By Jack Slutzky
(November 3, 2006) — I am totally dismayed and more than a little angry over the events at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. The trustees voted late last month to terminate the appointment of incoming president Jane Fernandes, the subject of months of protests.
These feelings have been aroused in me by phrases being bandied around: “not deaf enough,” “not my kind of deaf,” “deaf culture,” “not adequately committed to American Sign Language” and “Gallaudet, the leading college for the deaf.”
I taught at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology for more than 27 years. My son, who was born profoundly deaf, is an assistant professor at an upstate university teaching hearing students.
I have worked with and for people across the country who are deaf or hard of hearing for more than 40 years. I mention these facts to give credibility to my words.
Gallaudet University is not the leading university for the deaf. It might be the oldest, but it is far from the best. Judging by the success of Gallaudet students in the classroom and workplace, Gallaudet is not even a close second to NTID.
To say that Fernandes is “not deaf enough” or doesn’t “use the right kind of communication” is as insulting as it is bigoted. I worked at NTID with a dedicated faculty and staff, deaf and hearing, to enable students who are deaf to reach their potential and become full-fledged members of society. And they have! To have shut themselves in a small enclave a few radicals call “deaf culture” would have insulted the vast numbers of people who are deaf, people who are as heterogeneous as any group in this country.
The dictionary defines culture as the development of intellectual and moral abilities; enlightenment acquired by the study of the fine arts, humanities and the sciences; and the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends on the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. Ergo, “deaf culture” is a misnomer!
American Sign Language does not make a culture. When Fernandes spoke in January of expanding Gallaudet to embrace all forms of deafness, and all modes of communication deaf people use to communicate, she ruffled the feathers of a few defensive hermits afraid of sharing, of growing, of becoming.
Most Americans who are deaf or hearing impaired do not embrace American Sign Language as their language of choice. Most parents of deaf children do not embrace ASL as their language of choice. Most employers and educators of deaf people do not embrace ASL as their language of choice.
I have told my son and hundreds of students I have worked with: I care not how you communicate, but that you communicate. I care not what you choose to study, but that you can and do choose. I care not what you choose to do with your life, but that you have choice in life. Embracing a biased, bigoted misnomer called “deaf culture” and an absolute adherence to ASL will only inhibit your participation in society.
Shame on you, Gallaudet trustees, for caving in to threat and for failing to defend the rights of people across this country who are deaf.
Slutzky, of Le Roy, has been a writer since he retired from RIT 10 years ago. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.