Audism: Controversy at Gallaudet University

February 21st, 2007

By Colleen Goodhue

When does a group’s pride in themselves become a prejudice toward others? When do you go from simply having a group perspective to being ethnocentric? It can often be hard to draw the line, and lately this has become an issue within the Deaf community.

Gallaudet University, the only all deaf and hard-of-hearing university in the world, seems to find itself in the middle of the turmoil. Set in the nation’s capital, this school has become the hub of Deaf culture. Last October the university was shaken by a controversy over who was to become the next president. The ensuing protests represented the struggle to strengthen Deaf culture and combat audism.

Deaf with a capital “D” is the identity that has risen out of years of mistreatment, misunderstanding and oppression that deaf and hard-of-hearing people have suffered. Audism, discrimination towards those who cannot hear, has always been prevalent. For the deaf and hard-of-hearing, living in a hearing world can be isolating because of difficulties communicating, which hearing people often mistake for lack of intelligence.

Michele Hochstetter, a sign language professor at Ithaca College, also teaches a group of deaf and hard-of-hearing high school sophomores. She has seen them grow and learn since they were kindergarteners and has witnessed how being part of a Deaf community can strengthen self-image and increase confidence.

“The students are proud of who they are and do show that to their peers,” she said. “People, both deaf and hearing, have learned to respect the deaf students’ language and acknowledge their intelligence. Obviously this is not all people - they still have peers making fun of them – and I still see some pity. But the respect is growing.”

The Deaf community is focused on maintaining their culture, their history and their language (which in this country is American Sign Language). Gallaudet University is perhaps the symbolic center of Deaf culture, and therefore events there are watched closely by many connected to the Deaf community.

The Gallaudet University president is a position of leadership within Deaf culture - one that exemplifies the respect and pride of a group of people. This is especially important in a group that is not often heard from or fully understood.

It wasn’t until 1988, over a hundred years after the school’s founding, that Gallaudet had a deaf president. The students at that time held a week-long protest called “Deaf President Now” until I. King Jordan was finally chosen by the Board of Trustees as the first deaf president. For years Jordan was loved and revered by the community and students. That is until last May, when he announced his resignation for the following January and that the school’s provost Jane K. Fernandes would take his place.

The school erupted. Students, faculty, alumni and staff began rallying against her. In October they held a three week protest, complete with hunger strikes, marches on the capitol, a tent city and the hijacking of academic and administrative building. Over 100 students and faculty were arrested, on Jordan’s order, because they refused to move when police asked them to stop blocking an entrance to the school.

While there were other reasons for wanting her to resign, the biggest problem the students, faculty, alumni and staff had was that Fernandes was not “Deaf enough,” meaning she was not involved enough in Deaf culture and not a prominent enough member of the Deaf community to hold such an important seat.

One of Fernandes’s goals was to make the school bilingual in American Sign Language and English – something the protesters strongly opposed. The Board of Trustees understood that there was animosity toward this idea, but they elected Fernandes anyway. They thought she would bring Gallaudet into the mainstream and into the 21st century, but the community disagreed.

A Gallaudet student, Anastacia, said, “I feel that [Fernandes] becoming president would take away livelihood and energy. I. King Jordan was a role model, took away the oppression, and [Fernandes] won’t.”

Brannic Klaz, another student, said “It is important that Deaf education is treasured, that ASL history and culture continue and that [the administration] is proud to be involved with that.” His sentiments were felt throughout the protesters.

The hearing public was baffled by the protests this October. The message the media gave out was that the students did not want Fernandes as president, because they didn’t think she was “Deaf enough.”

Some may see the protests as an example of “Deaf power” or “reverse audism,” discriminating against those who are not deaf or hard-of-hearing. This raises the question of whether a group should be allowed to discriminate against a leader if they don’t think she fits the mold of their culture.

Hotchstetter asks, “Is having a leader of an institution of students who have experienced audism repeatedly in their lives, who may never have a chance to experience a leader who shares their language and culture - really called reverse audism? Or is it just a need from a group who has come to Gallaudet because they want their culture shared and celebrated?”

In the end, the students, faculty, alumni and staff did win their battle. I. King Jordan has stepped down from office, and another school official, Robert Davila has taken his place. They have succeeded in keeping a leader whom they believe will honor their language and heritage. Hopefully this will bring a new force that will keep Deaf culture alive.

Colleen Goodhue is a sophomore TV-R and Outdoor Adventure Leadership double major who will tell you the difference between “audism” and “autism”… again. Email her at cgoodhu1[at]ithaca.edu.

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