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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

May 04, 1988|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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.

"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.

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.

"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.

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

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.

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