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October 6, 2003

President provides understanding of deaf culture

From: The Sign Post - Oct 6, 2003

By William Hampton | copy editor

As the clock approached 10, the Shepherd Union Building Ballroom filled to capacity with more people than expected; so many, in fact, that more chairs had to be brought in. The more densely packed the seats became, the more the commotion swelled -- except in the front handful of rows, wherein virtually every person was silent. Instead, their animated gestures threw their conversation across the room, far more efficiently for anyone who could understand. They were using American Sign Language.

At Weber State University's fifth-annual Conference on Diversity, I. King Jordan gave the keynote address entirely in sign language -- translating himself as he went, almost as an afterthought.

Jordan, first-ever deaf president of Gallaudet University (a 124-year-old Washington, D.C., college for the deaf and hard-of-hearing), spoke about the aftermath of Gallaudet's appointment of a hearing person to the position. Students literally took to the streets, protesting the decision.

"I remember the police with the bullhorns telling students to stop," Jordan said. "It was a seven-day event, all day, all night for a week."

The bad news for the police was that the students couldn't hear --which in this case strengthened their mobilization; they rioted not in spite of the police, but in total disregard to them.

"The word 'revolution' is not an exaggeration," King said. "It truly was a revolution in the deaf and disability community."

King applauded WSU for putting on the conference. "I think it's wonderful that Weber State University takes the lead in doing this," he said. "It's really important to set a day when we can talk seriously about issues of diversity."

King talked about the ways in which he has changed the focus of Gallaudet University.

"The U was 124 years old, and doing all that time there was an attitude of ... 'You be good, and you stay and you get your degree, and you go out and work in school or work in social service or something, but don't expect to be accommodated,'" King said. "Deaf people were beginning to say, 'Wait a minute. I have all the credentials, the experience, the ambition, the desire to do this; the only thing I don't have is the ability to hear.'"

He ran up against the same kind of mentality when applying for the presidency. According to King, "They said, 'Imagine a deaf man in a room with a congressman. What would you do? It's very important that we have a strong relationship with Congress.'"

King encouraged listeners not to be lulled into complacency by the progress toward appreciating diversity that has been made so far, but to consider ways individuals can continue to make things better.

"Some signs I really hate. One sign, that sign," King said while demonstrating the sign,"means literally 'good enough.' But it's a whole attitude. It means I'll stop working on this. I'll stop pushing this because we've made some progress. It's good enough. I tell students every year when the freshmen come, never say 'good enough.' Because you can always work to improve, you can always do better."

Teachers and students from at least three school districts attended the conference. Kim Day, an ASL teacher at Brighton high school, brought her class to the keynote address.

"A lot of them have never even met a deaf person before, and they're learning sign language as a foreign language in high school," Day said. "We study about the Gallaudet protest, so this is a wonderful opportunity to see the real history here, and meet Dr. Jordan."

The address made an impact on Rachel Richardson, WSU freshman.

"It kind of sheds light on it that I hadn't seen before, so it was more interesting," Richardson said. "If we were more informed, I think everyone here was in some ways."

At one point during the address, King stopped interpreting and just signed for several minutes, to give hearing members of the audience an idea of how it feels for a deaf person to be out of the communication loop. For Richardson, this was very disorienting.

"I got so confused," she said. "I thought the mic went out. I totally wanted to know what he was saying."

Sandra Powell, associate professor of business administration and coordinator of the Diversity Conference, said the attendance of the address defied everyone's expectations.

"It was too well attended," Powell said. "We had not enough seats for everybody. We had every seat actually filled in the keynote speech. He did such a wonderful job. I hope the people that were here liked his notion that it's never good enough, so we're never done, even when we're laboring forward and we're seeing improvement, which we are on Weber State campus. That isn't 'good enough.'"

Powell was pleased not only with the turnout, but also with Jordan's message.

"It's exciting when you see that kind of support, both from the broader community and from Weber State's faculty and students," she said. "I was excited to see so many there, and I hope everybody enjoyed his comments and learned something from it, got something to think about."

You can reach reporter William Hampton by calling 626-7659.

© 2003 The WSU Signpost