Gallaudet protest highlights changing reality of deaf culture
Share with others:
Amid the celebration last week after the Gallaudet University board of trustees revoked Jane K. Fernandes' appointment as president, a group of student protesters burned her in effigy.
Dr. Fernandes, in turn, donned a medallion of Joan of Arc, the French warrior burned at the stake for her beliefs. She said she was fighting for the deaf university's interests and that students opposed her because she was "not deaf enough." She lip reads and learned American Sign Language as an adult.
The protesters stressed the movement was not about deafness. Some opponents were also late bloomers to sign language. The students objected to the longtime provost as president because she wasn't listening. They said she was unqualified and uninformed, lacked leadership and communication skills and landed the position through an undemocratic search process.
Whatever lay at the core of the controversy, her ouster may be a Pyrrhic victory for the 81 percent of students and 82 percent of the faculty who participated in "no confidence" vote that feared she would steer the university in the wrong direction.
Friends and family say she was martyred for speaking an inevitable truth -- that exclusively deaf culture is on the wane and the university must adapt to a world where more deaf children are using technology to improve their hearing and almost half are people of color.
Strangers to the deaf world may have difficulty grasping the passion "Gally" students had about ousting Dr. Fernandes and preserving Deaf culture (the capitalized Deaf is used in the deaf community for people who do not consider deafness a disability to be corrected and want to preserve the nuanced culture of sign language which has been around for over 100 years; you can be a part of Deaf culture and not be deaf, just as you can be deaf and not take part in Deaf culture). They mobilized a hunger strike, held sit-ins, erected a tent encampment and submitted to mass arrests.
Students rose up with similar fervor to get the university to hire a deaf president in 1988. That struggle drew international attention to the idea that ASL was as nuanced and expressive as any spoken language and introduced many in the hearing world to the concept that deafness was not a disability to be fixed but simply a trait like ethnicity or skin color.
Eighteen years later, deaf culture is thriving but reality has shifted. The widespread use of cochlear implants and advanced technologies, including two-way pagers, e-mail and video-relay phones, have made it easier for the deaf and hard of hearing to communicate with hearing people and to enter the hearing world socially and professionally.
Protesters said an unpopular president would provoke unrest at any college, especially if students and faculty were shut out of the selection process. An African-American candidate "with strong credentials" and 12 years on the board did not make the list of finalists, said Dr. Diane Morton, a counseling professor.
Alumni called for "shared governance" and a revision of a "paternalistic" search process that lacked transparency.
Neil MacGill Jr., a 22-year-old senior from Sewickley whose brother, James, 19, and sister, Kristin, 20, also attend Gallaudet, said many students "felt like the world stopped for a moment" when they got word, in a flurry of pages and e-mails, that Dr. Fernandes had been terminated.
Neil and James MacGill and sisters Nellie and Emily Jo Noschese of Shaler were among 133 protesters arrested Oct. 13, the day now known as "Black Friday."
After the arrests, Daniel Sheppeck, a Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf parent from Ambridge, attended a support rally in Plum. His wife is an alumna. Their nephew, a freshman, joined the protest. The Sheppecks want ASL to thrive and have decided not to get cochlear implants for their deaf sons, ages 2 and 3.Wendy Payne-Craig, a language arts teacher at WPSD who hosted the Plum rally, said she does not object to deaf children using implants. Technology has changed her school's culture and it will change Gallaudet's, but ASL "is so associated with deaf culture" and so enriches deaf people's lives that she cannot imagine it dissipating as a key means of communication.
In an interview last week, Dr. Fernandes said she wants the university, which received its charter from Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and gets 70 percent of its funds from the federal government, to become "stronger, better, more inclusive" place "where [ASL] and deaf culture have been and always will be at the core of academic and community life."
The institution had developed a diversity plan aimed at defeating both racism and audism, discrimination against deaf people in hiring and enrollment, said Leslie Page, a staff member who helped create the plan.
"There's racism in the white deaf community like in every white community, but this part of white 'big-D' deaf community was much less interested in working on racism. They were only interested in working on audism," Dr. Frances D. Kendall, a consultant on Dr. Fernandes' diversity plan, said, adding that the white deaf community was more interested in combatting audism than racism.
Junior La Toya Plummer, 25, said the administration failed at playing "the deaf card" and then failed at playing "the race card." She and others joined the protest because racism was not being addressed.
In addition, some professors said they were afraid to speak out against Dr. Fernandes because she had cut programs as provost.
Whatever the victory signifies, some in the larger deaf community say Gallaudet could get stuck if it holds fast to Deaf culture as more life choices become available to deaf people.
Ms. Page said the protest was dominated by white students who are "deaf of deaf," or second generation deaf. About 90 percent of children born deaf are born of hearing parents, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Beyond the college gates, learning environments for deaf children have shifted. More than 80 percent of deaf children are enrolled in mainstream classrooms. Deaf schools teach multiple modes of communication: some children use ASL, some sign and speak and others speak first, said Don Rhoten, superintendent at WPSD.
Twenty percent of the preschool-through-high-school students at the Edgewood campus have cochlear implants and though not all deaf people are candidates for implants, the number using them increases yearly.
"If Gallaudet decides to focus on just one segment of this population, that's fine. But I think in a few years they will be challenged to maintain their enrollment," Mr. Rhoten said. "They'll need to decide how to maintain their focus on ASL and deafness and be a viable, attractive option for the growing number of students who don't have ASL backgrounds."
Gallaudet spokeswoman Mercy Coogan said the university culture has begun adapting. "If the number of parents deciding to have their babies implanted goes up, more of our population will be from that group, so we need to meet their needs.
Enrollment has not declined and funding is not threatened, she said.
Dr. I. King Jordan, the candidate chosen after protesters' victory in the 1988 Deaf President Now movement strongly backed Dr. Fernandes' presidency. Last week he issued a statement to students calling for reconciliation, adding that he deeply regretted that she was denied the chance to carry out her vision.
"The past months of intense discord have taken their toll on our community," he wrote. "The impact of what we have been through will resonate among all of us on campus and among alumni throughout the world for many years to come," he wrote.
The board has until Dec. 22 to find a replacement, which Mr. Rhoten called "a daunting task."
"Not only do they have to find the right person to lead them through an uncharted period of change, but they need to restore credibility within the university community, the field of deafness and with potential donors and foundations, not to mention Congress. This won't happen overnight. It will take years!"
First Published November 7, 2006 12:00 am