Since last May, Gallaudet University, the world's only university designed entirely for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, has been rocked by protests over the selection of a new president.
Jane K. Fernandes was scheduled to take over from I. King Jordan in January. On Oct. 29, after protesters shut down the Washington campus for more than two weeks, the board of trustees revoked Fernandes's appointment. This fiasco is a striking example of identity politics gone mad.
In 1988, protesters rebelled against the appointment of a hearing president, Elisabeth Singer, and demanded a deaf president (something Gallaudet had never had since its founding in 1864). Singer resigned , and Jordan was appointed in her place.
Fernandes, the Gallaudet provost whom Jordan wanted to see as his replacement, is also deaf; but to some, "not deaf enough." She grew up lip-reading and speaking and learned sign language only as a graduate student.
In recent weeks, anti-Fernandes students and professors have denied that their objections had anything to do with her not being deaf enough, and have accused her of raising the issue to pose as a victim of political correctness.
However, the Washington Post reports that the protesters backed off the "not deaf enough" complaint only when they realized that it wasn't likely to garner sympathy from the outside world. They focused instead on Fernandes's supposedly autocratic and intimidating leadership style and her alleged lack of interpersonal skills (one critic quoted by the Inside Higher Ed website even noted that she didn't smile enough).
There were also vague charges that she is insufficiently committed to fighting racism. Yet none of these gripes seem sufficient to justify the passion that led to her ouster: the protests included hunger strikes and threats of violence.
Some of the criticisms publicly leveled at Fernandes are overtly rooted in identity politics.
In a letter to the Post , Gallaudet English professor Kathleen M. Wood excoriated both Fernandes and Jordan for taking the position that Gallaudet is for all deaf students. This misguided inclusiveness, Wood asserted , had attracted deaf students who were "not integrating into Deaf culture" and resisting the use of sign language. She ended her letter by stating, "The new Gallaudet will not be for everyone."
"Deaf culture" — that's Deaf with a capital D — has flourished at Gallaudet. It is a radical movement that views deafness not as a disability but as an oppressed minority status akin to race, and also as a unique linguistic culture. The movement holds that there is nothing wrong with being deaf, only with how society has treated deaf people.
Few would deny that, historically, deaf people and others with disabilities have endured stereotyping, bias, and unfairness. Much progress has been made toward seeing people with disabilities as whole individuals, toward focusing on what they can do, not on what they can't . But it's a leap from this understanding to the bizarre idea that the lack of hearing is no more a disability than being female or black. (Verbal communication aside, surely being unable to hear environmental sounds often places a person at a serious disadvantage.)
The majority of deaf people do not belong to Deaf culture. It is estimated that at most a quarter of profoundly deaf people in the United States use sign language. Yet at many schools for the deaf, signing has been dogmatically treated as the only acceptable communication; children with some hearing have received little training in auditory and speaking skills. Deaf schools that promote "oralism" have been targeted for protests.
More harmful still, Deaf activists have railed against cochlear implants, which enable many deaf children to gain functional hearing; some deaf parents have denied implants to their children on ideological grounds. The activists also oppose research into cures for deafness through gene therapy and other means.
To them, attempts to "fix" deafness amounts to nothing short of genocide.
Fernandes herself embraces Deaf culture, but she does not want it to be isolated from the hearing world or exclude those who don't meet purist standards of "Deafness." She also believes that the deaf community must deal honestly with the challenges posed by advances in medicine.
When this sensible view is rejected under pressure from a handful of radicals, it is a testament to the madness that can prevail when oppressed-minority status becomes a weapon to silence critics.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Boston Globe.