Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. made the sort of history last night that one never wishes to make: The University gave in to small minds and ignorance and bullying bad behavior and lost both stature and grace in the process.

Today’s New York Times reported the following in an article: “At Gallaudet, Trustees Give Up on New Leader After Protests” —

The battle over Gallaudet’s future erupted at a time of massive change in the deaf world, with technological advances like cochlear implants and more effective hearing aids being felt by many in the forefront of the deaf-rights movement as an assault on deaf culture and deaf identity.

The turnaround ends months of protests over the board’s choice that had rippled from Gallaudet to polarize deaf communities across the United States. It is also the second consecutive time that protests forced the board’s hand in choosing a president. Eighteen years ago, in a struggle that became a watershed for deaf rights, demonstrators succeeded in forcing a reluctant board of trustees to name Gallaudet’s first deaf president in more than 100 years in Dr. Jordan.

This time, protesters locked down the campus for several days and turned the university’s entrance into a tent city of the disaffected. Last week, the protesters had seized overnight an administration building that houses the office of the president. They were forcibly removed the following morning, with at least two students suffering injuries.

The New York Times article goes on to interview several student leaders of the protest against Dr. Fernandes as they express their surprise at the Gallaudet Board decision and that proves, right there, in the face of it and in the light of truth, that the students did not really feel wronged or know in their bones they were right.

The students would not have been surprised by the Board’s decision if they were protesting an honorable end for they would have known all along they were right and that the Board would have to bend to their desires.

Their response should have been, “of course they agreed with us” not “we’re surprised they did.”

Dr. Fernandes responded to the maelstrom attack against her character with calm and grace — two important indicators of appropriate leadership:

Dr. Fernandes had argued that Gallaudet’s survival depended on aggressively recruiting among all deaf students, and in harnessing any available technology to help them advance. While she said American Sign Language would play a crucial role at Gallaudet, she also said, in a recent interview, that she could never envision banning spoken language at Gallaudet.

I agree with Dr. Fernandes the future of Gallaudet will not be an ASL-Only campus. The University, and its students and faculty and Board, will have to redefine the meaning of Deafness in order to continue the culture and the mission of Deaf Education at Gallaudet. You don’t perpetuate a culture by refusing membership to those who wish to join or by bullying those who are destined to lead you in a new and better direction out of the past and into the future. Technology only moves forward and never backward.

There are less and less infants born Deaf who are allowed to remain that way mainly because their parents are Hearing and parents always wish for their children to be like them. You have a rising generation of infants born Deaf who are implanted with Cochlear Hearing Aids before they are a year old and they are not raised to use American Sign Language Only. Who will educate those Implanted Deaf Children if not Gallaudet University?

Under Dr. Fernandes that mission would have been served and solved. Now, with the radical ASL wing of Gallaudet winning the temporary day, the realization of that inclusive educational goal is uncertain. Many of the Implanted are Oral Deaf and they may choose to use ASL or not — but they still deserve an equal education and the natural place for them to explore and expand their understanding of who and what they are — is to attend Gallaudet.

If Gallaudet remains a radically “ASL Only” school then future generations of students will choose to go elsewhere and the University will gradually die on the Florida Avenue vine as its student population withers into nothingness at the hands of an advancing technology and the rising efforts of the medical community to “heal” deafness on a genetic level.

I warned against that unfortunate end in my Urban Semiotic article here titled, Not Deaf Enough at Gallaudet: Finally is Not Enough and the sad lesson the current Board and students and faculty failed to learn in their protest is this:

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.

I still argue the reason Dr. Fernandes is out at Gallaudet is because she is perceived to be “Not Deaf Enough” and the Gallaudet Board, in a cowering and clunky decision to remove Dr. Fernandes, proves once again they have no coherent understanding of Deafness and Deaf Culture and this time they were threatened by the bad behavior of students who would rather camp out in tents on the campus than attend classes.

The faculty dismissal of Dr. Fernandes is contemptuous in the utmost degree. The Gallaudet Board owes its students and faculty lessons and decisions that may not be popular, but are right, and Dr. Fernandes, a history-making woman, was the right person in the right place at the right time to blaze Gallaudet into a secure future.

If there are Audists and Audism, this shameful decision at Gallaudet confirms there are Deafists and Deafism. Janna and I discuss the issue of inclusion and exclusion in Deaf Culture in our new book — Hand Jive: American Sign Language for Real Life and exclusively available from Barnes & Noble Booksellers — and the topic is sticky and unfortunately insidious and pernicious and thus threatens the total demolition of American Sign Language as a living language and encourages the decay of a vibrant Deaf Culture when it is only protected by exclusion and containment for survival and expression.


  1. Dave!
    Love the Avatar!
    I am only speaking for myself in today’s article and I’m glad you brought that up. Janna has a POV on this matter but I’ll let her come and speak in her own words if she wishes to do so.
    The paragraph where I mention her and our book is on-the-record and written together and that’s why I had no problem mentioning her in association with those ideas.
    I think in the examples you mention those “newly Deafened” would not be accepted at Gallaudet as “culturally Deaf” because they were not born Deaf. They were not bred into the culture from birth and that is important in today’s Deaf community.
    The problem with that fanatical view is what happens when one day medical science eradicates Deafness? That day will come whether the current protesters at Gallaudet like it or not because science and technology are always solving new problems even if those who are being “fixed” don’t consider themselves broken. Hearing parents with Deaf infants — and the overwhelming majority of Deaf infants are born to Hearing parents — consider their infants “broken” and they will go to any end to get them mended.
    Thanks for the info on the banner! I could go with the blue box or a colored headline for those in your position but that can look really ugly for those who weren’t having your problem and since your banner problem was because of older technology that is not CSS-friendly, I guess that’s the price I’m willing to pay for beauty.

  2. I’m hard of hearing and I was never into them (according to my signing abilities isn’t as pure as ASL (some will say I am, anyhow) but a PSE signer. But I remain active with deaf community and there is a culture that you’d think it is not. However, you would have to look at a recent discovery of a remote location in the jungle where (a real tribe) deaf people lived, on their own without any influential from an outsiders. It confirmed that they learned how to sign. If it is not a culture, then assuming that the first spoken language came out of a caveman’s mouth (Anglo-Saxon, or for any of that matter) is not a dialect (spoken) language at all. No one have the same spoken tongue alike. That goes the same that any foreign and American Sign Language has their own signs, too. Their dialect signing is so unique that you would never understand. To us, we are able to decipher and incorporate into normal conversations. Jane was obviously oppressed at the time. It was ironic, that her deaf mother would discriminate and forbade her to bring any signing into their homes. If you can compare to an apple and an orange, you can look at horrible disabled and mentally institutionalized people in the past half century. This is the works of experts who cannot accept but to change for the society’s sake. Which make things more complicated as American educators continues insisting that signing is not a language. To make matter worse, as those medical doctors artificially saying this is the only way. Not only that, as technologies continue to adapt those change, we still maneuvering to fit into our lives and eventually, sign language will come along, too. Unfortunately for Jane and those alike, will continue to set an example and diversifies those deaf non-culturally into isolation. Then I see this is a fixed of human genocides behavioral. Finally, to make things much easier for everyone to learn IS how to sign (same thing you would take a foreign language in high school. I took French in high school). And be able to communicate is a no-brainer.

  3. Hi JC —
    Thank you for your comment. I agree ASL is a language unto itself and it should have the same status as French, German and Spanish in colleges and universities across the world. The fact that ASL is not universally accepted as a foreign language demonstrates either ignorance or bigotry on the part of the administration that denies its acceptance as a language with a culture. Janna and I discuss why ASL is a Foreign Language in our new book, “Hand Jive: American Sign Language for Real Life” available exclusively at Barnes and Noble:
    How we communicate with each other is vitally important and that is why “Who is Deaf?” and “What is Deaf” and “What makes up Deaf Culture?” are important questions for everyone to ask and answer together and not just a select few who choose to sign as the preferred means of communication.
    For the Deaf Community to expand and evolve — as any community must in order to thrive and survive — it must continually redefine itself and access its values and achieve its goals and decide if longevity is important or if existing definitions are the most defining factor over the next 40 years.
    The Gallaudet pyrrhic victory by the students and faculty is unfortunate in practice and purely hollow in positive result.
    What the Gallaudet Board should have done was to get behind Dr. Fernandes — they chose her! — and get her instilled at Gallaudet with their full support, and move on to bigger and more important pressing issues that threaten the long-term viability of Gallaudet as a leading-edge institution and technologically viable research facility for educating the Deaf.

  4. This seems incredibly short sighted – we all have to change and adapt with the times. I think it is vital that sign language is not lost – but also feel that technology should be used for the benefit of all.

  5. Hi Nicola!
    Your point is well-argued. There is a tremendous stratification in the Deaf Community. There are hardcore “ASL Only” folks and some “Implanted” People and some “Hard of Hearing” and some “Hearing Impaired” and some who use “Total Communication” that includes both voice and sign to communicate and not all of them really get along or share the same view or agenda for continuing the culture.
    There are also Hearing Interpreters and there are CODAs — Children of Deaf Parents — who also live by the memes and circumstances of the Deaf Community.
    I agree the way to perpetuate a language and its culture is to teach and include and accept others who may not share your narrow point of view, but who are interested in the culture and who believe they have something of value to add for the continuation of the culture.
    You get into a regressive and closing defense of a culture when only some people are pre-qualified for joining and expansion of the culture — especially when the pool of the pre-qualified is dwindling every single day.

  6. Humans always have a need to separate themselves because they are afraid of “others.” This trend has occurred throughout history and has only been breaking down in the modern era as people become more educated and accustomed to people of diverse backgrounds.
    Being a young student away from home for the first time is a fearful time. I suspect a lot of the protest stems from fear of the unknown — including fear of people who are or have different life experiences.
    I suspect that there needs to be “sensitivity” training for everyone involved. Not to enforce a ridged “hate speech code” but to allow people to learn more about people who aren’t the same.
    The school will fail if it becomes an institution if it ends up alienating everyone in society, except for the most fervent base that supports isolationism. Who will want to go to school in a place where there is a judgmental attitude and rejection of everyone, except for an elite few?
    Of course, maybe there’s nothing wrong in seeking to separate from society?
    Could these students be trying to form their secular version of an Amish or Luddite society that rejects modern technology? Maybe it will become a type of secular monastic existence a la Tibetian or Christian monks?

  7. Hi Chris!
    Yes, fear is a powerful force and we often become what we fear.
    The Gallaudet mess may be a good example where fear of change leads one down the dark path of ultimately closing the university because those who feared change rejected the necessity for change.
    There have been “Deaf Neighborhoods” and even “Deaf Towns” founded by those who seek to have only ASL spoken as the means of communication and commerce — the invention of “Laurent, South Dakota” is one such example — and you can read more about that effort here:
    Separation from society only leads to future permanent ostracism — and ostracism is often the igniting factor for the initial separation. It’s interesting how the weapon of decision becomes the cudgel of exclusion. It all becomes a vicious circle with no end and no proper ongoing evolution to become the next great thing.

  8. Chris —
    In many ways Gallaudet is, and has been, insular and protected by design of its mission. It is considered a “Deaf Haven” by the Deaf Community — the pillar of Deaf Education — and protecting that feeling of belonging and specialness is precisely what was behind the misbegotten effort to oust Dr. Fernandes.

  9. Hi David,
    The effects of isolation can be seen in seemingly “mainstream” communities that are far removed from diversity that is found in the major urban areas.
    I’ve noticed a difference in the general attitudes and outlooks of people I deal with in the city and its suburbs and of people who live outside of the media, diversity, and influences of the larger urban core in isolated, rural areas.
    People in larger cities seem to be more optimistic about their futures, even when they aren’t in the best of circumstances. There’s always a notion that opportunities await just around the corner. With a little hard work, they’ll be able to better themselves.
    Travel 125 miles away from the city into rural areas with little or no contact with the outside world except for television signals beamed down from space and the viewpoint is a polar opposite.
    Bad things are happening that are beyond ones control. Forces larger than anyone in town control peoples’ destinies. Futures are tied to people and entities that have the power to destroy generations with simple decisions, such as closing a business or moving a plant overseas. Even a small decision by the state to pave one major road versus another can mean life or death for economic life in some small towns. Hope for the future is open expressed in desire to get hired on by a mega retail store, if it decides to open in the community.
    Sometimes it seems that people who choose to live far away from everything that is “bad” often end up displaying countenances that are sadder than those exhibited by their fellow citizens living in the “dangerous” world of the urban core and its surrounding suburbs.

  10. Beautifully said, Chris! Your thoughts on this matter are tender and important. Rural communities are isolated from mainstream thought and social values and that kind of emptiness of constant community values can lead to an uncomfortable conservatism that leaves lives dying on the vine instead of thriving up the wall into the territory of new ideas.
    Your comment reminds me of my “Bright Minds Going Dark” article where a genius Nebraska boy was killed by the isolation of his body in his mind divided by the land:

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