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Saturday, October 21, 2006

A question of culture

Gallaudet University students take part in a protest
where they blocked the main entrance to campus
on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006, in Washington. Students
escalated their protests against a president-elect they
say lacks the skills needed to lead the school.
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Turmoil at Gallaudet Reflects Broader Debate

Published: October 21, 2006

WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 — Ask Joshua Walker, a sophomore at Gallaudet University here, about technology like cochlear implants that helps many deaf people hear, and he is dismissive.

“In some way, you’re saying deaf people are not good enough, they need to be fixed,” signed Mr. Walker, 20. “I don’t need to be fixed. My brain works fine.”

Protests over the selection of a new president, Jane K. Fernandes, have thrown Gallaudet, the nation’s only liberal arts university for the deaf, into turmoil. But the clash is also illuminating differences over the future of deaf culture writ large, and focusing attention on a politically charged debate about what it means to be deaf in the 21st century.

Should Gallaudet be the standard bearer for the view that sees deafness not as a disability, but as an identity, and that looks warily on technology like cochlear implants, questioning how well they work and arguing that they undermine a strong deaf identity and pride? Or should Gallaudet embrace the possibilities of connecting with the hearing world that technology can offer?

Should it demand that students and teachers communicate exclusively in American Sign Language, as some professors and students insist, or should it permit deaf and hard of hearing students to learn in whatever way suits them? Should it require professors to be fluent signers, and provide interpreters for those who are not proficient? Or should it let students struggle to catch their meaning, as many say they now do?

These questions are not limited to Gallaudet. They are echoed in debate across the country as technology has rapidly created new possibilities for deaf people though cochlear implants and increasingly sophisticated, more powerful hearing aids. With genetic testing, the day may come when parents can choose medical intervention for a child who is likely to be born deaf, or even choose not to have that child.

With 96 percent of deaf children born to hearing parents, according to research by Gallaudet, many parents choose cochlear implants for their children at an early age, and 81 percent choose to mainstream their children into hearing classrooms.

Joseph Fischgrund, headmaster for the last 20 years at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia, noted advances like closed captioning and text pagers that make it easier than ever for deaf people to have the same access to information as hearing people.

“It’s a culture in transition,” said Robert Kretschmer, coordinator of the program in the education of the deaf and hard of hearing at Columbia University Teachers College. “What Gallaudet represents is clearly one very strong faction and identity of deaf culture, with a capital D.”

posted by Steve @ 12:13:00 AM

12:13:00 AM

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