights movement is barely in its infancy.

"Deaf people around the world pay attention to what happens here," Irokaba says of the university. "In the smallest schools, far away from the cities, even deaf children know when there is a disturbance at Gallaudet."

Not only were the protests well-organized, persistent and raucous -- at one point police arrested 130 demonstrators -- they also succeeded in a matter of weeks in forcing the ouster of university president-designate Jane Fernandes. At least part of the demonstrators' contention was that Fernandes was not truly representative of the deaf community. The product of mainstream schools, she had grown up among hearing classmates and had learned to speak vocally before studying sign language at the relatively late age of 23. Her detractors, she said, were attacking her for not being "deaf enough." Advocates shot back that she was trivializing student concerns about the erosion of traditional deaf culture. As leaps in audiovisual technology in the United States have made it possible for more hearing-impaired students to attend mainstream public schools, at least six states have debated whether to "mothball" their aging schools for the deaf rather than spend millions on renovations. Federally funded Gallaudet itself has come under scrutiny by government efficiency auditors.

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