Many people have asked me what I have thought about the controversy. A couple weeks ago, I set down my thoughts in an Op-Ed. I sent it to several newspapers and have not received a response. With the decision to remove Fernandes out of the equation, some of the points in the Op-Ed are now out of date. But many are not. The Op-Ed is below. Please give it a read and drop a line if you get a chance; I am curious to hear what others think of the situation.
What to do about Gallaudet
At Gallaudet, the National University for the Deaf in Washington DC, the students have spent six months embroiled in a landmark protest, blocking the roads to campus, camping out in a tent city and going on hunger strikes. On Friday, October 13th, more than 130 protestors were arrested. Administration, opposing the students, shut the school down for several days. At issue: the selection of the new school president. But not really -- the issue is the future of the Deaf in the world today, and both sides have fed the controversy by ignoring essential emotional and practical realities.
To recap: Gallaudet’s students – as well as the alumni and faculty who overwhelmingly support the students – had no say in the process of choosing a new president, and the one selected for them, Jane K. Fernandes, has very few fans. Born deaf, Fernandes’ parents “mainstreamed” her – that is, she was taught to speak, lipread, and make the most of her very minimal hearing. She did not learn sign language until she was 23. Fernandes’ supporters say that the students are protesting her selection because they feel that, due to her upbringing and educational philosophy, she is not sufficiently deaf, ethnically deaf, Deaf with literally a capital D. They say the students resent Fernandes because they see her selection as a betrayal of Deaf culture.
Try to imagine it from the student’s standpoint: you’re born into a hearing family where for a while nobody knows you’re deaf they just think you’re mentally disabled. When people do learn you’re deaf, they look at you with pity, embarrassment and sometimes even fear. You grow up alone in a way few can imagine, surrounded by people who love you but can’t even speak to you. These people talk and laugh and whisper and watch sitcoms and go to movies and sing along to the radio, things you can never do. They have long conversations over the phone, and maybe 99 percent of the time, the conversation is really about nothing much – but imagine if you’ve never once talked on the phone! It must seem like a direct hotline to happiness.
When I worked as a mental health counselor at a School for the Deaf for children aged 0 to 21, the time of year we dreaded most was holiday season because on holidays our students would go home and be surrounded by huge extended hearing families in joyous, celebratory moods – and they would be outside of all that. Sitting right at the table with everyone else, but left out. Even with the best of intentions, unless everyone at the table was fluent in sign language, our students would always be more or less left out of the festivities. We actually encouraged many of them to pile their plates up with food and go to their bedrooms and chat online with their friends from school, so that they could enjoy some connection.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, the happiest days of the year – and you’re alone. Picture then the emotional catharsis of a deaf adolescent coming to Gallaudet University and meeting a community of thousands just like him or her. Thousands of people who know that loneliness – and more important than that, who are overcoming it, who are forming enriching, satisfying and enduring relationships. People who will talk to you about anything: politics, love, Survivor, the girl with red hair in Bio class as opposed to aunts and uncles who shout ‘You look good!’ right at your face and pat you like you’re a family pet.
This – the shared wound and the astonishing, out-of-nowhere healing of it – is Deaf culture.
The Board of Trustees at Gallaudet is made up of individuals who have not had this experience. As a result, the board has made an egregious mistake in not recognizing the emotional sanctity Gallaudet has in the Deaf community; in not understanding the attachment of the school’s students, alumni, faculty to the place where they became part of a greater world. Whether Jane Fernandes is qualified to be the next school president isn’t actually the issue: in refusing to give the community’s members a voice in choosing their leader, the Board has reawakened the trauma for the community of the fat auntie leaning over to shout “what a good little boy you are!” Gallaudet is not like other universities and its system of choosing a president needs to be changed to reflect that.
But the protestors have made a mistake, too. Ironically, their mistake is in overly championing their deafness. They have framed their struggle around the question, what does it mean to be deaf? And that is the wrong question to be asking. They need to be asking, as their hearing counterparts are, or at least should be, what does it mean to be human? As it stands, the way Gallaudet’s protestors are seeking more self-determination has been separatist: by promoting their uniqueness. But separation doesn’t work. Separation has already made the community ostracized, alienated and disempowered from larger society and to continue to pursue that separatist agenda is a dead-end street. Witness the misguided recent attempts to build a Utopian town for the signing Deaf in Laurent, South Dakota. Will that work? No, it won’t.
Granted, when you have spent much of your childhood alone in a vacuum of silence, being told repeatedly consciously and unconsciously how you are inferior, it is a lot to ask you to look past the intense emotion you feel on finally connecting with a community. But it needs to be asked of the Deaf protestors. The protestors need to find a way to both celebrate their deafness and reach out to the larger hearing world – a reaching out which will most often be rebuffed or ignored, because that’s how things are. Nevertheless, they need to do it. Incredible technological and surgical developments are totally re-imagining the future for children now born deaf so that more and more of them are being mainstreamed into the hearing world, and consequently the Deaf community, if it continues on its present course, will get smaller and smaller and more and more marginalized. So, along with changing the process for naming a president, Gallaudet’s administration and students need to ascertain not just that inclusion is on the agenda, but that inclusion IS the agenda. Beyond that, reaching out is something all of us should do. Otherwise we’ll continue to split ourselves us up into black and white, Democrat and Republican, Israeli and Palestanian, Deaf and hearing, and bicker endlessly instead of seeking common ground.