Gallaudet University Protests Gain Global Audience

    by Mark Glaser
    October 17, 2006

    If you’re a non-deaf person who generally follows U.S. national news, you probably have a vague idea that there have been protests going on at the only university for the deaf, Gallaudet University, in Washington, DC. You might not be sure why the protests are happening, except that the students don’t want the incoming president, Jane Fernandes, to assume her new duties in January.

    But thanks to various news sites, deaf bloggers, and a fabulous Digg-like aggregator, DeafRead, it’s easy to get more detailed information, opinions and background on the fast-moving situation at Gallaudet. Thanks to these resources, I can better understand why students shut down the school (which actually has students from preschool to university age) for three days last week, and why 133 students were arrested last Friday.

    Blogger and designer David Panarelli first tipped me off to what was happening online, and how students were using the Net to spread the word to deaf people and supporters around the world. Here’s part of what Panarelli wrote on his blog:


    Reporters for major media outlets are apparently not tuned in to the deaf community but frankly, neither am I. And to further muddle the situation, the university administration has used traditional media such as press conferences and press releases, giving everything an institutional feeling that was a bit one-sided. So, with the blind leading the blind on the subject of the deaf, my biggest question remained: why are they protesting?…

    While students work to make their voices heard on campus, protest bloggers have launched a media war on a much larger scale by harnessing online tools to organize their troops, broadcast their message, and analyze the latest developments.

    i-2500e0a3a6105820d73b41c7d6cc8da0-Gallaudet May protest.jpg

    In a nutshell, the students, alumni and even faculty believe that the way the Gallaudet Board of Trustees chose Fernandes to be the next president was flawed and that she was not the right choice to lead the institution. The first round of protests happened in May 2006, when the selection of Fernandes was first made public (this Flickr photo is from that time; see credit below).

    “The Board is not in touch with the student body and the alumni,” wrote alum Karl Ewan, in one of the many open letters published online. “The same Board, the most vocal from within, Tom Humphries who coined the term, audism, told the protestors that they cannot meet one of their demands. The same Board who told the protestors that there is a stalemate. The same Board had only five minutes to spare for the protestors to share their issues because they had travel plans to complete.”


    The protestors set up their own website and blog to help spread the word about their demands — an open presidential search process, and no reprisals for protestors — while bloggers such as Mishka Zena and Elisa Abenchuchan have given timely updates to what’s happening on the ground and with sympathy protests spreading around the globe. Plus, there’s a helpful Wikipedia entry, as well as a video blog that tells the story of students being physically harassed by campus security last week.

    Of course the reaction to the protests and the shutdown of the school has not been uniform. Plenty of deaf bloggers have questioned the protest and the aims of the uprising. Blogger Frarochvia believes the protestors are out to get Fernandes because she isn’t “deaf enough” and doesn’t know American Sign Language well enough.

    “Leave aside the questions of [Fernandes’] so-called problems and failures at Gallaudet,” Frarochvia writes. “To people concerned with them, I am not interested in stories or insults or innuendo or letters. Proof. Concrete proof. Evidence. And a very damn good reason why no one came up with these before the official selection. There was ample opportunity. Lacking any proof, there is nothing. Just stories.”

    The university itself has given its own online updates to the situation, including frequent open letters from administrators. And the conservative local press at the DC Examiner came out strongly against the protestors closing down the campus, saying that “protesters who take things too far often do their own cause more harm than good.”

    But there’s also a danger when mainstream media wades into a controversy outside their areas of expertise. The New York Times was dinged loudly by Gawker for a line in their story — “the protestors complained that their voices were not heard.” The administration was, um, deaf to their complaints, right?

    Plus, the Washington Post was slammed on the DeafDC blog for providing online audio of an interview with Fernandes that didn’t have captions for the deaf. “The Washington Post is insulting the entire deaf and hard of hearing community by telling us that they want to have access to our crisis but will not give us access to their reporting of our crisis,” wrote Shane Feldman.

    Once again, the Internet has proven to be a galvanizing force for organizing activists, and for disseminating information on both sides of a controversial issue. It’s almost impossible to imagine having to follow this story with only the pre-Internet media providing limited information. Now the protestors can make the argument for greater inclusion in the process of governance at their university by using a more inclusive form of distributed media.

    What do you think? Has the Internet helped you follow this story better, or has it only made you more confused? Share the online resources that have helped you get updated information on the protests at Gallaudet University.

    [Photo of May protests by blogger Frarochvia.]

    UPDATE: USA Today has a good report on the issue of technology and implants which help people hear. The report says that the incoming president has been criticized for being too close to the technology sector, while protestors are pushing for more sign language and don’t want to be seen as disabled. “I definitely feel [Fernandes has] been too friendly, catering to the technology sector of the hearing world that wants to help deaf people hear,” senior Noah Beckman, student body president, told the paper.

    UPDATE 2: Jared Evans, one of the people who helps run the great DeafRead aggregator, has a thoughtful post on the present and future of deaf blogs and their growing influence in the deaf community. A couple salient points he makes:

    Mainstream media has ironically become the next battleground between the protest bloggers and Gallaudet Administration. The deaf blogs have somewhat helped to even out the playing field for the Gallaudet protesters despite the Gallaudet Administration’s polished relationship with the local media. Reporters of respected newspapers such as the Washington Post have better access to more variety of information for their articles. Both sides of the protest are now vying to get the media reporters to print editorials and articles that are favorable to their respective viewpoints…

    The discourse on deafhood will likely be the next focus of many deaf blogs after the Gallaudet protest is done with. The networked blogs could take the discourse to a whole new level. Up to now, we have always depended upon published works of Deaf culture books to spread new analysis and information about the state of the Deaf Community. The pace of the cultivation of Deaf Culture has been slow like a snail due to the long wait of production and low visibility of the information locked inside the physical books. Deaf blogs will move this process ahead at warp speed. The slumbering giant is starting to wake up now.

    UPDATE 3: Some commenters pointed out one glaring omission from my report: I didn’t link to or mention one of the more dynamic, opinionated deaf bloggers out there, Ricky Taylor, who blogs at RidorLive. Taylor’s biting commentary is about as close as you could get to a shock-jock type character in the deaf world. His on-the-scene reports — like this one of the protestors taking over College Hall recently — are timely must-reads for anyone wanting to keep up with the latest events at Gallaudet. I had read his blog when putting this story together but neglected to mention him and am sorry about that, because he really is a key player.

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    Tagged: politics weblog
    • Darcy Norris

      The Deaf Community is a complex group for “outsiders” (hearing people)to understand. However, with a little digging into history you’ll quickly find that many Deaf people have been mis-treated, mis-diagnosed, and even mis-institutionalized, because they were Deaf. This being done “to them” by hearing people has caused the Deaf Community to want to be more of a “Separatist” Community. They just want to preserve whats rightfully theirs. Their history, values, mores, and especially their language; ASL. The “Hearing Community” has been well documented for at least 100 years in wanting to “cure” deafness, to eradicate it, and to replace ASL with spoken English (a difficult if not impossible feat for many Deaf people to accomplish). This is probably the farthest thing from what Deaf people really want. They just want to be accepted, treated fairly and respectfully, to have access to a good education, and on and on. In other words, they want what every other person wants, but with the inclusion of their own language, and a respect for their own Culture.

      The Deaf students at Gallaudet want someone who will best represent them to the world. They not only want a Deaf President, they want a Deaf President that has lived the “Deaf Life”, that has grown up with the “Deaf Experience” within the Deaf Community. Unfortunately, Ms. Jane Fernandes did none of those things, and this is what is upsetting to the students. Their question is, “How can someone who does not have these experiences be the best choice to represent the Deaf students at Gallaudet University?”

      Darcy J. Norris
      Educator of Deaf Culture and ASL

    • Not Deaf Enough

      >> The Deaf students at Gallaudet want someone who will best represent them to the world. They not only want a Deaf President, they want a Deaf President that has lived the “Deaf Life”, that has grown up with the “Deaf Experience” within the Deaf Community. Unfortunately, Ms. Jane Fernandes did none of those things, and this is what is upsetting to the students. >>

      This is exactly the “not deaf enough” argument that many deny exists.

    • Joey Schumacher

      Its a matter of law & order versus civil disobedience by the majority. Deaf people who attend, teach, graduated from, or work at Gallaudet University do not want the board of trustee’s choice for president to assume her duties. Law & order is on the board’s side. The majority of deaf people are on the protesting student’s side.

      The USA has a long history of seeing civil disobedience eventually succeed. Gallaudet University protestors had success in 1988 when the board chose Elizabeth Zinser as president and then she resigned two days later.

      The students believe that their civil disobedience can overcome law and order again and they are escalating their protest. The board believes that their decision is final and that it can survive the protest. Both sides are entrenched. Who will win? Stay tune. LOL.

      Joey Schumacher
      Gallaudet Intern 1988
      Son and brother of Gallaudet graduates

    • We appreciate your kind words about DeafRead.com We are excited about how it is playing a pivotal role in energizing the American Deaf Community.

    • Orkid –

      Not Deaf enough? Who is said that JK is not Deaf? The Gallaudet University students are so brave to stand what they believe is RIGHT! I applaud the students for not just protesting but to send out messages to all former students and alumni of Gallaudet University by sending out visual media messages such as newspapers, television, magazines, web news, you name it.

      They got our attention successfully. And we did pay attention this time after last spring confusing protest activity.

      Gallaudet University need to recognize their students for their braveheart-style.

      Who need to change Gallaudet? Students or the people within the Administration area?

      You decide.

    • By

      Hmm, you’re missing a major blogsite, ridorlive.com

      hes getting major hits and yet hes absent from this, I find it odd as the other two websites you mentioned has links towards to Ricky Taylor’s blog and vice versa..

      anyway just an FYI to those who are reading, http://www.ridorlive.com

    • Hearing Graduate

      Ridorlive.com has been a wonderful source of information throughout the protest.

      One thing I’ve seen ignored is that there are a number of hearing graduate students that are actively involved in the protest! I myself recently completed my graduate work at Gallaudet and fully support the protest.

      Unfortunately, in attempting to educate others about the protest I’ve found that those unaware of Deaf culture are quick to discount the protest and have difficulty understanding the reasons behind the protest. The mainstream media has had difficulty reporting the story accurately for just this reason.

      The students are Gallaudet. Without the students, Gallaudet University is nothing.

      Unity for Gallaudet.

    • David Harvey

      The deaf card is ridiculous in itself since it (falsely) presupposes a brainless general tendency towards isolationism, xenophobia and an enclave mentality. There is diversity in audiological and cultural deafness on the Gallaudet campus, and its been welcomed and nurtured for more years than one cares to remember. It runs the whole spectrum of the audiological and cultural experience, from hearing people all the way to profoundly deaf people; congenitally deaf people to late/adventitiously deafened people; from deaf persons who use amplification aids, to deaf persons who use none, to deaf persons who use cochlear implants; from deaf persons who went to deaf K-12 institutions, to deaf persons who were mainstreamed or home schooled all their lives; from those who voice, to those who dont or cant … and so on. Im not even talking about race or color or sexual orientation here … the community is diverse and there is room for more!

      But she is telling the world that what we are already is what she is trying to make us (and were resisting that change) and thats why these kids are protesting. Oh please! You can see more of this in Marc Fishers column in todays Metro section of the Washington Post. Total claptrap from start to finish, but thats a function of (a) the information available to Fisher; and (b) Fisher’s appreciation of the nuances.

    • Amy

      One more blogsite that’s worth reading because it shows a refreshing viewpoint on the protests and cuts through a lot of the mud-slinging and propaganda is http://protestveritas.blogspot.com/

    • Charles

      Hello I am Charles, I am deaf since birth and grew up at deaf school and went to college at NTID. I have been doing lot of reading about the protest against the new president select at Gallaudet University.

      What I dont understand is that if the Trustee knew it was not popular decision to chose the next president,
      “TRUSTEES AT Gallaudet University knew they weren’t making the most popular decision when they selected Jane K. Fernandes to be the school’s next president. …”
      then why did they choose her??? Are they afraid to turn her down??? Were there bribes involved??? I feel it is not fair for the students to suffer with this… I think this should be seriously inspected… It really need to be more clear and the students and staff have right to know all the clear information, not foggy informations.
      This is the free country, the students have right to have leader which will appreciate their community. I personally strongly agree with the student’s protest and I do support them. I will continue to look through the articles. DON’T GIVE UP AND CONTINUE TO BE STRONG FOR WHAT YOU FEEL IT IS RIGHT!!!

    • Interesting article. One sentence, however, caught my attention:

      >>Thanks to these resources, I can better understand why students shut down the school (which actually has students from preschool to university age) for three days last week, and why 133 students were arrested last Friday.

      I would like to point out that Gallaudet, MSSD and KDES are actually three separate schools, sharing the same campus known as Kendall Green. Each has its own administration, faculty and staff. To the best of my knowledge, I believe this is probably the only university campus in the world that has a high school and an elementary school on its premises.

      Thank you,

      Dan McClintock
      artist / writer, MSSD alumnus

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