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January 24, 2004

Ohlone seeks new deaf administrator

From: The Argus - Jan 24, 2004

By Jennifer Kho, STAFF WRITER

FREMONT -- Ron Burdett was driving to his computer-assisted instruction job at Stanford University when another man pulled up beside him.

It was George Attletweed, the founder of the Ohlone College deaf program and an acquaintance of Burdett's, and he was signing at him through their car windows.

"Hello," he signed. "I want you to work for me at Ohlone College."

Now, 31 years later, Burdett is preparing to retire as dean of the deaf-studies program.

"Wow, it's going to be hard," he signed, interpreted by Martha Brown, counselor and coordinator of disabled services.

Burdett said one big reason he is retiring is that his wife, Joyanne, retired in October from the California School for the Deaf.

They plan to move to St. George, Utah, a small but growing city with a deaf community of about 47,000 -- similar to Fremont's 31 years ago.

"We're going to look for new jobs, new challenges," said Burdett, who was raised in Utah. "We want to try different things in a different way, and it'll also be kind of like a vacation."

The college will conduct a national search for Burdett's replacement, college President Doug Treadway said.

"He is an outstanding administrator who made a very strong mark on Ohlone College as regards the deaf studies program specifically," Treadway said. "More generally, his overall leadership has earned him high respect among all of his colleagues at Ohlone College, in the local community and across the California community college system."

Burdett said he is grateful to have worked at Ohlone, which has been "one of the greatest schools ever in its support of deaf students."

"I'm working with the deaf, but I'm working in the hearing world, and I enjoy that challenge," he said. "I don't mean to be offensive, but I think it's very important for the deaf to come out of the deaf world and into the hearing world. It's beneficial to both."

He has seen many changes as he served under all five presidents at Ohlone and even remembers moving to the current college location on Mission Boulevard in 1975.

When he joined, the college had only 30 deaf students, Burdett said. Since then, the numbers have sometimes grown as high as 250, and an average of 800 students take sign language every year, he said.

The American Disability Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibit discrimination based on disability, also have made it much easier for deaf students to obtain interpreters, support services and financial aid, he said.

Burdett said he still remembers the interview with former college President Stephen Epler that won him the teaching position.

He got lost -- first mistaking an auto shop for the college -- and then had to get by with lip reading when there was no interpreter.

He taught for 22 years, being promoted to coordinator, then director and then, four years ago, the only deaf dean at a U.S. community college.

"I think my biggest reward, personally, was to become a leader for deaf people," he said. "From teacher to coordinator to dean, it was all really special. I enjoyed my life teaching; I enjoyed everything."

Some of his biggest challenges have included facing budget cuts after Proposition 13 in 1978 -- when many of the programs were cut and Burdett feared the college might close -- and finding ways to bring deaf students into the workforce.

A workability program that he helped set up teams the college with the state Department of Rehabilitation to help find jobs for graduates with disabilities.

"Before, many of the students were happy to just accept social-service checks and would just stay here at the college, improving their skills but not going anywhere," he said. "The workability programs motivate them to get work."

It will be difficult to leave all his friends at the college, he said, "but I also have to tell myself it's time to turn over the reins."

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