Monday, December 03, 2007

Gallaudet, in English

Got some complaints about my last blog post; rightfully earned. I’d written about my visit to Gallaudet without saying what I really thought about Gallaudet. Or actually I did say what I thought, and it’s in there, but it’s hidden in strange 2:00 am prose and oblique metaphors. I enjoy that kind of writing, but sometimes, it’s better to be straightforward.


Gallaudet is at a critical point. For whatever reason – maybe that it gets most of its money from the federal government, maybe that its historically had a patronizing relationship with hearing academia – the school has not adapted and innovated to keep up with the rapid technological advancements of the last few decades. Every university needs to evolve to meet the times, Gallaudet probably more than most. And while it has in some ways, becoming one of the most wired campuses out there, it hasn’t in others. Cochlear implants and their ilk are the future. By some accounts, ninety percent of children born deaf now are implanted. Is Gallaudet ready for that?

Michael Chorost wrote that the university could ensure its relevancy by becoming a laboratory of sorts for the new technological age. He sees development of such sort as imperative -- who knows, he writes, with all this rapid evolution, if in 50 years, sign language will even exist as we know it? What then is the deaf community without its language? Is there such a thing as the deaf community without its language? And so Chorost pushes hard for Gallaudet to expand its vision of itself in order to persevere.

Understandably, Chorost’s questions about the future of sign language created a lot of controversy. When he came to Gallaudet in March of 2007 to deliver his presentation he was bitterly interrogated afterwards. And his ideas were one of the first things I was asked about on my trip – that is, do you believe, Josh, like your friend, that sign language will die?

No, I said, but I think it’s important to entertain the possibility. Doing so will force the community to think outside of the box and to become more adaptive and prepared. Failing that you have stagnated, reactionary thinking and defensiveness.

And there is a lot of defensiveness at Gallaudet. There is a deep resentment in some corners of the signing deaf community towards oral deaf individuals that I think is self-defeating. The oral position is rejected offhand. But to exclude others because they have chosen a different path or because they you feel they don’t understand you is to set yourself up for exclusion. Rejection can hurt the rejecting more than rejected – before you know it you’ve defended yourself right into a corner.

I think it’s time to reach out, in every way possible. To take the first step in doing so, and maybe even the second and third. Why is the focus always on our differences? On our grievances, on defending itself from being hurt? Being deaf is getting hurt. Being alive is getting hurt. Go through life with no pain, no difficulties, and you end up like Paris Hilton, flashing your coochie at everyone in some strange effort to find a point to your existence. As Gallaudet faces its momentous challenges I think the question that needs to be asked is the most important thing to avoid being hurt? Or is it to foster deeper bonds and deeper understanding?


Blogger Mom to Toes said...

Excellent post.


10:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog, great stories. I found it and read it a month ago during my activation and mapping.
Today Amazon delivered The Unheard and Rebuilt. I'm not sure which one to read first . . .

2:00 PM  
Blogger being Kandice... said...

I hear you loud and clear Josh! There just aren't enough people willing to walk in moderation on this issue. I have known several people who have tried to advocate for partnerships and dialog and they have been met with resistance from both "sides." You are right to bring up the fear and anger and hurt that runs deep around these issues. More people need to be brave enough to embrace a middle road that will provide real support and options long term to everyone who is facing deafness.

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Henry Kisor said...

Excellent post, Josh. I share your feelings about Gallaudet and about reaching out to all deaf people. But I fear the worst from the ideological Deaf.

Churchill said it best: "A fanatic can't change his mind and won't change the subject."

10:31 AM  
Blogger Gina Oliva said...

Hi Josh,

I am glad you were prompted to write about us twice. It’s great to have a forum to discuss these ideas.

I think there are a few questions we must all ask ourselves and then discuss.

Can there be a Deaf Community without sign language?” How much of the wonderful sense of community that Michael Chorost and you both notice and recognize, is based on the language and how much is based on common experiences? And as a corollary of this, to what extent will it benefit children who have cochlear implants to be part of a community of cochlear implant users? And, further, will sign language nevertheless add something important to the community belongingness of cochlear implant users (or all people for that matter)?

Let me share with you my own answer. First, I was thrilled to learn of your recognition of the unsurpassed sense of community that exists in the Deaf Community. For me, that has been the key to its unprecedented ability to persevere in the face of ongoing oppression for centuries, worldwide. I believe that sign languages are a key element of this perseverance. I will let a linguist or other scholar explain the nuances of this, but suffice to say that in my own life there is nothing more enriching and gratifying than to sit in Starbucks in a big circle of 6 or 8 or even 12 signers and enjoy an hour or two of intellectual discourse and general conversation across the table. Could 12 implant users in Starbucks do that using speech alone? For that matter, could 12 hearing people enjoy intellectual discourse or even gossip in this manner? And what about in a bar or restaurant?

Two scholars I admire are Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” and Douglas Klieber, author of “Leisure Experience and Human Development: A Dialectical Interpretation.” You have probably heard of the former, but not the latter. The latter taught me the importance of the “fourth environment,” where people (adolescents and adults in particular) seek out places that are “beyond home, school, and work” to talk and make sense of issues in their lives. It has been my observation over the last 35 years, since I stopped being "Alone in the Mainstream," that sign language contributes hugely to this need for everyone who uses it, deaf and hearing alike.

(with a smile!)

6:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, it is true that 90% of deaf children are born into hearing families. The majority of these children are being implanted and raised in an oral environment. Why, then, would any of these deaf/implanted children from this new generation choose to attend Gallaudet with its rich history of oral opposition? Selecting a University is tough enough: why choose to go where you will be unwelcomed? Keeping this in mind, I certanly hope Gallaudet chooses to evolve over the next decade. Without evolving, I don't see how the school can survive.

7:07 AM  
Anonymous Paotie said...


Good! We need to encourage people to think outside the box - something we rarely see with many people, regardless if they're hearing, d/Deaf/HOH.

I write satires and often with heavy sarcasm to push people's thinking outside the box. As you can imagine, the reaction I receive is sometimes borderline hysterical and full-blown hysterics.

It's my opinion that the heckler's crowd at Gallaudet is comprised of mostly Deaf people who want to keep the school a Deaf culture club - and to omit all other deaf people, or at least delegate them to second-class status.

During the Jane Fernandes uproar, one Deaf woman was asked by a reporter why she protested against Fernandes. The greatest political argument thus followed from the Deaf student at Gallaudet:

"I know this sounds stupid, but .. she [Fernandes] doesn't say hi."

If a kid from Yale had uttered those words, the poor soul would've been chased out, and academic standards would have been reviewed and scrutinized to no end.

But not at Gallaudet - academic standards take a backseat to the cultural country club of Deaf people.

Anyway, please keep writing! Great stuff and I appreciate your intention and focus.



9:25 AM  

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