Tuesday, October 31, 2006


This week something interesting occurred in the news.

The students of Gallaudet rose up to protest the hiring of Jane Fernandes as President of the University for Deaf students. The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer reported today: "The Board of Trustees at Gallaudet University voted Sunday to revoke the contract of incoming president Jane Fernandes, amid protests from students, faculty, and alumni."

In an interview with a student protester, Gwen Ifill points out, "Fernandes, who has been deaf since birth, said she was a victim of a culture debate over whether she was "deaf enough. She didn't learn to use sign language until she was in her 20s. "

People who are deaf do not see deafness as a 'disability.' Rather they see themselves as having their own distinct culture with their own language.

As the Houston Chronicle (October 30) reports, "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."

In her Opinion piece yesterday for the New York Times, Leah Hager Cohen writes,

"Most of the hearing world can’t understand why the protest was so extreme. Students and faculty at most universities don’t expect to play more than a token role in the selection of a new president. Hunger strikes? Bulldozers razing tent cities? More than a hundred arrests? Two thousand people marching on the Capitol? And in the last few days things were escalating: there were reports of injuries, vandalism and threats against those who didn’t join the protest.

Understanding this requires understanding that Gallaudet is much more than a university. Sometimes called “the deaf mecca,” it functions as the symbolic capitol of a minority culture long disenfranchised. In years past, deaf people were denied the right to inherit land, to bear children, to receive an education. Today, all too often they continue to be denied the right to access information and to speak for themselves."

I think that the protests people have put forth over Galluadet are very admirable and should set an example for all minorities - especially people with disabilities.

Cohen points out that "In years past, deaf people were denied the right to inherit land, to bear children, to receive an education."

People with retardation or physical disabilities have been through even worse. Historically, people with a wide-range of disabilities have been denied jobs, institutionalized, denied access to public places, and (in Africa) killed or forced into a life of begging. As I wrote earlier, people with disabilities (under American law) are currently being paid below minimum wage. If this happened to African-Americans we'd never hear the end of it! As it stands, no one does anything - most don't even know.

It is frustrating to me that people with disabilities do not have the same political power as other groups, and don't demand it. I think part of the reason is that there are so many disabilities - it is difficult to form a collective. I think people with disabilities also tend to still hide a way and live on government assistance. They are not OUT there.

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