Competent president now!

Allen Hines

Credit: Steve Schirra

I think it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. I use a wheelchair to get around campus. And I must say Kent is pretty welcoming to people with handicaps – much more so than my hometown, where a cop once thought I was lost just because I was outside after dark.

People with handicaps are oppressed in a special way. We were left to die on hillsides in ancient Greece. We have been used as court jesters to entertain royalty. And just a few decades ago, putting people with handicaps in institutions was customary.

Because of this special kind of oppression, able-bodied people have a hard time understanding what we go through daily. Mainstream commentators also fail to grasp the importance of having a president who understands all facets of “deaf culture” at Gallaudet University, the premier liberal-arts college for the deaf.

Prior to 1988, Gallaudet had never had a deaf president. That year, students staged a mass protest with the rallying cry “Deaf President Now!” The protest was not about excluding hearing people from leadership but having someone who knows the difficulties students with disabilities face to represent them. That year, the school hired its first deaf president, I. King Jordan.

Jordan was not born deaf. In an interview with ABILITY magazine he said he lost his hearing after a motorcycle accident when he was 21. He enrolled at Gallaudet soon afterward. He learned American Sign Language but also communicates verbally.

In May, the Gallaudet board of trustees appointed Jane K. Fernandes to be the school’s next president. Fernandes was born deaf but grew up speaking instead of signing. She learned American Sign Language in her 20s, but critics have said she’s not fluent.

The criticism that she’s not fluent in ASL and prefers speaking aloud prompted Fernandes to say she’s “not deaf enough” for her critics. But that misses the point. People who are deaf value their non-verbal language as one way to communicate effectively. Generally, lip reading is not an effective means of communication and according to USA Today, lip readers miss a lot of the conversation.

Fernandes’ opponents say her being “not deaf enough” is not the issue. Rather, she has proven incompetent in her time at Gallaudet. Fernandes became provost in 2000. From 1999 to 2005, graduation rates at Gallaudet hovered around 42 percent, according to the Washington Post. Each year between 2001 and 2005, the number of graduates able to find jobs dropped. And Fernandes has been developing a plan to promote diversity on the campus, but of 221 full-time faculty only about 25 are people of color.

Fernandes is pushing technology that may improve the lives of people with hearing impairments, including cochlear implants. These implants help deaf people hear. But as Gallaudet sophomore Joshua Walker told the New York Times, “In some way, you’re saying deaf people are not good enough, they need to be fixed.”

While the protest continues, one thing is certain: A university president will never be effective unless she can see eye to eye with students.

Allen Hines is a sophomore newspaper journalism major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].