When she was a baby, Academy Award-winning actress Louise Fletcher told the new graduates of Gallaudet College yesterday, her mother used to keep track of her at night by tying one end of a diaper to the baby girl and the other end to herself: When Louise moved, her mother knew about it.
Fletcher's mother and father are both deaf, and both are graduates of Gallaudet, the nation's highest academic institution for the deaf and severely hearing impaired. At the Northeast Washington school's graduation ceremonies yesterday, Fletcher criticized government cutbacks in funding for programs that have helped deaf people like her parents get an education and lead productive lives.
"If you've seen the latest surveys, you know that in a typical lifetime, a Gallaudet graduate earns an average of $320,000 more than a deaf person without an education," Fletcher told the 269 graduates in the school's new field house, where the graduation was held.
"At current federal tax rates, this works out to be about $80,000 extra in taxes paid by a Gallaudet alumnus. . . . Somebody in Washington doesn't remember basic arithmetic," Fletcher said to loud applause.
At the end of her talk, in which Fletcher also called on companies that make electronic devices for the deaf to hire more deaf people, she received a standing ovation as many of the graduates flashed "I love you" in sign language.
Fletcher's family background became well known in 1976 when she accepted the Oscar, for her role as Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in sign language. Her father, the Rev. Robert Fletcher, an Episcopal priest now in his 80s, gave the invocation at the ceremonies.
Noting that deaf people can now use the telephone, enjoy television fully and even participate in courtroom trials, Fletcher said technology for the deaf has "become big business" and as such is generating the kind of competition that does not always benefit the consumer.
She said one network, for example, wants to introduce a closed-captioning device, a decoder that would enable hearing-impaired viewers to receive subtitles on their television sets, that would not work for programs on competing networks.
"If this is another fact of life we have to accept--and I, for one, say we don't have to accept it--at least get industry to provide this growing market of deaf consumers with more jobs," the actress said.
Graduate Nancy Popovich of Hyattsville, who received her master's degree in school counseling, said Fletcher's comments about the increasing awareness and acceptance of deafness made her think of her own childhood after she lost her hearing as a result of spinal meningitis. Speaking through an interpreter, Popovich, 44, recalled the days when her parents didn't allow her to wear a hearing aid, and when sign language was considered to be unacceptable in public.
Andrew Brinks, 24, of Takoma Park, another graduate, said Fletcher's reminiscences about her parents showed that "deaf parents can raise hearing children as well as hearing parents." Brinks, deaf from birth, said through an interpreter that he plans to marry in December and is looking forward to having children.
"We can do things for our own people just like we can do things for hearing people," said Mary Morois, 21, of Marinette, Wisc. Morois, who graduated with a degree in psychology, lost her hearing at age 11 when she suffered a virus that destroyed the nerves in her ears.
Gallaudet became a degree-granting institution in 1864 by decree of President Abraham Lincoln. Located on a 99-acre campus that includes a series of red-brick and gothic style buildings in the Trinidad section of Northeast, the school has 1,400 students.