As the smoke settles over the Gallaudet University campus, there’s still a lot of steam rising. Now that the Board of Trustees has decided to conduct a new search for a president of that institution, there are still heated emotions and fuming misunderstandings that surround this event that captured the attention of the media and the nation. Given the sturm und drang of the past weeks, it’s possible to make a few observations.
First, and most amazingly to me, the internal events at a small educational institution for the deaf have become a major media event. When I was a small boy with two deaf parents growing up in the Bronx in the 1950’s, I never imagined that the issue of deafness and the problems at a deaf university would ever end up on the front page of The New York Times. But the fact is that deafness and disability in general have gone from a marginal and marginalized experience to one that is central to the fabric of this country. Whether we are arguing about Terri Schiavo’s right to live, the fate of prenatal genetic screening, or sign language at Gallaudet, we are still, in effect, saying that disability and deafness are front and center in our sense of what it means to be human. Whereas in the past to be disabled or deaf was to be abnormal or somewhat inhuman, now we are beginning to define our humanity in a dialogue with our disability.
So the events at Gallaudet were momentous not just because a little university had an internal disagreement but because the issues raised around identity resonated with the general public. One issue that surfaced early was that Jane Fernandes, the candidate chosen by the trustees to be president, was not a "native signer." What this means is that although Fernandes was born hearing impaired, she didn’t learn sign language until graduate school. Reportedly her signing isn’t fluid and natural -- she in effect speaks sign language with a heavy accent and in a way that most deaf users of ASL would feel was inadequate.
For non-deaf people, this issue was perhaps the hardest thing to understand. Why would anyone reject a president for not being "deaf enough" when the person was in fact unable to hear since birth? The difficulty might be easier to understand if you imagined deciding to elect a president of the United States who spoke with a heavy accent and whose command of English was less than perfect. Add to this the fact that one of the new definitions of being deaf isn’t that your ears don’t work -- it’s that you belong to a linguistic community the way that Hispanics or the French do. Your community has a literature, a culture, a history, and a language -- but the leader of your community doesn’t share fully this cultural palette. Wouldn’t you want someone who was fully of your identity?
This argument, made early on in the anti-Fernandes campaign, was quickly shot down within Gallaudet for a number of reasons -- although the press continued to mention it as a factor in the demonstrations. The logic behind the “not Deaf enough” argument was flawed because the “deaf community” or DEAFWORLD, as the ASL sign indicates, is broad enough to include a range of people from hard-of-hearing to profoundly deaf, from those whose parents insisted on oral education to those who attended exclusive schools for the deaf that only used ASL or other sign languages. There are deaf people who use real-time captioning and don’t know any sign language. And of course there are the children of deaf adults (CODA’s) who are native signers but may be hearing. Do we really want to say that some of these people aren’t "deaf enough?" Would we want to exclude various people of color because they weren’t "black enough?"
The argument at Gallaudet quickly moved on from this starting point to other issues around Fernandes. Here the argument stopped being a national issue and became a local one. Many on campus didn’t like the selection process, felt it wasn’t open enough to student and faculty input, and felt that some candidates of color were passed over. Other folks on campus felt Fernandes, who had been in the administration of Gallaudet for a long time, wasn’t a "people person" and had made some unpopular decisions. Now the issue becomes one of bottom-up student/faculty governance versus top-down administrative decision-making. The by-laws of Gallaudet specify that the job of picking the president is solely that of the Board of Trustees, but any institution can only work if the consent of the governed is factored in. What happened at Gallaudet was that there was a loss of confidence in the administration and in Fernandes. And, in turn, both the administration and Fernandes seemed singularly inept in being able to slow down the protests and bringing rational discourse and process to Gallaudet. Instead, they chose, until Sunday, to “stay the course.” Even The Washington Post wrote an editorial in which it advised the Trustees to hold fast.
But “stay the course,” as we’ve learned the hard way, isn’t a particularly good strategy, especially if the course is a disastrous one. There is something to be said for the groundswell democratic process that happens from time to time on campuses and elsewhere. When people take to the streets, when teach-ins and public discussions transform a body of people so that they are united against a particular policy or person, then a kind of muscular democracy is taking shape. Of course, there is always the danger that this kind of improvisational democracy can become mob rule. But the flip side of this is that decisions by the appointed few can become tyranny. Those of us who recall issues from the past like civil rights, the Vietnam War, apartheid, sweat shops, and the World Bank will also remember how effective and important campus protests were.
As it turns out, the trustees were able to read the visible signs of discontent on the part of the students and faculty at Gallaudet, voting to restart the selection process. The good that will come out of this is that this new selection process will have to be more open, sensitive to the issues, and mindful of issues around deaf culture, affirmative action, and democracy in general.
But Gallaudet itself will have to learn from these trying times. First and foremost, I’d advise, as someone interested in the subject but as a non-Gallaudet person, that the issue of "not deaf enough" isn’t going to go away, although it may have dropped out of the Fernandes discussion. New calls for Gallaudet to become an ASL-only campus (now courses are taught in a variety of ways, including orally) smack of a kind of new deaf elitism. While it is more than legitimate to expect students to learn ASL (as it would be for students attending the Lycée Français in the United States to learn French), there must be ways to insure that people whose ASL isn’t up to snuff don’t get snuffed out in the education process. After all, identity is a complex and fragile thing. When you try to make it ironclad and rigid, you end up enforcing the kind of identitarianism that created discriminatory behaviors in the first place. Imagine the case of a person whose parents chose cochlear implants for them at a very early age, but now wants to come to Gallaudet and explore what it means to be deaf. Would there be room for such a person in an ASL-only environment?
The second area to develop at Gallaudet is a more democratic process for decision-making. Most people don’t realize that Gallaudet is one of a small number of universities (the military academies and Howard University being among the others) that receive substantial operating support from the federal government. The reason for this status is complicated, but at base initially was for Gallaudet a kind of paternalism on the part of the nation toward deaf people. While this notion that the nation had to protect and educate deaf people turned out to have great benefits, the legacy of paternalism remains. Perhaps the by-laws of the university reflect this stance, and it would seem a logical and progressive goal to increase the democratic processes at Gallaudet so that the legacy of paternalism can be erased forever.
Finally, it would be only right and just for all sides to bury the hatchet and look toward the future. There is no question that Jane Fernandes was on paper a very viable and possible choice to be president of Gallaudet University -- only real events in the real world changed all that. The trustees did their best, the students and faculty did their best, and in the end a solution was reached. There are no bad guys in this story, only passionate positions and a struggle for justice.
Lennard J. Davis is professor of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body (Verso) and the newly re-edited second edition of The Disability Studies Reader (Routledge).
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