Disability Rights Paper Pt 2
Activism in the Deaf Community
The deaf community, while part of the greater disability movement, is in some ways separate and even in conflict from it. Deaf people often see themselves as members of a linguistic minority rather than having a disability. Some of them even prefer to develop a separate community in which they can easily communicate rather than integrate into the rest of society which most disability rights advocates see as the goal. It is the strong communal bonds they have developed as a result of their social isolation that has led to the potential for social protest.
In 1988, Jerry Lee, the president of Gallaudet University was retiring, and the board of trustees prepared to appoint a new president. Gallaudet in Washington, D.C. is the nation’s only college specifically for deaf and hard-of hearing students. Up to this point, the school had been run by hearing people. Some alumni, who were frustrated with the discrimination of hearing people, felt that continuing to appoint hearing presidents to govern Gallaudet implied that deaf people were not capable of running their own university. Two of the candidates were deaf and one was hearing. On Sunday March 6, 1988, The board announced the choice of Elizabeth Zinser, the hearing candidate.
Students blocked all entrances to the university with cars and occupied the main office. Classes were canceled on Monday, and while they resumed on Tuesday, 90% of the student body did not attend class and continued to protest until their demands were met (Shapiro 1994: 79-80). Student leaders brought a list of demands to Jane Spilman, the chair of the board of trustees. The demands included the dismissal of Zinser, the appointment of a deaf president, the appointment of a majority of deaf members to the board and no punishments for faculty and students who participated in the protests.
The protests were as large as 1,500 people. In unison they signed “Deaf Power!”, “Deaf President Now!” and “Zinser Out!” (Shapiro 1994: 77-79) On Wednesday, Zinser came to Washington to take office but was prevented from setting foot on the campus. They would not recognize her as president. Zinser finally realized she could not run a university that was so strongly set against her, so she resigned. Subsequently Spilman resigned as well. Ultimately, I. King Jordan was selected as president, and half of the board members were replaced with deaf and hearing impaired individuals (Shapiro 1994: 81-83).The news of these developments received national attention and increased public awareness of disability issues.Two months after the events at Gallaudet University, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was introduced into Congress.
Ever since the events now known as Deaf President Now! have been annually celebrated, commemorated and studied at Gallaudet University. Sparks of activist passion relit when I. King Jordan announced his future retirement in December 2006, the board of trustees began searching for a new president. Faculty and students complained that they didn’t get enough input in search process. Also, students of color and their supporters were concerned over the lack of diversity of candidates, and at one point, a white male without a Ph. D. was chosen over an African-American male with a Ph.D. In May 2006, the board of trustees of Gallaudet University chose Jane K. Fernandes, the university’s provost as the next president. Some students, faculty and alumni opposed her designation, and began protesting. The chairwoman of the board of trustees stepped down, saying that she received threats (Bollag 2006).
Among the objections to the choice of Jane K. Fernandes as president were that she had a top-down leadership style, and was distant from students. Because of the university’s unique place not just as an educational institution but as a center of the national and international Deaf community, part of the president’s role is to be ambassador to hearing world, and a public supporter of American Sign Language both in education and the broader society.
Jane K. Fernandes, the candidate chosen as the new president, while deaf from a young age, was raised to speak and read lips and did not learn American Sign Language until age 23 (Bollag 2006). Gallaudet has traditionally recruited its students from schools and programs for children with hearing impairments. But as an increasing majority of students with hearing impairments are educated in the mainstream, Fernandes argues that Gallaudet must keep up with the times and attract students from different educational backgrounds and with different communication styles, both ASL and spoken (Teicher 2006). At a time when the deaf community is embroiled in controversy over the use of cochlear ear implants and other modern treatments for hearing impairment, advocates of Deaf culture and identity feel on the defensive. However, spokespersons for the protest, dubbed “Unity for Gallaudet” asserted that the media was framing the objections of the protesters to Fernandes as being “not Deaf enough” so as to discredit them and obscure the real reasons behind it (Schemo 2006).
In October, protests began again. Students blocked the main entrance to university beginning October 5 and put up a tent encampment. For a while classes were canceled but a boycott of classes continued after they resumed. On October 13 police were sent in and 135 students and faculty members were arrested. At one point a bull-dozer was brought in to push away protesters in a blockade, injuring several people. “We did not choose to arrest the students. They chose to be arrested” said Pres. I. King Jordan. Though Jordan had been popular before protest, after he called on police, a majority of faculty voted no confidence in Jordan (Bollag and Farrell 2006). More students, angry at the administration’s actions, joined the protest. Finally, after weeks of disruption, the Board of Trustees decided it would be best for the university to dismiss Fernandes and re-open the presidential search process. (Teicher 2006).
While the Deaf President Now protests lasted a week and united the University in the end, Unity for Gallaudet was much more divisive and contentious. In the first protest, the issue was more clearly about disability rights, as the protesters argued that people with disabilities are capable of running their own institutions and organizations. But in the second protest, the conflict’s relation to disability issues is more complex. It is debatable whether the protest was about the defense of Deaf language and culture, or highly empowered and united students and faculty demanding a better leader, regardless of the perceived Deaf ideological and cultural purity of Fernandes. Though there was very widespread support in the national and even international deaf community, I got the impression that there was less media and general public sympathy for Unity for Gallaudet.