As an American Sign Language interpreter, I think I have a perspective of American Deaf culture and the issues at Gallaudet University that few hearing people can grasp — and, unfortunately, the messages the average hearing person gleans from the hearing media don’t seem to be doing much to illuminate the situation. I would like to try my best today to speak as one hearing person to another about my understanding of the issues transpiring at Gallaudet University from the perspective of a person who has a fairly good understanding of both the deaf and hearing worlds.
It seems to me that the only message hearing people are getting about the protests against Jane K. Fernandes (JKF) as the incoming president of Gallaudet is that she is “not deaf enough.” I would like you (my fellow American who can hear) to put yourself in the shoes of those deaf students and ask yourself not “is she deaf enough” but “is she one of us?” And ask yourself, would you want a leader who’s not one of you?
Perhaps we must begin with the understanding that the main criterion for membership in the American Deaf culture is the use of American Sign Language — not one’s degree of hearing loss! There are plenty of people — particular senior citizens — who are stone deaf, but they do not use American Sign Language, and they do not identify themselves with the Deaf culture. In light of the imperative that one reach out to other users of American Sign Language and make themselves understood in that language, my opinion as someone who has been trained for many years at communicating fluently in ASL is that JKF fails this primary criterion.
I have watched JKF communicate in videotapes that were carefully scripted, rehearsed, and professionally produced. Even in this promotional video she made, Open Letter to Campus Community, she has almost no facial expressiveness — and specific facial expressions are actually a crucial part of the grammar of ASL! — and she handles signs as if they were foreign objects. One can even detect a disdain, I would hazard to say, in her regard of these signs that she deigns to use in order to offer the slightest appearance of effort to make herself understood to deaf people who rely on visual language for communication. My educated opinion is that the messages JKF puts out in written English (as seen in the captions of her videos) and the messages she puts out in ASL (including facial expression and body language) and NOT the same. Now, please, my hearing compatriots, put yourself in the shoes of a student at a university that is supposed to be the seat of your culture: would you accept a leader who not only showed disdain for the language that is at the center of your culture, but more than that, didn’t even bother to make herself understood in your language of necessity? I firmly believe that you would reject that person as a leader. Enough people already complain that our current U.S. president, George Bush, pronounced “nuclear” wrong and bungles the English language. Let me assure you, as someone who knows both English and ASL intimately: JKF is far worse than George Bush when it comes to not speaking the language.
But the issues are deeper, even, than linguistic. They are political and cultural. Imagine that you are a member of an oppressed minority. Maybe you, my dear reader, already are. Maybe you are gay, or black, or Mexican, Native American, Jewish, or Muslim. Do you not feel a oneness with other people of your minority? Do you not expect — take for granted, even — a certain mutual respect, understanding, equality and fraternity with others in your minority? Yes, I know that in-fighting occurs even in close-knit communities, but isn’t it considered the exception that proves the rule? Now imagine that you have a leader who is not warm (fraternal), respectful (treating you like an equal), and understanding. Suppose that you have a leader who has a long history of being cold, unapproachable, disrespectful of those who she should respect as “peers” because they are members of her culture. How would you feel? Would you accept this person as your leader, or would you and your fellows roundly reject her? I think you would reject her just as the Deaf students at Gallaudet have rejected JKF ever since she was appointed provost of Gallaudet, not to mention president.
I have discussed the linguistic and cultural reasons the students and faculty of Gallaudet have rejected JKF as their leader. The other reasons are political, although the linguistic and cultural are woven into the political. JKF, from what I have read in several letters from faculty members and students, has a history of claiming to support “dialog” and “working together,” yet her actions in board meetings and other political arenas have belied her words. She has repeatedly rejected the input of others, and she has repeatedly seized and maintained control by rejecting not only the input, but the pleas, of many. She does this now by refusing to step down as president, but from what I have heard from the Gallaudet community, this stubborn arrogance is nothing new.
I hope that I have shed light on the darkness of what is, to many hearing Americans, an unknown and incomprehensible cultural struggle. I hope that you have put yourself in the shoes of those deaf students and faculty of Gallaudet university and have at least a slightly better grasp on the issues. Of course, you are free to come to your own conclusions. I just felt I had to say something about this important crisis and share the perspective of a linguistic community that I have spent many years learning from and understanding. Thank you for taking the time to listen.