Deaf woman walking

The protests at Gallaudet University have incoming President Jane Fernandes in the crosshairs -- and plenty of other people debating the merits of cultural purity.

By Carol Lloyd

Published October 19, 2006 8:40PM (EDT)

Between Hewlett-Packard's ousting of chairwoman Patricia Dunn and Carly Fiorina's recent book recalling her fall from grace, there has been a lot of attention lately on powerful women being asked to step down from powerful places (and specifically from HP). But no scandal of a woman in the corporate crossfire has caught my attention like the Washington Post's coverage of the uproar over Jane Fernandes, the appointed president of Gallaudet University, the most prestigious deaf university in the nation and the cultural heart of the deaf community.

Since her appointment by the school's board of trustees, student protesters have effectively shut down the northeastern Washington, D.C., campus. Classes have been canceled, as was homecoming weekend, and the students are camping out in tent cities next to banners that read things like "You're killing our culture!"

The issue? It's an identity-culture war the likes of which our nation rarely sees anymore. Though Fernandes was born deaf to a deaf mother and deaf father, protesters claim she isn't deaf enough. Since her family was integrationist, they spoke English to one another. As a result, Fernandes didn't learn sign language until she was 23 -- and some critics say her American Sign Language is at a third-grade level. But the controversy is about more than how fluently she signs; it's about a bigger cultural divide within the deaf community.

"The protesters want to make this about me," she told the Post. "But this is larger than me. I never thought I would live to see the day when deaf people go after deaf people in this way."

But go after her they have -- in a way that has paralyzed the campus and riveted the deaf community nationwide. Although many critics (you can find them aplenty on have argued that Fernandes earned many enemies during her 11 years as the school's provost, she says the protests against her are not personal, but stem from fear about the future of deaf culture. She says that the increased use of cochlear implants is threatening to those who believe in a purist -- and separatist -- deaf culture. In talking to the Post, Fernandes mentioned a faculty member who "refers to the advent of cochlear implants, as a 'genocide.'"

Now Fernandes, who is married to a hearing man and has two hearing teenagers, seems to be regarded as emblematic of the privileges hearing culture has over deaf culture. When the protests first broke out, it seemed as if Fernandes represented the grown-up establishment battling a radical student element, but this week her support from teachers and trustees is dissolving. The faculty met and voted to support her resignation on Monday, and yesterday Fernandes learned that several trustees have also withdrawn their support.

In an era of identity politics on the wane, the radical deaf community stands in opposition to the melting-pot ideals so common in arguments about multiculturalism, gender equality and interfaith harmony. However we live in the privacy of our homes and vote in the privacy of our booths, the public voices of America -- be they George W. Bush babbling on about this great nation or my communist niece at her war-protest podium -- all talk of diversity and tolerance and inclusion. What makes the deaf community so fascinating is that it has taken what appears to many people to be a deficit or disability and built a rich cultural identity that people are passionately committed to preserving in a pure, and largely segregated, form. As a hearing person I see being deaf as a disability, but I don't resent their deaf pride, curious though I find it. But I wonder: How would we feel about this sort separatist zeal in the hands of a religious group or an ethnic community?

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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