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Gallaudet University's Identity Struggle Continues

December 6th 2010

Deaf issues - ASL spoken here

After two protests which rocked Gallaudet University, positive changes are being made but Gallaudet University still does not fully embrace Deaf culture and respect American Sign Language. 

The selection of Catherine Murphy as the Director of Public Relations at Gallaudet University recently is another symptom of the ongoing identity struggle at Gallaudet University. During 1988, the Deaf President Now protests at Gallaudet University was about selecting a Deaf person for the first time in its history to become president of Gallaudet University. 

During this protest, Gallaudet University and the Deaf community made it clear that Deaf people are more than ready to lead themselves and should be a major part of the governing process. Two years later, the Americans with Disabilities Act passed and was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush giving Deaf people the dignity and respect they deserve as equal human beings in society.

Again in 2006, Gallaudet University had a protest which attempted to address the issues of governance which were lingering at Gallaudet University and to correct its identity crisis. It was a protest which 82 percent of faculty voted against the selection of incoming president Janes Fernandes, a position which many student protesters also took. For too long, many in the Deaf community believed that Gallaudet University maintained a culture which did not respect Deaf people and American Sign Language. Many protesters believed the selection process of incoming president Jane Fernandes was flawed.

With the selection of Catherine Murphy, there are several issues raised. The fact that she is considered more qualified than Deaf applicants even though she is not fluent in American Sign Language is contradictory to Gallaudet University’s mission of being a bilingual university. It shows that there is a lack of respect for American Sign Language because while fluency in English is a requirement, fluency in American Sign Language seems to be optional for candidates. If American Sign Language is to be equally respected and for Gallaudet University to be a truly bilingual university, it should be a top requirement that applicants for all positions be screened for fluency in both American Sign Language and English. That means every new hire would be ready to communicate with all faculty, staff, and students, rather than taking years for their American Sign Language to get to the level of fluency that is required. Being a university for Deaf students, it should not matter whether the applicants can hear or speak, and to determine qualifications based on that is called audism, or discrimination on one's ability to hear and speak.

Rather than hiring faculty who do not know American Sign Language, and having to hire an interpreter so Deaf students can access education, which is the way it has been done in many classrooms, Gallaudet University should be making fluency in both American Sign Language and English a requirement. By doing this, Gallaudet University would be expanding job opportunities to Deaf people who have a competitive advantage because of their bilingualism. This will also help Gallaudet University create an edge by being first and foremost a bilingual university which respects American Sign Language and by extension the Deaf community.

In nearly every college and university in North America, Deaf students can take classes with American Sign Language interpreters. By being able to provide higher education directly in American Sign Language, Gallaudet University will set itself apart from the other colleges and universities. Through greater respect and support for American Sign Language and the Deaf students who use it, Gallaudet University will thrive academically, socially, and experience greater retention and graduation rates. This change in attitude will trickle down to schools for the Deaf, which face many of the same issues. To not change this practice is to continue the self-destructive cycle and enabling society's oppression of Deaf people based on their inability to hear and speak.

Another issue with the selection of Murphy, and a very important one, is her background as the Director of Public Relations and Communications for the Alexander Graham Bell Association. This again contradicts Gallaudet University's identity as a bilingual university because the Alexander Graham Bell Association has a long history of oppression against American Sign Language and the Deaf community. They still continue the same kind of unapologetic oppression to this day through advocating auditory oral education and methods such as Auditory Verbal Therapy which discourages the use of American Sign Language.

Alexander Graham Bell Association, which according to their 2011 Media Kit consists of 88 percent of members who are hearing professionals and family members who make decisions about Deaf people, often contradicts what Deaf people believe is best for themselves. Rather than respecting American Sign Language and Deaf people, the Alexander Graham Bell Association has repeatedly undermined their progress. More recently, in 2008, they attempted unsuccessfully to pressure PepsiCo to retract a Super Bowl television commercial which was produced with guidance from the National Association of the Deaf, an organization of, by, and for Deaf people. The reason the Alexander Graham Bell Association responded so strongly against the commercial is because all of the actors in it were Deaf and used American Sign Language.

Through Murphy and her predecessors' skillfullness in framing their message and Alexander Graham Bell's image in mainstream media, they have managed to avert being recognized as an extremist organization in the United States in spite of Alexander Graham Bell's roots in eugenics and oralism, which included discouraging Deaf people from using sign language, congregating, and intermarrying with each other. Rather, the Alexander Graham Bell Association enjoys great access to power and has political clout.

Now, the Alexander Graham Bell Association seems to be infiltrating Gallaudet University and continuing the conditions which have unsettled the Deaf community many times in the past. Does that mean Gallaudet University is again moving away from its identity as a bilingual university? Does that mean Gallaudet University is not willing to change its hiring practices in a way that is respectful to American Sign Language and Deaf people?

In Gallaudet University's 2010-2015 Strategic Plan, the top five priorities for research, development and outreach as outlined in Goal E, may include “hearing enhancements” and “genetics.” In order to accomplish those research priorities, Gallaudet University will seek funders and partners. Does that mean Gallaudet University will seek a partnership with the Alexander Graham Bell Association, Oberkotter Foundation, cochlear implant manufactuers and other organizations, corporations and foundations like them to fund and carry out its research? Does it mean Gallaudet University's message to society is that Deaf people need to be fixed and cured rather than educate them and elevate their status as equal, productive members of society?

Murphy's selection seems to be Gallaudet University's answer regarding the direction it's headed.

Tim Riker is a member of the California Deaf community.

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