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July 3, 2006

Gallaudet president should remember the culturally deaf

From: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - Rochester,NY,USA - Jul 3, 2006

Pamela Conley
Guest essayist

(July 3, 2006) — They won't listen. You know why — it is just because I am deaf."

"I have no time to advocate for our rights."

"I don't want to lose my job."

"They didn't understand me because I didn't use my voice."

Sadly, I am an authority on this topic. Having been profoundly deaf since birth as well as a parent of a deaf child, I am familiar with issues of unintentional and intentional discrimination that are unique to a group of Americans and international citizens who are deaf. My peers and I are used to being treated a little bit differently.

The recent protests at Gallaudet University have brought these underlying issues to the forefront. The very same antagonistic attitudes about a particular group of deaf people demonstrated by administrators of Gallaudet University are vividly present in the American mainstream as well as the world.

The "not deaf enough" argument has been exploited by those who are pro-Jane K. Fernandes, the president-select of Gallaudet.

For the sake of debate, let me respond to that argument. The opposite of "not deaf enough" is "not hearing enough."

A typical deaf person who is not hearing enough is defined as an individual with congenital hearing loss who has viewpoints that are distinctly different from those of hearing people, uses American Sign Language (a sign language that does not follow the English word order), does not have the ability to speak, and has a background of an education from a school for the deaf rather than a public school.

I am one of those deaf individuals who is not hearing enough. My personal and professional values are strikingly different from those of some of my hearing and deaf counterparts. I have been scorned for advocating for long overdue changes in deaf education for the benefit of some deaf students whose cultural and linguistic needs are dissimilar to those of hearing students.

Because of my unconventional views and advocacy efforts, I am perceived as "not hearing enough."

Fernandes and I have so much in common. We receive ill treatment for our beliefs and values. However, Fernandes has compromised hers by putting herself in a dishonorable position. Fernandes used Signed English in one of her public speeches. Ample research has consistently shown that Signed English is unnatural and significantly reduces communication accessibility for deaf people who use ASL. In the light of the current political situation, Fernandes has not been disseminating information in a language widely respected and used by those at Gallaudet University and a large majority of deaf people living in the United States. This is politically unacceptable.

Instead, the "not deaf enough" issue overstated by Fernandes' camp has not successfully heightened the public appreciation of differences among deaf individuals around the world who have had a long history of facing difficulties in trying to belong in the general mainstream. Compared to deaf people who speak and use signed English, deaf people who use ASL and do not use voice face more discrimination. Unfair statements made by Fernandes and her supporters have set our agenda back 30 years.

In the 18 years since the Deaf President Now movement, many great strides have been made for culturally deaf people — but there are many, many miles to overcome to make authentic changes happen. The Better President Now may be regarded by many as "the lost cause," but it is the cause I believe in and proudly support. It is badly needed to help push forward the progress that has been rather sluggish in recent years for culturally deaf people.

It is obvious that Fernandes and her camp will have to move a mountain to restore the faith of the Gallaudet community as well as deaf people from all over the world. The Gallaudet community, with the rest of the world, is waiting to embrace a culturally deaf leader who values ASL and actually uses it in politically and socially appropriate situations to lead its university.

Conley is an alumna of Gallaudet University.

© 2006, The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle,