Tuesday, October 24, 2006

374: Out of Context: How To Oppress Deaf People Part 1

In my post about why the Gallaudet community is protesting, I talked about "gatekeepers" and how "gatekeepers" block the points of intersection between the Deaf community and other American communities. Today I want to talk about one method people use to talk about the larger Deaf community which helps to oppress them: Isolation.

Isolate the group. Instead of talking about the group as if it's a minority, talk about it as if it's special, with special needs and special help. This happens all the time with Deaf people. People talk about our community as if we exist in a vaccuum. Deaf Studies tries to place Deaf people in the constellation of other oppressed peoples. Paulo Freire's work showed you can only educate people in an empowering way by helping them understand their place in the world in the context of race, gender, class, and culture. People who speak about "Deaf people" as a special case oppress them. This is why I compare the community of Deaf people to Women, Gay people, Black people, Hispanic people, etc. In all these groups you have a core activist community, naysayers, really everything you have in the Deaf community. When someone like Fernandes isolates Deaf people, when they don't look at them in terms of other American communities, they open the door to "special needs" that only "Gatekeepers" can understand.
Example: Fernandes has repeatedly said she wants to "lead" Deaf people. (Note she doesn't say "teach" Deaf people. That might end up with them speaking for themselves. Can't have that.) She has also said she is the only one who can lead Gallaudet. What does this imply? This implies Deaf people are "special," need a special "leader," are unable to think for or speak for themselves, or even learn. To hearing people who listen to Fernandes, this kind of message reinforces the image of Deaf people as needing "help," "guidance," and "rehabilitation." To the Deaf community, it reinforces the image that we cannot lead ourselves, that the last 30 years or so of improvements in education and technology have groomed no leaders.

Would a Woman who wants to lead a Woman's college ever say anything like this? No. She would be shouted out by the many Women activists in America. Her comments would be called patronizing. She would be seen as an outmoded relic of the past. Her goal is obviously to keep herself on top and in control.
Example 2: Bobby Cox and others ask why it is culturally Deaf, ASL using people who seem to be most strongly against Fernandes. While there is a mix of groups in the protest, it is true that people from the Deaf community are in the lead. The focus of Cox's comment discussion was on the Deaf part of that phrase. Commentors ignored the "community" part. Yet this is important, and understanding how this works with other groups will help us understand how it works with ours. What is a community? A group of people who share information. Of course the Deaf community is most strongly against her selection as President: they have ten years of information to share. New students, who aren't in the loop yet, aren't going to know this for a while.

Think about Women at a Women's college. Of course people who've been there for a while will know the politics of that college and people's individual histories. A new student will not have this information, and will not understand why people are upset until they do research. And this is what's happened at Gallaudet, as people learn more and decide there's reason to become involved.

But we can't see this when Deaf people are isolated and part of a vaccuum. When we compare to other types of communities, it becomes obvious. Yet most people still talk about the Deaf community as if it's special. It is unique, yes. But so special that the same rules of human interaction and oppression, etc. etc etc don't apply? Of course not!

Part of the point of Deaf studies is to get beyond this. Instead of special people with special needs, we are trying to become a minority community demanding equality.

1 comment:

julifolo said...

Hi Joseph!

I met one of your fellow protesters on an Urbana, IL bus last night! I think he must have been an Allum back for Homecoming to protest.

I wasn't sure if he had been or was going to be protesting until he signed about how his father (I think) was surprised to see him on TV. Argh, I wish my sign was better.

I also asked him "why want [her]?" and he signed (I think) he saw her [at the protest?] and bad. Stupid(?) She's King's friend?? ... he didn't know. I tried to ask why the Board wanted her -- I don't understand that, when there's so much opposition -- but I didn't have enough signs or time to fingerspell.

(I don't know the man's name. I've met him 2 or 3 times on the bus.)

I think of the deaf community as a cultural group, not "special" -- my brother was a foreigner born into my family. And that I'm not fluent in his language is no more a problem than I can't speak Spanish, and there's lot's of people speaking spanish here. (If we all still lived in the same town instead of scattering I would have gotten better with my ASL.)

Good luck! I'm rooting for you and waiting for Fernandez to step down.