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June 3, 2006

Deaf Students Express Dissent Along a High-Tech Grapevine

From: Washington Post, United States - Jun 3, 2006

Blogs, Pagers, Phones Carry Debate on Presidential Pick

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 3, 2006; B03

The instant that the name of Gallaudet University's new president was announced -- spelled in sign language to a tense, waiting crowd -- Ricky Taylor's pager went off in Virginia.

Within seconds, Taylor, a graduate of the liberal arts university for the deaf, posted on his blog a prewritten article about the choice, provost Jane K. Fernandes.

The selection of Fernandes on May 1 shocked many. As she began her speech and some angry students walked out, Taylor's friends were filming and snapping photos, e-mailing them with Sidekick cellphones and typing in updates as a crowd surged to the front gates of the Northeast Washington campus to protest.

At the height of the demonstrations -- which a coalition says will continue, more quietly over the summer, despite worries about reprisals -- Taylor had 7,000 readers a day. His Web site, using his tag Ridor and the slogan "Home to arguably the most controversial deaf blogger in America," was just one of dozens trading news and rumor, filming life in the tents that sprouted by the front gates, drawing in people around the world. Pagers, video and broadband turned into engines fueling the protests, giving immediacy, reach and clout.

"It was like a supernova," Taylor said.

Technology has transformed deaf culture by making it easier to communicate. Last month, it propelled the debate over the future of the school and gave deaf people more independence and a stronger voice.

Eighteen years ago, Gallaudet students pulled fire alarms and passed alerts person to person for the Deaf President Now protest, which became a civil rights slogan and brought I. King Jordan into the president's office. It was the first time, many said, that the world had heard them.

Now, as Fernandes prepares to replace Jordan in a role that has become for many the voice of deaf culture, there are more ways than ever to communicate.

It's a watershed moment, said Jared Evans of San Diego, because deaf people can broadcast information widely and instantly. Like so many in the deaf community, he tracked events at Gallaudet almost in real time. That spurred rallies at other deaf schools and letters from national groups, and compelled alumni to travel to Washington.

Just as in the hearing world, new technology changed the rules and the balance of power: It gave voice to everyone, with bias, rumor and insults flying freely. It made it more difficult for the university to control the message or celebrate the new president.

For the deaf, the impact was magnified.

Medical technology such as cochlear implants has allowed some to hear and speak more easily, and fewer children are going to deaf schools and are growing up with American Sign Language. "This hurts our minority culture and linguistic community," Daniel Koo of Georgetown University Medical Center wrote in an e-mail, "and can cause divisions."

But other technology can unite people, because whether deaf or hard of hearing, fluent in spoken English or sign language or a mixture, they can use pagers and computers.

And so news and debate tore through campus and far beyond last month, by instant messaging, pagers, the Internet and video relay service calls that use broadband and digital cameras so people can communicate in sign language or have interpreters translate.

Online sites popped up, with listservs where accusations and allegations were traded, poems posted online, documents scanned in and sign language speeches on video. A guy in California jammed in sign language on video to The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," adding some Gallaudet details to lyrics such as "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." People drew cartoons and took on tags such as "Deaf Throat."

It's gotten to the point, Taylor said, that if students lose their pagers, "it's as if the deaf are zombies -- they don't know who they are or what they're doing."

And it's gotten to the point that Mercy Coogan, a spokeswoman for Gallaudet who said she didn't pay much attention to blogs before Jordan announced that he would retire, now checks them first thing in the morning. Some of the debate online has been engaging and interesting, Coogan said. She said she believes in freedom of expression. Then again, anonymity can foster a nasty edge.

Some of the comments online were just flat-out wrong, Coogan said, but they spread so quickly that they "can't always get the horse back in the barn."

Deaf people had a sense of oppression for so long, said alumnus Joey Baer of California, that they often just settled. But with technology, he said, "now they have access, communication, and I've noticed . . . people are looking at things in a bigger light. . . . They have the courage to come up and talk about these things."

The new technology makes it easier for deaf people to talk with hearing people, which expands their opportunities in the hearing world. But technology has also led to the decline of deaf social gatherings, said Julie Guberman, a Gallaudet graduate student who created a Web site. Online they mostly use English. "Without [sign language], there's no community. Being online threatens that."

Yet a growing number of vlogs (online video logs) let Baer and others broadcast in American Sign Language, the language they're most fluent in.

"Now we're reaching out to each other, quickly, and making more friends than ever," said Troy Towers, a Gallaudet alum who helps with a site.

Taylor started his blog a few years ago, feeling isolated and overwhelmed by a new city. He wrote for his friends, but as readership grew, he turned more to politics, the school and other issues.

Like other deaf bloggers, he increasingly focused on the presidential search over the fall and winter. New sites jumped in, with thousands of comments, updates and polls posted on DeafDC, Gallypost, the Gallynet listserv, FSSA, Gallyprotest, Elisa Abenchuan's site and others.

When Taylor arrived on campus to cover the protests, people introduced him as Ridor instead of Ricky. He was getting messages from Brazil, South Africa, Germany and Australia. People sent photos of themselves holding up "Unity for Gallaudet!" signs and shared the link for an online petition.

After graduation, with trustees supporting Fernandes, the students went home, and the protesters pulled up stakes. Taylor went back to Virginia. "I'm in post-protest depression," he said.

But life -- especially online -- doesn't stand still for long.

When Taylor wrote about Jordan speaking at the National Association of the Deaf conference at the end of this month, readers sent him more than $1,000 to blog from the conference in California. He said in an e-mail, "They should expect some kind of drama."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company