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Shattering the Sounds of Silence : With a New Deaf President, Gallaudet Students Bask in Benefits of Having Made Their Protests Heard

Times Staff Writer

Weeks after the protests have died down, a dormitory window still proudly bears a message scrawled in large painted letters: “Dear God, I want a deaf prez!”

Although the biggest crowds on the Gallaudet University campus this day surround a fraternity mud-wrestling contest, the prayer on the window remains as a sign of the ongoing exhilaration befitting an event that has altered the course of deaf life across the country.

After 124 years, Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts college for the deaf, voted into office in March its first deaf president, the regally named I. King Jordan, after mass protests forced hearing appointee Elisabeth Zinser to resign.

“It was probably the most significant event in deaf history. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like that again in my life,” student government president Greg Hlibok said in sign language. Hlibok helped lead the students in boycotting classes, blocking entrances to the university and marching on the Capitol with signs encouraging cars to honk for a deaf president.

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“We showed that deaf people are not inferior to hearing people,” said Terri Hedding, a junior psychology major from West Los Angeles, who also spoke in sign language. “We’re happier now. Positive. We have goals. Before we were thinking, ‘We can’t, can’t, can’t.’ Now we can, can, can.”

T-shirts bearing the slogan “Deaf Pride” sold out on campus as deaf culture--anchored by the belief that deaf people are not handicapped but rather members of a linguistic minority--found a publicly visible rallying point.

Compared to Racism

For the world’s only deaf university not to have a deaf president after more than a century of educating the best and brightest deaf students would be like the nation’s oldest black university electing only white presidents, the deaf students say.

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And in fact, they say, it was worse than that. Since Zinser knew no sign language, her appointment would have been akin to an American black school appointing a white president who spoke no English.

The implication of choosing Zinser over Jordan and another deaf candidate seemed clear to the deaf students: Like so many people had been doing for so many years, the board of trustees seemed to be saying, “A deaf person can’t do the job.”

The angry response of the deaf students surprised many. Among the most surprised was Jordan himself. Jordan, 44, had defended the choice of Zinser when the protests began. But, he explained in an interview, even he--made deaf by an accident at age 21--had failed to understand the depth of frustration of those who had been deaf all their lives.

“They tear up when they talk about it,” said Jordan, who has a doctorate in psychology from the University of Tennessee. “They talk about the suppression that they felt, the artificial limits on what deaf people can do because deaf people have never been in a position to control the education of the deaf or lead in making decisions about deaf people.

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“Most of my life has been as a deaf person but there were 21 years when I was a hearing person, so a lot of the growing-up experiences I didn’t have. I think it was easy for me to misinterpret what they were feeling.”

Once he understood, Jordan switched his position and supported the students. When he was ultimately named president, he repeatedly used a phrase that has since become an unofficial motto of the school:

“Deaf people can do anything,” Jordan said, “except hear.”

The first mass protests for deaf civil rights seemed to catch the nation unaware of what Jordan calls the “invisible” deaf and the societal barriers they face.

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At a recent Boston luncheon of the American Athletic Assn. of the Deaf, “a couple of those people told me they had been promoted since the protests,” Jordan said. “One person who is a Gallaudet graduate told me he’s a schoolteacher and his superintendent is now encouraging him to apply for the principal’s position.

“Another man was visiting me from out of town and told me that when the protest was going on his supervisor came and sat down with him and said, ‘You know, I never thought before that we may be not giving you fair consideration.’ ”

Jordan said he has received thousands of letters and phone calls from around the country. Applications to the school have gone way up. Jordan’s speaking calendar was instantly booked through the fall.

Ripples Apparent Elsewhere

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Similar ripple-effect stories are pouring daily into Hlibok’s student government office, a colorfully messy cubbyhole in a windowless room.

“One individual worked in the same Social Security department for 15 years and never got a promotion,” Hlibok said. “After the protests, his employer decided to call him in and told him he realized what had happened and that he should give him a promotion.

“Some states, like Illinois, have introduced bills that will affect deaf rights. And the Federal Communications Commission all of a sudden decided it wanted to set the goal of having a national deaf relay telephone service (in which deaf people, using phones they can type on, converse with hearing people through an intermediary with a similarly equipped phone).”

The protests also transformed Hlibok into a national figure; he is in demand as a lecturer, with upcoming engagements at Duquesne and New York universities and Dartmouth College. It is a responsibility he takes very seriously.

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“Now I am responsible for thousands of deaf people, when you think about how Gallaudet University has now become a cause.”

Despite the school’s new-found fame, it is very much a business-as-usual university on this spring day. A group of shouting students turn out to be a bunch of bald-headed, shirtless freshmen posing for a picture on the front steps, chanting “Ninety-one! Ninety-one,” as in Class of ’91. It is a Gallaudet tradition for each freshman class to show its spirit by amassing as many bare pates as possible, and the current cue-ball crop of more than 80 is the all-time best.

Huge paper banners hang across the atrium balconies of the student center. Pinball machines, with sound effects turned all the way up so students can enjoy the vibrations, compete with the racket of the six-lane bowling alley, where a student describes with his hands how his ball just missed the last pin.

Sign Language Conversations

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All around, students converse in sign language. Friends tend to group by communication method, with those who speak a bit tending to be separate from those who use sign language exclusively. Only a few hearing undergraduates attend Gallaudet, to major in one of many fields of deaf education.

In Hlibok’s English literature class, the students sit in the usual semicircle so that everyone’s hand signs can be seen by all. Teachers and Gallaudet employees are required to use the simultaneous communication method. It consists of speaking, for those who can read lips and hear a bit, and simultaneously using an abbreviated “pigeon” sign language.

The topic of the day in Hlibok’s class is D. H. Lawrence’s “The Odour of Chrysanthemums,” a somewhat unhappy tale of a nagging wife, a meddling mother-in-law and a drunken husband who dies in a mine accident. As teacher Truman Stelle turns his back on the class to write on the board for a few moments, hands flutter into a flurry of silent conversation.

One student signs to another, “This is awful.”

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Across the room, the two women on either side of Hlibok get in some quick chatter.

“I went and got my stuff out of the dryer and it had all shrunk.”

“Oh, no! So, are you going to see that guy you were telling me about?”

“Yeah.”

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“But’s he a freshman.”

“That’s OK, he’s fine.”

Hlibok chimes in, “What’s this all about?”

Eavesdropping Unavoidable

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One of the most noticeable differences in deaf life style is that eavesdropping is unavoidable.

Sensing control of the class slipping away, Stelle flicks the lights on and off with a switch installed right behind him for that purpose. This recaptures the students’ attention but few of them seem to share Stelle’s views of the story.

“Am I in the Twilight Zone?” Stelle asks. “Literature is wasted on young people. It requires more life than you have had. Wednesday’s story you’ll probably enjoy more because it has more sex in it.”

Although about two-thirds of the 274 full-time faculty members are hearing, Gallaudet is very much what the students call a “deaf world.” Unafraid of ridicule or rejection they have experienced in the hearing world, women wear their hair in swept-back styles with hearing aids in full view. Only at Gallaudet would a cerebral palsy sufferer, who had trouble grasping a golf club, try out for the golf team, as one did in the 1970s.

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“A lot of students choose to come here just for the social interaction alone,” said the school’s job development coordinator, Geoff Mathay. Students come from around the world and the United States, including more than 100 from California.

Many Stay in the Area

“This is where their educated peers are. People with BAs don’t mingle with blue-collar workers. So a lot of people stay here (in the Washington area), meet spouses, settle and raise a family.”

In fact, because of Gallaudet graduates, there are neighborhoods in nearby Maryland that contain clusters of deaf households and deaf bars, which have blaring music and bright lights so that a patron can see every word another person is saying.

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What is now Gallaudet had its beginnings in a tragic episode of mistreatment of deaf children.

In 1856 a man showed up in Washington with a group of deaf and blind orphans and raised money in the community saying he wanted to start a school for them. Instead, he abused the children and ran off with the money, leaving several of the foreign orphans in dire straights.

Journalist Took Up Cause

Their plight distressed Amos Kendall, a journalist and member of President Andrew Jackson’s kitchen cabinet. He took the orphans into his home on his 100-acre northeast Washington dairy farm, now the Gallaudet campus.

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In 1857, Kendall used his political connections to persuade Congress to grant a charter and fund the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf, Dumb and Blind. For Kendall’s first president, he chose the energetic 19-year-old son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who was still running the first deaf school in America in Hartford, Conn.

The son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, was so young that he brought his mother with him when he moved to Washington.

The blind students were eventually moved to another school. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln took time out from Civil War planning to sign an act of Congress authorizing the school to become the first deaf school in the world to grant college degrees. In 1894, Gallaudet graduates successfully petitioned for the name of the school be changed to honor Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the father of American deaf education.

Many Activities Opened

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Sign language was always widely used on the college level, opening a full span of activities to the deaf for the first time: the orchestra, plays, “much dancing and jitterbugging” according to a 1948 newspaper article, fraternities, sororities and sports teams.

In the 1880s, the Gallaudet football team became aware that opponents were figuring out which plays went with the finger signs coming from the coach on the sideline, so the players began forming a circle on the field to discuss the upcoming play in sign language, shielding their hands from the opponents’ view. This, according to the Professional Football Researchers Assn., was the invention of the huddle, which is used throughout football today.

The Gallaudet football team uses the vibration of a huge drum beaten at the sidelines in place of a quarterback’s barked snap count, and, in keeping with the school’s historic year, the Bison just completed its most successful season with a 9-1 record, after struggling through horrible losing seasons.

In the 1940s Boris Karloff was so impressed with a Gallaudet production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” that he helped arrange for a Sunday afternoon performance on Broadway, the first time deaf actors had appeared on Broadway.

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Students Came From All Over

Students began coming to Gallaudet from all over the world. In 1951, among the 29 members of the graduating class was M. R. Sermsri Kasemsri, the great-granddaughter of Thai King Mongkut, the subject of “The King and I.” A year later American blacks sued to get into the all-white grade school at Gallaudet and it soon became fully racially integrated.

And in 1957, a professor and a student from Gallaudet stringing for Life magazine scooped all other journalists by lip-reading the conversation of Queen Elizabeth from 200 yards away through a telescope as she watched a University of Maryland football game during an American visit.

Still one of the few universities to enjoy substantial federal funding, Gallaudet also charges $2,734 tuition to its 1,400 undergraduates. About 390 graduate students, many of them hearing, pursue advanced degrees and 250 attend a preparatory program on campus before begining the college curriculum.

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The school also still contains a model secondary school for the deaf for 400 students from a local five-state area, as well as a demonstration elementary school for 200 Washington-area pupils. There are seven regional extension programs, including one at Ohlone College in Fremont, California.

Jordan has been at Gallaudet since 1973 and was the dean of the college of arts and sciences as well as chairman of the psychology department when he was chosen president. He is sensitive to the impression some may have that he is a token deaf appointment.

“It’s important to remember that I’m not just deaf,” Jordan said, bringing up the subject himself. “I have all the academic credentials and I think the experience necessary for the job. Deafness is not enough. I’m really afraid that I would send that message and I don’t want to send that.”

Became Deaf in Accident

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Jordan never knew a deaf person when he was growing up in Glen Riddle, Pa. In 1965, when he was about a year short of fulfilling his commitment to the Navy, he was hit by a car while riding a motorcycle. He awoke in silence in Bethesda Naval Hospital and wondered, “Am I deaf?”

Doctors kept telling him his hearing would return, but it never did.

“It took me quite a while to realize this had some permanence,” Jordan said. “I didn’t have any definite goals and didn’t know about Gallaudet. I was very depressed at that time.

“When I learned about Gallaudet and started college here and saw that I could succeed, then that all changed. Gallaudet changed my life.”

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Jordan went on to obtain his masters and doctorate degrees at the University of Tennessee, asking three hearing students in each of his classes to make carbon notes for him.

Helped With Note Taking

“The first time it was very awkward and difficult for me to ask,” he recalled. “But at the end of the class they told me it actually helped them because they became more conscientious about their note taking. I always had the best notes in the class because I asked three people. People found out about this and always wanted to study with me at exam time.”

Under-employment remains a “very, very real” problem for deaf people, Jordan said. Some people in the hearing world have even wondered if the “deaf world” of Gallaudet is beneficial for preparing students for the hearing world they will be facing.

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When Terri Hedding decided she wanted to attend Gallaudet rather than a mainstream college, her parents “were disappointed and upset at first,” she said.

According to Mathay, the school’s job development coordinator, about 50% of Gallaudet graduates will enter a professional field involved with deafness. The No. 1 employer of Gallaudet graduates is Gallaudet. Gallaudet graduates have little trouble finding jobs, Mathay said. But the difficulty comes later in securing promotions.

Discrimination Seen

“They’re staying at entry level positions far beyond their (hearing) peers,” said Mathay, who suspects the problem is not any kind of educational deficiency, but rather discrimination in the workplace, which is seen across the board for deaf workers in America.

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Mark Call, a Gallaudet football player from Anaheim, already has served an internship working with computers for IBM in Dallas. His goal is to become a systems analyst “for a big corporation,” Call said.

“I’m not concerned about being hired. I’m confident. I’ve proved I can do it.

“I wrote some things on paper and taught a few of the employees I worked with some sign language.”

Hlibok, whose brother graduated from Gallaudet and became the first deaf stockbroker for Merrill Lynch, echoed the common view of Gallaudet students that their school is the best place to prepare for the hearing world.

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“The most important thing of all is to help them build confidence in themselves,” said Hlibok, who left a hearing school after three months of fighting with classmates and not getting called on in first grade.

“Perhaps they will face more barriers after they graduate than they had here, but they will have the confidence to fight against it.”


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