By Daniel J. Vance
In March 1988, I started a new job commuting from Baltimore to Washington D.C. One day in on New York Avenue I noticed the driver and passenger next lane over gesturing wildly with their hands. They were deaf persons "signing."
As it turned out, my job was only blocks away from Gallaudet University, which calls itself "the world's only university in which all programs and services are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students." The U.S. has an estimated 500,000 deaf people.
The Gallaudet campus made national news in 1988. The National Association of the Deaf was helping fuel a student protest called "Deaf President Now" to pressure the university board into hiring a deaf president. Eventually, they did hire the 124-year-old school's first deaf president, Dr. I. Jordan King. His selection was a turning point for deaf people worldwide because one of their own had been chosen, finally.
Recently, Gallaudet went through another change of presidents and yet another student protest. The new president selected, Jane Fernandes, grew up speaking and didn't learn sign language until age 23. Many Gallaudet students and other deaf people around the world have felt she isn't “deaf enough.”
This latest student protest didn't make any sense to me. To learn more, I emailed Gary Frazier, of Milledgeville, Ga., who I met on a business trip last year.
So why the uproar, Gary?
Here's his opinion: “During my two years at Georgia School for the Deaf, I repeatedly noticed the kids there ignoring hearing teachers, hearing house parents and even other deaf kids who were raised [to speak and not sign.] With that in mind, it's obvious why the students at Gallaudet have a problem with Fernandes.”
I've read many other opinions about the opposition to Fernandes and each have a different take.
Like Dr. Fernandes, Frazier learned sign language later in life, at 11. “I'm what they call 'late-deafened,” Frazier continued in his email, “which means I'll always be an outsider looking in with both the deaf and hearing cultures.” He became deaf at ten after a bout with spinal meningitis.
As in 1988, this battle over selecting a new Gallaudet president has had worldwide ramifications.
“Gallaudet is looked at as the 'world capital' of Deaf culture,” Frazier added. “It was the [first deaf college] and will always be top dog.”
For more, see danieljvance.com or www.gallaudet.edu. [This column made possible by a grant from Blue Valley Sod, www.bluevalleysod.com]