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Radicalism in the deaf culture
By Cathy Young | November 6, 2006
SINCE LAST MAY, Gallaudet University, the world's only university
designed entirely for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, has been
rocked by protests over the selection of a new president.
Jane K. Fernandes was scheduled to take over from I. King Jordan
in January. On Oct. 29, after protesters shut down the Washington
campus for more than two weeks, the board of trustees revoked Fernandes's
appointment. This fiasco is a striking example of identity politics
In 1988, protesters rebelled against the appointment of a hearing
president, Elisabeth Singer, and demanded a deaf president (something
Gallaudet had never had since its founding in 1864). Singer resigned
, and Jordan was appointed in her place.
Fernandes, the Gallaudet provost whom Jordan wanted to see as his
replacement, is also deaf; but to some, "not deaf enough." She grew
up lip-reading and speaking and learned sign language only as a graduate
In recent weeks, anti-Fernandes students and professors have denied
that their objections had anything to do with her not being deaf
enough, and have accused her of raising the issue to pose as a victim
of political correctness.
However, the Washington Post reports that the protesters backed
off the "not deaf enough" complaint only when they realized that
it wasn't likely to garner sympathy from the outside world. They
focused instead on Fernandes's supposedly autocratic and intimidating
leadership style and her alleged lack of interpersonal skills (one
critic quoted by the Inside Higher Ed website even noted that she
didn't smile enough).
There were also vague charges that she is insufficiently committed
to fighting racism. Yet none of these gripes seem sufficient to justify
the passion that led to her ouster: the protests included hunger
strikes and threats of violence.
Some of the criticisms publicly leveled at Fernandes are overtly
rooted in identity politics.
In a letter to the Post , Gallaudet English professor Kathleen M.
Wood excoriated both Fernandes and Jordan for taking the position
that Gallaudet is for all deaf students. This misguided inclusiveness,
Wood asserted , had attracted deaf students who were "not integrating
into Deaf culture" and resisting the use of sign language. She ended
her letter by stating, "The new Gallaudet will not be for everyone."
"Deaf culture" -- that's Deaf with a capital D -- has flourished
at Gallaudet. It is a radical movement that views deafness not as
a disability but as an oppressed minority status akin to race, and
also as a unique linguistic culture. The movement holds that there
is nothing wrong with being deaf, only with how society has treated
Few would deny that, historically, deaf people and others with disabilities
have endured stereotyping, bias, and unfairness. Much progress has
been made toward seeing people with disabilities as whole individuals,
toward focusing on what they can do, not on what they can't . But
it's a leap from this understanding to the bizarre idea that the
lack of hearing is no more a disability than being female or black.
(Verbal communication aside, surely being unable to hear environmental
sounds often places a person at a serious disadvantage.)
The majority of deaf people do not belong to Deaf culture. It is
estimated that at most a quarter of profoundly deaf people in the
United States use sign language. Yet at many schools for the deaf,
signing has been dogmatically treated as the only acceptable communication;
children with some hearing have received little training in auditory
and speaking skills. Deaf schools that promote "oralism" have been
targeted for protests.
More harmful still, Deaf activists have railed against cochlear
implants, which enable many deaf children to gain functional hearing;
some deaf parents have denied implants to their children on ideological
grounds. The activists also oppose research into cures for deafness
through gene therapy and other means.
To them, attempts to "fix" deafness amounts to nothing short of
Fernandes herself embraces Deaf culture, but she does not want it
to be isolated from the hearing world or exclude those who don't
meet purist standards of "Deafness." She also believes that the deaf
community must deal honestly with the challenges posed by advances
When this sensible view is rejected under pressure from a handful
of radicals, it is a testament to the madness that can prevail when
oppressed-minority status becomes a weapon to silence critics.