One of the hardest things for a minority culture to understand is the same history cannot be made twice. History only makes pioneers and always punishes imitators. There is an attempt to warp back to 1988 at Gallaudet, the premier university for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., as some of the 2,000 students enrolled there try to re-enact the historical — and successful — 1988 “Deaf President Now” campaign by erasing the appointment of a new president, Jane K. Fernandes, because she is “Not Deaf Enough” to lead Gallaudet. The students re-created a tent city from 1988 as they camp out to protest her appointment until she steps down. Fernandes cannot and must not be bullied down.
The Deaf student body at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. — egged on by an egregiously malicious “no confidence vote” in Jane Fernandes from the faculty — have been protesting and arguing for a president who is more understanding of Deaf needs than Fernandes.
Not Deaf Enough Those who are against Fernandes claim it is isn’t because she is “Not Deaf Enough” but because she doesn’t have enough experience as a Deaf person to understand the true needs of the Deaf even though she was born Deaf and her mother and brother are Deaf and she uses sign language.
Fernandes, her critics claim, was mainstreamed in Hearing schools throughout her upbringing and that means to them she prefers spoken language to a visual one and the fact she didn’t learn to sign until age 23 indicates to some she is too “Oral” in order to be considered a leader in the Deaf Community and to head up Gallaudet.
The definition of a “Deaf” person is the core matter of the Fernandes appointment and it is a dangerous and onerous argument the students are struggling to privately enforce — “Fernandes is Not Deaf Enough” â€” while publicly claiming — “But that isn’t why we don’t want her.”
Who Am I? I am Hearing. I have been married to Janna, a Deaf woman, who has, at times, faced being taunted by some in the Deaf community as “Not Deaf Enough” because she sometimes decides to use her voice and that ability — that choice of voice — is viewed by many in the hardcore Deaf Community as the first mark of “Hearing Thinking” where voice takes precedence over hands. Janna is currently out-of-town on business as of the publication of this article so what I write here is my own opinion.
Janna speaks for herself and can defend her own ideas. Janna is part of my history in learning American Sign Language and then teaching it at New York University. We also wrote the book Hand Jive about Hardcore ASL together to be published by Barnes & Noble in the Fall.
Janna and I use, and have always used, ASL as our primary means of communication. I do feel a cultural need to identify Janna’s struggles — as I understand them — as part of the frame of this article. Janna was born Deaf. She attended a Deaf Institution — The Iowa School for the Deaf — her Master’s degree is in Deafness Rehabilitation from New York University, she has taught American Sign Language at NYU for over 12 years and her day job is helping find jobs for the Deaf in Queens.
No Doubt About Janna
You cannot doubt Janna has dedicated her life to the Deaf Community, but there are still some in the Deaf Community who feel even Janna is “Not Deaf Enough” to pass as a truly Deaf person and the fact she married me — a Hearing Man — instead of a Deaf Man is too much for some to ever accept.
Some believe if you are Deaf and you interact with success in the Hearing World you have forsaken the values of the closed Deaf Community and you will never be a part of that body even if you yearn to be accepted. I believe cutting people out of the Deaf Community who wish to belong is a hard and short-sighted view because it narrows the humanity and the suffering of the Deaf over the decades who have struggled alone and together — and with the help of Hearing people like Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet
— to be seen and treated as equals in the workplace and in the marketplace of hopes.
The history of the Deaf Community turning against their own once a member finds mainstream success beyond the Deaf Community — even if the person actively adheres to Deaf Culture Norms — are plentiful. Here are a few public examples:
An Unfortunate History of Denial
In 1986 Marlee Matlin was the first Deaf actress to win the Academy Award for her history-making turn in the Children of a Lesser God but the Deaf Community did not look up to her as a role model.
Many looked down at her as a traitor to the cause because she used her voice in her acceptance speech and in later television roles. Instead of allowing Marlee to help re-define what a Deaf person is she was shunned by those she was seeking to help. Marlee was: Not Deaf Enough. When Deaf woman Heather Whitestone was named Miss America in 1995 she was not accepted by the Deaf Community as a success story because she did not sign enough and she relied too much on lip-reading to communicate. When she had a Cochlear Implant in 2002 the Deaf Community completely separated from her as any sort of Deaf Culture representative.
Heather was: Not Deaf Enough. The 1988 Deaf President Now revolution at Gallaudet resulted in the students winning their protest when the appointed Hearing president resigned and I. King Jordan, a Deaf man who signed, was anointed the first “Deaf President” of a Deaf University. For the last 18 years
I. King Jordan has led Gallaudet into the future and his hand-picked successor, Jane K. Fernandes, is now Not Deaf Enough to serve in his place. I. King Jordan has also now been labeled a “failure” and a “traitor” to Gallaudet by some of the very students who helped protest him into office in 1988.
Those former student pioneers now accuse Jordan of not being loyal to the cause because he does not use pure ASL to communicate and he uses his voice in public. The very man the students fought for, and won with, in 1988 is now: Not Deaf Enough.
Militant Requirements Some in the militant Deaf Community feel the Gallaudet students would only be satisfied with the following qualifications in the next president of the university:
1. No voice.
2. ASL only.
3. Deaf Institution schooling.
4. Deaf parents.
Anything less than those requirements suggests an irreparable tainting by the Hearing World and would be unacceptable to the Deaf who choose to only sign and not voice. There is no greater insult the Deaf Community can level against its own than labeling them “Think Hearing” instead of “Think Deaf.” “Oral” and “Mainstream” are also taboo words in the Deaf Community.
We know there are Audists and Audism but are there also Deafists and Deafism? Here’s the problem with that kind of Only-Deaf-Community-Adherence-Is-Enough thinking: It is narrow-minded and prejudicial — just the kind of labels the Deaf Community seek to eradicate in the Hearing majority midst against them.
Backward-Looking Here’s why that kind of thinking is backward-looking and not forward-thinking: Technology is only getting better when it comes to improving hearing loss and Deafness. That cold, hard, fact, is the center of the current terror the hardcore Deaf Community are trying to fight in the new Gallaudet protest.
Cochlear Implants are becoming more and more common as the medical community continues to “fix” what they see as broken ears. Most Deaf infants are born to Hearing parents and Hearing parents want their children to be like them — to hear like them — and that means newborns are now routinely being implanted as early as four months old.
The traditional “Deaf Community” is being winnowed away by a technology the Deaf never wished for and by a medical intervention they never needed. The Deaf Community can only stand and watch as every infant born Deaf is implanted by default and taken away from their cultural core on purpose. The solution to that trauma of community is inclusion and not cutting off.
A Cochlear Implant is a strong hearing aid. In the eyes of the traditional Deaf Community, a Cochlear Implant is the first sign of not-belonging and implantation requires a “Not Deaf Enough” label forever.
Implanted Infants Implanting an infant with a Cochlear Implant does not make them Hearing. In fact, it makes those infants a culture of their own where they are neither Deaf nor Hearing.
Those infants grow into kids without a cultural identification and they are resigned to a sort of netherworld of non-definition. It will be interesting to see in 15 years if there is a strong “Implanted Culture” that will demand the next president of Gallaudet be Cochlear Implanted because “only the Implanted can understand and serve the needs of the Implanted.”
Will “Not Implanted Enough” one day become the new rallying cry across Kendall Green? Power comes in the majority and the majority lives in big numbers. The Implanted will soon outnumber the non-implanted Deaf.
Technology always gets better and rarely makes things worse, so over the next decade or two Cochlear Implants will improve, and the “naturally born Deaf” who grow up signing and not voicing will become an ultra-minority born to Deaf parents who already swear allegiance to ancient values of the Deaf Community.
I understand it is heart-wrenching for the Deaf Community to witness how medicine and technology is stealing their future and corrupting their Deaf infants, but the history of success in the world has always been to adapt and change your way of thinking in order to not become extinct.
The current protest at Gallaudet is thinking on a level of pursuing extinction instead of fighting for an inclusive future. One only needs to read a recent article in the Chronicle to understand this conflict of cultures in crisis:
According to the Food and Drug Administration, approximately 13,000 adults and 10,000 children had received implants by 2002, the latest year for which data are available. But the technology continues to improve, and the number of people receiving implants is increasing rapidly.
The trend is a source of anxiety to some deaf people, who feel that it may lead to an erosion of the gains they have won in recent decades in antidiscrimination legislation, and undercut their hard-won dignity. Benjamin J. Bahan, a professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet University who has been deaf since he was 4, worries that as more deaf children are given an oral education, the teaching of American Sign Language may be abandoned. “Let those kids be bilingual,” he said in an e-mail message. “After all with their implants off they are DEAF.” Yet the implants are already affecting the work of Gallaudet.
With 1,900 students, it is the world’s only university devoted to the deaf. Part of its mission is the development of teaching methods and materials for the more than 71,000 severely deaf children in the United States. The university runs a model elementary school and secondary school on its large campus in Washington. Up until now, Gallaudet’s goal has been to make all 370 schoolchildren it enrolls fully fluent in both English, or at least written English, and American Sign Language. But educators say they are seeing a growing number of children with implants whose improved hearing would allow them to benefit from a more oral-based education. “Teachers come here trained in a more visual approach,” says Debra B. Nussbaum, coordinator of the model schools’ Cochlear Implant Education Center. But, she adds, “we’ve been talking about how to change our strategies.”
Supporters of the oral approach say far too few teachers are being trained in that orientation. “In the last 10 to 15 years there has been a dramatic increase in demand” for oral education, says Susan T. Lenihan, director of the deaf-education program at Fontbonne University, in St. Louis. Deaf-education departments “should recognize this shift in the population,” she says, and train more teachers equipped to work with deaf people with cochlear implants.
I realize the current Gallaudet protest is a last-ditch attempt to recapture a past glory in an ever-darkening world where technology and medicine appear to be co-conspiring against traditional Deaf Culture values, but to reject Jane Fernandes as the next president of Gallaudet because she is perceived by some as “Not Deaf Enough” is to send a chilling message there cannot be a wide array of Deaf people in the Deaf Community and that sentences those who currently identify with, and are accepted by, the Deaf Community as protectors of a quaint idea that has no longevity beyond their lives.
Finally Must Be Enough For those in the Deaf Community who disagree with this article — I know there will be some who feel because I am Hearing I should have no voice in this matter — I wish to point you back to 1988. Janna and I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1987 from the isolated Midwest and we were there — right there — in the midst of the original 1988 Deaf President Now crusade and that protest was fair and equitable and hard-won and appropriately historic.
I also wish to remind you of a button you could purchase on the Gallaudet campus in 1988 celebrating the naming of I. King Jordan as Gallaudet’s first Deaf President — he was Plenty Deaf Enough then — and cheered then as a historic hero in the moment of the now. The button had a drawing of a smiling Deaf student with both arms outstretched.
Each victorious fist held the Number One HandShape with the caption “Pah!” “Pah!” — in case you do not know or do not remember — is American Sign Language for “Finally!” I ask you — if “Finally!” was good enough for I. King Jordan in 1988 — why is “Pah!” no longer good enough for Jane K. Fernandes in 2006?