Coming Home to Gallaudet University

09/30/2016 08:13 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2016

I rejoiced to return to Gallaudet University today. With Liisa Kauppinen of the World Federation of the Deaf, I was a keynote speaker for the inauguration of the new president. It was a high honor to celebrate Bobbi Cordano’s installation, though she had already established herself as soon as she arrived during an enormous Washington, D.C. snowstorm. She showed everyone how much of a “people person” she was by pitching in to shovel the sidewalk, before opening the doors of her “House One” to welcome people stranded on campus to huddle together against the elements.

For ten years, I had the privilege of serving as a Trustee of the unique school. Although I am hearing, I was invite to join the governing body of the only university dedicated to deaf and hard-of-hearing.

I don’t put much stock in advertising slogans. But I smiled at the new banners on campus. They are accurate in the motto that there is no other place in the world like this. This is a space for deaf people. They perform every job. They have social lives. They interact directly, without the need for an intermediary; they are not dismissed by being told the joke will be explained to them later, which they know rarely occurs.

My association with Gallaudet University was invaluable. Despite working as a professor, I have found in everything I enjoy doing that I learn more than I teach. I hope only to contribute a bit by sharing a few lessons here.

As soon as I arrived for my first meeting, I discovered that it was I, a hearing person, who was disabled. The interpreters were there for me. Everyone else was fine.

Then I realized that it is common for those who assume they are “normal” (at least with respect to the specific characteristic as to which others are deviant), to further presume that since they seem superior they are saviors. To be truly helpful requires being genuinely humble. The deaf didn’t need me.

To the contrary, I recommend volunteer service to people as a benefit to themselves. We look for opportunities to do good, because it makes our lives meaningful. That is as it should be. But if we are honest with ourselves, we also should appreciate that we do well by ourselves too. We gain experience and develop skills.

As I continued my involvement, I could see all around me that there were very smart people. The more senior Board member with whom I was partnered for an early project was a linguistics professor who later won a MacArthur Genius award. I cannot say that I am waiting for that particular phone call to come.

These colleagues, who became friends, happened to be deaf. They were not defined by that characteristic. They rightly were exasperated by stupid hearing people who recognized only one aspect of who they were. They were not about to be reduced to a giant, dysfunctional ear.

When they discussed issues, it was apparent — only hearing people who also are prejudiced persons persist in their doubt — that sign language was a real language in its own right. It wasn’t simply a visual means of communicating, an inferior fallback. It was elegant, expressive as spoken and written language could not be. The ASL vocabulary not only enabled conversation about any complicated policy decision; it enabled subtlety that could not be translated into English, more than vice versa. It offered literally three-dimensional possibilities. Its contextual nature made it rich, textured. I have never heard a deaf person regret that they acquired ASL fluency, but I have heard them grieve that they were deprived the possibility, including by their elders who denied the worth of bilingualism.

Yet there was always an asymmetry. Every minority group, unless it is dominant, has to comprehend the majority. They are expected to adapt as best as possible, even if they are sent the message that their attempts will always deemed laughable, to be mocked. Every deaf person knew the hearing world, because they had to function within it if they expected to succeed. But no hearing person had to bother with the deaf world, even if they were related to someone who yearned for that sense of belonging.

The disability rights movement transformed the civil rights movement. The struggle for disability rights gave us diversity as a value. 

"Deaf President Now!" was the catalyst. In 1988, the Gallaudet Board selected as President a person who appeared qualified, except she had no knowledge of ASL — which is to say, no disrespect to a veteran higher education administrator, she was not in fact suitable. After the students — with faculty, staff, and alumni — took over campus in a protest such as had not been seen in a generation, she had the sense and grace to leave office before starting. 

The Board chair allegedly said that the Deaf were not ready to run the school. The Board had implied as much through its decisions. No deaf individual had ever been chosen as chief executive officer. The retort was what was the purpose of a school for the deaf, it if didn’t train them well enough to run it.

The By-Laws were amended to ensure the Board would be majority deaf and hard-of-hearing. A new Chair took over. The Board simultaneously hired another one of the finalists, a deaf person who had been Dean at the college, Dr. I. King Jordan. He would have an acclaimed eighteen-year tenure, known for demonstrating, as he declared, deaf people can do everything except hear. (For example, he was a competitive ultra marathoner, finishing the infamous Leadville race on multiple occasions.)

Shortly thereafter, and inspired by the same spirit, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Before the ADA, the traditional argument for equality was based on sameness. If you were identical to the next person, then you were entitled to what he enjoyed. If you were different, then you could be treated differently — worse. The categories were abstract and formal. The test was whether you and the standard model were indistinguishable.

The ADA presented a new paradigm. It emphasized difference. That was strategic. After all, a person in a wheelchair is not identical to a person who is ambulatory. Instead of denying the difference, the point was insisting on it. What mattered was the actual lived reality. It was absurd to say to the person in a wheelchair that they were being given the same set of stairs that everyone else stood before but could climb up. The ADA also compelled consideration of what really mattered. Some people were not identical to other people, but in a superficial manner that ought not be counted against them. A person who is disfigured, for example, looks disabled to those who wish to avert their gaze; but there is nothing “wrong” with them at all.

The result was that others also could make the same claim against discrimination. The concept of accommodation turned out to be powerful. You didn’t have to be disabled.

Respect and self-determination was the unifying theme. Traditional cultures, such as Native American religions, were empowered. Gays and lesbians, too. 

President Cordano's speech could have been given only at Gallaudet. It was not generic. She talked about defining a bilingual community; being inclusive and supportive; and leading deaf people of the world. She remarked that the founding of the school, chartered by President Abraham Lincoln, was revolutionary at the time. For its commitment to sign language, against determined resistance, it remains revolutionary even today. As she said, with language comes culture and community.

In celebrating her installation, the stakeholders in Gallaudet came together. She is the leader of much more than a single school. She has the ability to lift up a community.

She has the right touch. The task before her is not easy. But she has her message down. 

To the enthusiastic audience, she repeated that it is not “my” presidency but “your” presidency. Even hearing people ought to be won over by her outreach.

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