Gallaudet: Turmoil at College for Deaf Reflects Broader Debate

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Oct 21 15:27:27 UTC 2006

>>From the NY Times, October 21, 2006
Turmoil at College for Deaf Reflects Broader Debate

WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 Ask Joshua Walker, a sophomore at Gallaudet University
here, about technology like cochlear implants that helps many deaf people
hear, and he is dismissive. In some way, you're saying deaf people are not
good enough, they need to be fixed, signed Mr. Walker, 20. I don't need to
be fixed. My brain works fine. Protests over the selection of a new
president, Jane K. Fernandes, have thrown Gallaudet, the nations only
liberal arts university for the deaf, into turmoil. But the clash is also
illuminating differences over the future of deaf culture writ large, and
focusing attention on a politically charged debate about what it means to
be deaf in the 21st century.

Should Gallaudet be the standard bearer for the view that sees deafness
not as a disability, but as an identity, and that looks warily on
technology like cochlear implants, questioning how well they work and
arguing that they undermine a strong deaf identity and pride? Or should
Gallaudet embrace the possibilities of connecting with the hearing world
that technology can offer? Should it demand that students and teachers
communicate exclusively in American Sign Language, as some professors and
students insist, or should it permit deaf and hard of hearing students to
learn in whatever way suits them? Should it require professors to be
fluent signers, and provide interpreters for those who are not proficient?
Or should it let students struggle to catch their meaning, as many say
they now do?

These questions are not limited to Gallaudet. They are reflected in
debates across the country as technology creates new possibilities for
deaf people through cochlear implants and increasingly sophisticated
hearing aids. With genetic testing, the day may come when parents can
choose medical intervention for a child who is likely to be born deaf, or
even choose not to have that child. With 96 percent of deaf children born
to hearing parents, according to research by Gallaudet, many parents
choose cochlear implants for their children at an early age, and 81
percent choose to mainstream their children into hearing classrooms.

Joseph Fischgrund, headmaster for the last 20 years at the Pennsylvania
School for the Deaf in Philadelphia, noted that advances like closed
captioning and text pagers make it easier than ever for deaf people to
have the same access to information as hearing people. Its a culture in
transition, said Robert Kretschmer, coordinator of the program in the
education of the deaf and hard of hearing at Columbia University Teachers
College. What Gallaudet represents is clearly one very strong faction and
identity of deaf culture, with a capital D.

Lawrence Fleischer, chairman of the deaf studies department at California
State University, Northridge, signed through an interpreter his skepticism
toward some of the new options. More parents are choosing cochlear
implants for their children, Mr.  Fleischer said. We call it the false
hope. We call it the magical consciousness, meaning that their
consciousness is way below average, but they're pretending to have
consciousness they don't really have. The implants are devices surgically
placed in the inner ear, connected to a receiver around the ear which
picks up sound, and transmits it as electrical impulses to the brain. They
are not sounds as they are heard, unimpeded, but signals that deaf people
must learn to interpret into words. About 100,000 people around the world
wear cochlear implants, including 22,000 adults and 15,000 children in the
United States, the Food and Drug Administration says.

At the American School for the Deaf, in West Hartford, Conn., the
director, Edward Peltier, said about 12 percent of students had cochlear
implants, up from about 3 percent a decade ago. The school is the
birthplace of American Sign Language. Many Gallaudet students say they
felt misunderstood and marginalized within their families, until they
attended schools for the deaf and learned sign language. They say
Gallaudet should play a strong advocacy role, lobbying to keep such
schools open and remaining a forceful proponent of American Sign Language.

Students at Gallaudet have complained that Dr. Fernandes, who learned to
sign only when she was 23, does not communicate well in A.S.L.  a point
the university disputes and that she has permitted professors who do not
sign well to continue teaching, putting students at a disadvantage at the
one institution where, they say, they should not suffer for being deaf.
These students, forced to lip read or make do with poor signing, may not
catch every word.

One protester, Ronald Ferris, who is blind and deaf, said he believed that
Dr. Fernandes did not connect with deaf people. In a measure of how
personal the dispute has become, Mr. Ferris pointed to her choice of a
husband as proof. She doesn't really feel us, he signed through
interpreters. She's very critical of deaf culture, because she married
somebody who hears. Bobby White, who leads a student group that opposes
shutting down the campus, said, Communication is the primary and top issue
here, adding, Theres no reason for me, as a deaf person, to use my voice
on campus. In an interview with I. King Jordan, who is stepping down after
18 years as president, Dr. Fernandes, the former provost, said that she
was committed 100, 150 percent to signing and deaf culture, and that
signing would always be the preferred method of communication at

But Dr. Fernandes said Gallaudet's future lay in welcoming and valuing deaf
and hard of hearing students from all avenues and educational backgrounds,
rather than in promoting a specific deaf political orthodoxy. She would
never ban spoken language in classes and meetings, as some on campus
propose, she said. This is a time of great change in deaf culture, she
said. The passions and issues simmering beneath the discontent over Dr.
Fernandes's appointment help explain the persistence of a protest that some
expected would have calmed after last weekends arrests of 134
demonstrators. Classes have resumed, but protesters are still camping out
in tents by the main entrance.

This week, three in four faculty members called on Dr. Fernandes to
resign, and the faculty voted no confidence in the board and Dr. Jordan.
Until now, Dr. Jordan, Gallaudet's first deaf president, has been a
treasured symbol in the deaf community. In the interview, Dr. Fernandes
said that despite the opposition, she had no intention of resigning. Not
all those opposed to Dr. Fernandes differ with her views about the
technology or using spoken language. Nicole Moran, a sophomore from York,
Pa., said she did not hesitate to choose a cochlear implant for her
3-year-old daughter, who was profoundly deaf at birth.

Her primary identity is as a deaf person, Ms. Moran said. But its a
hearing world. Nevertheless, she said she did not support Dr. Fernandes.
She's not an effective leader, Ms. Moran said. Others share this view.
Thomas K. Holcomb, a professor of deaf studies whose two daughters were
arrested at Gallaudet last weekend, said of Dr.  Fernandes, She says that
her leadership style is to act behind the scenes, but what we really need
is someone who can lead us out front, who can be our ambassador and
inspire the larger public with issues regarding deaf people.


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