Friday, October 20, 2006

370: Why Is The Gallaudet Community Protesting?

Why is the Gallaudet protest happening? Why has the entire University risen in arms? In Dr. Paddy Ladd's book, Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, he explains that throughout the history of Deaf people, going back to, oh, the 1600's, there have always been institutions and places where a group of "gatekeepers" block the point between the Deaf community and everyone else. By negotiating what goes in and out, they have tremendous power over both communities. They inflate their egoes with this power: they are the people who know how to make the magic happen, who know how to "manage the Deaf." They also create an atmosphere of oppression.

Here in America we have our own "gatekeepers." Of course it works a little differently in America because our history is different, but the principle is the same. The appointment of Fernandes as Provost by circumventing shared governance approval by the Faculty was only a foreshadowing of what was to come later. And her comments to the Washington Post that she is the "only one" who can lead the Deaf community is similarly ominious.

"Gatekeepers" rise because of the communication differences of the Deaf community. They manipulate the politics of difference to create spaces for themselves. Often in Europe, "gatekeepers" were superintendents of schools, missioners in churches who helped run Deaf clubs. In the past these "gatekeepers" were always hearing people. During Deaf President Now we fought for a President who was physically deaf hoping he would at least understand our needs because they were his own. He has responded by distancing himself from our community and turning into the very type of person DPN protestors were trying to get rid of. So, too, has Dr. Jane Fernandes, with her comments of "not Deaf enough," their decision to block the use of interpreters by students, all of their strategies are "gatekeeper" strategies. We want someone to speak to us, not for us - and especially at Gallaudet University, we need someone who can teach Deaf youth to speak for themselves. All kinds of Deaf youth. This is what I mean by capital-D Deaf: it is something my supervisor at work, who is hearing, can do: the ability to see d/Deaf people as, well, people: something key to the concept Ladd calls Deafhood:
Deafhood is not, however, a 'static' medical condition like 'deafness.' Instead, it represents a process - the struggle by each Deaf child, Deaf family and Deaf adult to explain to themselves and each other their own existence in the world. In sharing their lives with each other as a community, and enacting those explanations rather than writing books about them, Deaf people are engaged in a daily praxis, a continuing internal and external dialogue. (p.3, "Understanding Deaf Culture" by Ladd)

This is why I wanted to see a Jane Fernandes walking into protest groups back in May, sitting down with them, and figuring out what the hell is going on. That kind of proof would probably have ended the protest. That would have turned her from a "gatekeeper" into someone who empowers, a person who lifts up people who still, yes, experience discrimination, and come to Gallaudet so they can experience barrier-free education and grow strong as they can before going back into a pretty tough world. When the protestors took the gates it was more than a metaphor.

Now, it is true Fernandes has a reputation for raising expectations. But these raised expectations are useless without also raised standards for communication, especially when it comes to Deaf people. When you have Professors who can only speak in pidgin sign language, it doesn't matter how well-published they are: you wouldn't let someone teach Foucault in baby talk. And truthfully, when you are a "gatekeeper" you are interested in maintaining class systems, groups within society. It enables you to manipulate the society more. When Fernandes said she was "not Deaf enough," she was exploiting the divisions within our own society to create a support base for herself.

That is why protestors want unity for Gallaudet. It is difficult to continue to be a "gatekeeper" when everyone on the other side works together: the gate gets crashed.

This is the bridge between the Deaf President Now protest and this one, though Jordan said they have nothing in common. They are about the same thing: it is only that our understanding has improved. Now we target the behavior, not the person. It really doesn't matter if someone is hearing or deaf (although it's probably better to have a deaf person in the position, for role model and inspiration purposes at least.) It matters if they create a barrier - or tear one down. When Fernandes decided to have a radio interview, without captions, wasn't she putting up a symbolic barrier? A hand in the face of the Gallaudet community? Does she have more commitment to the Washington Post than she does to the teachers and students she's been working with for almost ten years?

This is the heart of Deafhood: this willingness to be part of the community while still being yourself. To talk to each other. Look at Ridor, look at Elisa, look at MishkaZena, look at me, look at Erfo, the bloggers on DeafDC... some of us have implants. Some of us were raised Orally. Some of us are Deaf people from Deaf families. And we have built this amazing community online, despite our differences. And many, many of us have no confidence in Fernandes, because of these things I have outlined. Former Fernandes supporters have spoken to me, traumatized by her demeaning "not Deaf enough" comments, and I note that Feldman on is also bothered by the fact her recent radio interview was not captioned. This is why the protest is happening: we want someone who will talk to us, despite our differences, and help our community continue its climb.

(it's sorta buff and blue)

Next: How to Crash the Gates

Addendum: I wrote this essay two days ago. In the meantime, Fernandes has continued "gatekeeper" behavior. People ask why she's so desperate to hold on to her position. Erfo mentioned something to me today which makes sense: Where would she go? Zinser was hearing and could go to work anywhere she pleased. But where would Fernandes go? Especially now? I really doubt anyone with her style of management would get anywhere in a hearing organization. Besides, as Eric Ketchum does, a hearing employer would check her resume - and find it wanting.


Anonymous said...

don't you admire zinzer now?

Anonymous said...

Joseph -- Thank you for this commentary. The idea that the main reason for the protest at Gallaudet is all about elimination of the "gatekeeper" is the most clear explanation I have seen yet. Gallaudet needs a "bridge" as a leader. I am glad to hear you say that it doesn't matter if this person is hearing or deaf (tho a deaf person does make more sense, as you said, from a role model point of view). It clearly contradicts what has been said in the press regarding the protests. What matters is that the next leader is a bridge, not a gatekeeper. That the person tears down barriers, and does not support or strengthen existing barriers.

Get this idea out to the media. It needs to be in the forefront of EVERY media report on the protests at Gallaudet. There are too many people who watch/listen to news, but don't read these wonderful blogs. They do not understand what the protests are all about, because the media are being manipulated and dominated by Fernandes and King. As a hearing person in Austin Texas, the first stories I heard were all the Fernandes/King point of view and the whole "she's not deaf enough" line. After a few txt msgs to deaf friends, I began to understand the real story. I had to hunt for links to the blogs to start to understand the rest of the story. The protesters need to put this idea of "bridge, not gatekeeper" out to the media and have their side understood by the masses. Otherwise, the "sound bites" of the administration dominate.

You will succeed. Be strong.
Unity For Gallaudet

Anonymous said...

So you wanted to fire somebody because they weren't deaf enough?

Would the deaf community be supportive if a non-deaf college fired their president because he or she was deaf and couldn't speak very well?


Anonymous said...

Anon, get real. A non-deaf college wouldn't even consider someone for the position of president who couldn't speak the language of the majority of their student body. Hey, I know! Why don't I go try to get hired in Japan as a publicity manager? I don't speak Japanese, but if they refuse to hire me, I can just whine about how they're being exclusionary.

If you're going to represent any large group of people, you should be able to frigging TALK to them.

-- J

Anonymous said...

I've been learning ASL for the past 3 years, and have been researching the 1988 Rally at Gallaudet,compared to the most recent protest there. I've found a lot of differences, but I am having a hard time figuring out the key difference...
What is the key difference?