Deaf community “ignited”

Protests that began on April 30 continued throughout the week. A story by Bill Myers of The DC Examiner charges that ongoing protests “have created a national frisson.”
Mr. Myers seems to be reporting the escalation of protests impartially, including important facts and the viewpoint of “the embattled president-select”.
The contours of an intracultural debate premised upon identity politics is obvious in the reporting of this event: the two “sides” are clearly defined and everyone is expected to pick and argue as vigorously as possible. Identity is reaffirmed through the arguing. The harder you fight for “your” side and the more you insult and demean the “other” side, then the more you prove to yourself and others who you are. Knowing “who” you are, having a basis inside yourself to understand where you belong, and with whom you belong, is a vital factor in living a happy life.
Just above, I stressed that this is an “intra” event. I think Fernandes is correct, as reported by Myers, in saying: “Reaching out to the non-traditionally deaf ‘is essential to our survival,’.” However, it may well be that she is not the one to bridge this gap. There is nothing more painful than accepting the judgment of others when they deem us lacking. Yet it seems to me that the way forward when such incidents occur is to recognize the dynamics at play and make deliberate choices NOT to continue them. Fernandes does not aid resolution by refusing to consider the possibility of resigning. The Deaf community does not aid resolution by disseminating only those articles that represent the Deaf cultural view. All sides of the issue need to be recognized and the humanity of each perspective honored. There is sense and reason from all persons involved, even if it is a “sense” or a “reason” that we cannot comprehend. Fernandes may be incapable of generating warmth. That doesn’t necessarily mean her vision is crap. The Deaf community may be absolutely right that her orientation to the cultural values of a proud heritage is not ideal. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she cannot contribute in important and meaningful ways to preserving and perpetuating Deaf culture and ASL.


Myers’ characterization of the depth of the schism as a “frisson” is telling. It can be read in (at least) two different ways: as a minimization of the depth of this divide and its historical significance, and/or as a recognition of the thrills of connection that come from joining passionately with others in a just cause.
How is it possible to move forward when both sides are right but seem to be in complete contradiction to each other?
The core of the issue is language. Language is the heart of the matter. This can be seen in NPR’s recent story regarding the deaf community and technology. Again (like Myers), the NPR reporter writes quite objectively and with apparent neutrality. Joseph Shapiro describes one specific communication process:
“SHAPIRO: When Baldridge signs, he’s using American Sign Language, or ASL. That’s the first language of people who are born deaf. Also of hearing children who are born to deaf parents. Both of Baldridge’s parents are deaf. In Indianapolis, where he grew up, he learned Sign before he spoke English. ASL and English have different grammar, different word order. In English, you’d say: Have you visited Gallaudet? In ASL, you’d sign: Touch Finish Gallaudet You?”
There are two serious problems with Shapiro’s explanation. The first problem is that Shapiro reduces the differences between ASL and English to only grammar. I understand that there are restrictions on how long his report could be, and that it requires many words to explain the rest of the ways in which English and ASL are different from each other. But this simple explanation hurts more than it helps. It hurts because, no matter how well-intentioned it is, it makes deaf people appear dumb. The average non-deaf person will read the English transliteration of that ASL utterance and have an immediate negative reaction. Smart non-deaf people will catch themselves – they will realize they are reacting based on a stereotype and accept the point Shapiro is trying to make: that the grammar of the two languages is different. Very few people will think further than this; it seems enough, somehow, to know this fact about grammar. It is interesting! The real question though, the serious question, the question that is important, is: “What does it mean that ASL and English have different grammars?”
This is the second problem with Shapiro’s report. The fact of signing and speaking simultaneously is presented as “just the way it is.” On one level, this is true. Shapiro presents the history of oralism but does not make explicit that the development of (what is commonly called) simultaneous communication is the logical outgrowth of a lengthy and deliberate campaign to eliminate sign language combined with general public attitudes (a bias) that it is simply better to hear than it is to see.
Of course, here I am making my own reductionist argument. Most non-deaf people are not only “hearing” but also sighted. However, the point that matters is that non-deaf people RELY on their hearing in ways that make it nearly impossible to imagine what it would be like to RELY on sight. This difference in sensory perception is what simplistic comparisons of grammar leave out. The way this perception interacts with cognition is what really matters.
I’ve witnessed similar dynamics many times, but a recent job had me interpreting at an educational event for deaf high school students visiting a major university. The non-deaf, non-signing persons from the university were the minority (this is the opposite of most interpreting situations in which the deaf are almost always outnumbered by the non-deaf or “hearing”). Accompanying the students were several teachers. Their communication choices were fascinating: some only signed, trusting the interpreters to do our work. Others signed and spoke, trying to accommodate both the signers and those persons dependent on spoken English. Here are some important things I observed:
1. Deaf persons (who rely on sight) usually drifted out of conversations with people using simultaneous communication, or gave only periodic attention.
2. Non-signing persons (who rely on sound) strained to understand. Often it seemed that they were successful: they responded appropriately and the conversations progressed. Sometimes, however, they would cast confused glances my way, and I would try to fill in (guessing at which part they had missed), sometimes talking over the voice of the person who was signing/speaking at the same time.
3. Deaf persons (who rely on sight) who really wanted to know what was going on would ask me to interpret anyway (especially with newer signers, but only when those signers also used their voice).
One of my colleagues and I had a long conversation with one of the teachers, herself not deaf, who chose to sign for herself (without voicing too) and trust the interpretation process. What my colleague articulated – so clearly! – is that simultaneous communication makes the most sense to people who use BOTH sight AND sound. Signing and speaking at the same time simply does not work as well for either of the other groups – those who rely only on sight, or those who rely only on sound.
I do not know Dr. Fernandes’ stance regarding language and communication policies for Gallaudet. I do know that these are two different things, and yet they are integrally related. Shapiro’s story ignores the language element (which is crucial to cognition) by only describing it in linguistic terms. Thus, he emphasizes the communication element in a way that subtly reinforces a bias that is extraordinarily threatening to Deaf Culture. This bias makes the language differences seem relatively easy to overcome because it subtly privileges one sense (hearing) over another (sight).
I am not close enough to any of the events at Gallaudet this week to know any of the actual conversations. I have not been in communication with anyone from there. My opinions, written here, are based on the online news coverage from the DC Examiner (Bill Myers) and NPR’s radio broadcasts (transcribed). My opinions are informed from a long association with the Deaf community through my professional work as an interpreter, several life-changing friendships, and a commitment to social justice. There is a divide between the culturally Deaf who rely on sight (this includes many persons with varying degrees of hearing and abilities to speak) and those who are ‘in-between’ because they rely on a combination of sight and sound (those who are hard-of-hearing, late-deafened, or learned ASL at a later age). I suggest that the real challenge from the Deaf community to Dr. Fernandes is whether she will use her position to promote a clear separation between the languages and establish communication policies that don’t unfairly privilege either group (the sight-dependent or the sight/sound co-dependent).
From the NPR story discussed above (reported by Shapiro), I have to wonder about the communication access for the other fourteen students when the teacher used simultaneous communication to accommodate one student. Surely it is not beyond our imaginations to establish communication norms (and rules, policies, procedures) that respect the language needs of all? It would seem that the teacher in that classroom needed an interpreter. Why not reframe the problem along the lines of the teacher choosing the language most effective for his linguistic expression and then providing interpreters skilled in the (re)presentation of the teacher’s knowledge in whichever mode that requires (sound to sight; sight to a combination of sound/sight; sight to sound)?
Finally, as I researched while writing, I came across another NPR story that aired the day before the announcement that Fernandes had been selected by Gallaudet’s Board of Directors. As I read this retrospective, I had to wonder about the role of gender. Is it only coincidence that a woman has been the target of both the 1988 Deaf President Now movement and the current (so-called) “Better President Now” protests? Certainly the criticism of Fernandes ‘non-warmth’ could be understood as sexist. Is she being punished for not conforming to a stereotypical notion of how a woman is supposed to behave? I doubt a man would be criticized for not being friendly enough.
At any rate, this confrontation provides an exciting chance for those with bigger visions to break out of some entrenched patterns of “us” vs “them” and find new, creative ways to turn the community at large into a “we” that accepts and accommodates all of its own.

4 thoughts on “Deaf community “ignited””

  1. i agree with you..my question is how many chances do we want to give her?
    she has done the minimum or nothing at all in last 4 jobs.
    allow her to try out the job for 4 years?
    or go with the person who is best qualified to perserving Deaf culture and ASL?
    why do we lose out in situations like this but we remain as the backbone of this community?
    as some folks try to remind us: not without us!
    i dont have all the answers but it does seem strange that social justice is not an issue here.

  2. “It does seem strange that social justice is not an issue here.”
    Of course we know it is! The question is whether people can find ways to talk about the social justice concerns that go beyond personal attacks. Emphasizing Fernandes’ lack of warmth is mean. Making a careful case to prove “she has done the minimum or nothing at all” is what will be convincing. Obviously she has done SomeThing because the Board won’t pick an idiot. Board members might be misguided or misinformed but they don’t want Gally to fail.
    There has to be a way to explain exactly the ways in which the cultural core of the Deaf community has experienced her failure at “preserving Deaf culture and ASL.”

  3. my concern regarding the protests at gallaudet is i think there’s two different issues going on.
    1.) the struggle from the Deaf culture perspective to ask what the role of Gallaudet should be in Deaf culture & the role of Deaf culture at Gallaudet & how the president plays into that. it sounds like some of the discussions they’ve had and workshops on campus may contribute to some real understanding of what the students and faculty want as a “culture”.
    2.) the 2nd issue would be the faculty’s concerns about Jane Fernandes acts as Provost and at other worksites where she took away sabbaticals, demoted faculty to “Teachers”, etcera. An all too typical employer/employee struggle.
    i’m concerned that the current approach to the struggle treats 1 & 2 too closely. universities across the country stuggle with varying degrees of number 2, its an employer/employee relationship struggle. i’m concerned that issue will get lost in the middle of all this talk of “culture”. i also dont think they can do much without unionizing & setting the terms of a contract, etc. it is not that i think the culture stuff is unimportant, just that there’s really 2 separate issues going on that won’t have the same solution.

  4. I hadn’t thought of that! Amanda, I think you’re right – that the labor issue is HUGE but could be easily lost in the talk of culture. OR, “culture” could be Used (on purpose) BY the adminstration and board to distract people from the concerns of faculty as workers in an institution of higher education.

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