- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

The ouster of the incoming president of Gallaudet University, the nation’s leading college for the deaf, has exposed a debate over the future of “deaf culture” and who is an authentic deaf person.

Cochlear implants and sophisticated hearing aids are becoming more prevalent, and many deaf people learn how to speak and read lips.

However, many Gallaudet students and other deaf people have resisted technology that could allow them to hear. They bristle at the notion of deafness as a disability. And they are intent on preserving sign language as an essential part of what they call deaf culture.

By some accounts, Jane K. Fernandes, who was selected in May to be the next president of Gallaudet, got caught in these crosscurrents.

She was born deaf but grew up speaking and reading lips and did not learn how to sign until her 20s. In the opinion of some students and faculty members, she was not adequately committed to American Sign Language (ASL), the primary form of communication at Gallaudet.

“ASL is the communication mode that so many of us grew up with,” said LaToya Plummer, a junior. “It has its own characteristic uniqueness and is such a rich language that we recognize its value and do as much as we can to preserve these language traditions.”

Bowing to months of sit-ins, blockades and other protests from students and faculty members — and a no-confidence vote from the faculty — Gallaudet’s trustees voted Sunday to revoke Mrs. Fernandes’ contract. She was supposed to take office in January.

Students and faculty had complained that Mrs. Fernandes was aloof and autocratic and failed to make academic improvements as the university’s provost.

But many were particularly worried that she planned to reach out to a broader population of deaf and hard-of-hearing students — which Mrs. Fernandes thought a necessity on a campus that is struggling with declining enrollment. Those incoming students might now be attending mainstream schools, reading lips, speaking or using cochlear implants.

Many students and faculty members grew increasingly concerned about her plan, and they fought to keep sign language at the school’s core.

Barbara Olmert, vice president of Sign Media Inc., which sells textbooks, CDs and other media in American Sign Language, said many deaf people have been deaf since birth and sometimes have family members who are deaf.

“They have a really strong community where they really depend on each other,” she said. “They have a common language, a commonality that we as hearing people don’t understand.”

Already, students have complained about difficulty communicating with teachers and campus police officers who don’t sign. Ryan Commerson, a graduate student, said students have gotten hurt because of officers’ inability to communicate with them.

Many of the student protesters said that creating mandatory sign language standards for all faculty and safety personnel should have been Mrs. Fernandes’ job as provost.

“The idea of using ASL in the classroom was minimized,” assistant linguistics professor Deborah Chen Pichler said yesterday. “ASL is not used and supported as it should be.”

After being picked as Gallaudet’s ninth president, Mrs. Fernandes, 50, spoke of expanding Gallaudet to embrace all kinds of deaf people — those with cochlear implants, those who speak and those who do not sign very well.

“The core of who we are representing — American Sign Language and deaf culture — will be expanded upon so that we can be more inclusive of these diverse deaf students who we hope to draw,” she told the Associated Press in a recent interview.

After the campus protests started, Mrs. Fernandes said that some people did not consider her “deaf enough” to be the school’s president — a position students have denied — and that she had become a lightning rod for those frustrated about changes in deaf culture.

“I think that underlying all of this is a fear of change,” Mrs. Fernandes said. “I think it would be more healthy for the university if we could work on debating the ideas, rather than attacking me as a person.”


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