The recent article “Who is Gallaudet,” written by Elena Ruiz, recently created some discord among different groups of students and faculty at Gallaudet University. Is Gallaudet becoming “hearing-ized” with the growing surge of hearing, new-signing, and oral students, as Ruiz claimed in her recent column?
“And what is ‘hearing-ized?’ The word ‘hearing’ exists because there are deaf people. Deafness defines hearing,” Deaf Studies Instructor Robert Sirvage said. “And is the whole concept of deafness so important, or is it the language? We need to separate the language and identity issue.”
First of all, who is Gallaudet? English Professor Christopher Heuer suggested that “[t]he answer is this: all of us. People always are what and where they are. There are oral deaf, deaf from deaf families, deaf from hearing families, children of deaf adults (CODAs), hearing students, new signers — you name it — at Gallaudet. They make the deaf community at Gallaudet. The problem is the lack of acceptance on campus.”
Sara Malkowski, a third year CODA student, pointed out that “even some hearing people who sign well do not accept other hearing people who are inept at signing.”
The University’s Expectations
President Alan Hurwitz clarified Gallaudet’s vision in an e-mail to the campus community. “We all know and accept that Gallaudet is a bilingual university. Communication here happens through American Sign Language (ASL) and English. While the expectation that everyone on campus becomes fluent in both languages within a reasonable amount of time, the reality is that some people, however diligent, take longer to master one or the other language.”
“Students choose Gallaudet because they want to learn in a bilingual environment. Hearing students, as well as those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing but new to sign language, come here to get a first-class education and immerse themselves in ASL and deaf culture. Their presence adds to the rich diversity of our community and underscores the high value we all put on preserving Gallaudet’s unique heritage.”
“Everyone on campus — no matter his or her signing skill level — should make every effort to communicate in sign language when in public areas on campus. And no, this is not about stifling speech or marginalizing those whose signing skills are undeveloped. Rather, it’s about respect, courtesy, tradition and harmony.”
Also, all hearing undergraduate students at Gallaudet are required to read, understand, and sign the Language policy. The policy, quoted in full, is reprinted below:
Gallaudet University is a bi-lingual university, and with that, the language policy of the Gallaudet is that ASL is to be used at all times when you are in and around the department. (Faculty, staff, and students are strongly encouraged to use ASL at all times on campus.) This includes prior to and after class, and in the classrooms, labs, hallways, elevator, department library, etc. We ask this not only because of the respect it shows, but also because of the messages sent when someone who can sign chooses not to when they are in the department and at the University. We also ask this of you because of the impact it has on your development, both in terms of language and cultural understanding. For the same reasons, we also ask that you do not use simultaneous communication. (There may be times in courses when instructors require the use of spoken English, i.e., an interpretation.) We appreciate your mindfulness of this policy and what it represents.
Sirvage, who teaches Deaf Space, Dynamics of Oppression, and Disability Studies at Gallaudet, said “You don’t have to be an Englishman to use English. Deaf people need to let go of the concept that only they own ASL and welcome anyone to learn ASL.”
However, there is no clear language policy for oral and graduate-level students, along with the rest of the Gallaudet community.
The Hearing Perspective
“I believe that the hearing students here at Gallaudet now have a better understanding of what it is like to be deaf, in the sense of understanding what it feels like to be a minority group in a large majority group. At Gallaudet University, hearing students have become a minority on campus,” Malkowski said. It is not always easy being hearing at Gallaudet. They experience exclusion as well.
“Being a CODA, I am a minority in both the deaf and hearing communities and I still struggle from time to time adjusting in both communities. I believe that as a student at Gallaudet, I have a responsibility to take my negative experiences and find ways to make them positive experiences for others.”
Malkowski founded the Student Coalition to serve as a peer-to-peer support group for Gallaudet students to discuss ongoing issues on campus and to come up with solutions. Originally founded for the hearing students and intended to help them maintain their hearing identity and aid their assimilation into the deaf community with ease, the Student Coalition is now open to everyone on campus, regardless of their signing or hearing levels.
“I don’t think the students understand how competitive the HUG and the Interpreting programs are. When applying to Gallaudet my first time in 2003 I was not accepted; they only accepted five students. It wasn’t until I applied again in 2008 that I was accepted, being one of 17 hearing students,” Malkowski said.
However, “Gallaudet should not accept any more hearing students if Gallaudet cannot give them support as a minority group on campus,” said Malkowski.
Gallaudet currently has 77 hearing undergraduate students and 223 hearing graduate students, compared to 58 undergraduate students and 223 graduate students from last year.* The university is also accepting many more new signers (or oral) that are hard-of-hearing or deaf. In a changing world of education and cultures, Gallaudet is going through a transition in learning how to welcome a more diverse group of students.
As Sirvage pointed out, “The recruitment office uses different strategies to get diverse students, but the different strategies send different messages. When students arrive at Gallaudet, they all have different expectations. The deaf students expect everyone to know ASL, and some of the other lonely students expect acceptance regardless of their signing abilities. There, we have formations of cliques and everyone becoming so bitter about that — because their expected ‘promises’ are broken.”
“The biggest problem on campus is that everyone is waiting for someone to solve the problems. Students do not come together long enough to pressure for change. The administration and the faculty don’t always know what the students’ needs are, especially when students do not stay as long as the administration and faculty do,” Heuer said. “The hearing people are not the problem, the lack of cooperation is. It is time for change.”
Heuer stated that “there is one specific attitude that needs to change. If a non-signer is willing to learn sign, hands off! Let them learn in freedom. Help them. Include them. Make them a part of the community pride. If we exclude them, where else will they learn sign? How can we expect them to sign if we never interact with them?”
“ASL is an official language like English, and it cannot be mastered overnight. We can’t force everyone to sign outside of the academic buildings and in private, like the dorms and the cafeterias. Imagine telling deaf people at a hearing school (or even oral schools back in the days) that they could not use their native language, sign language, to communicate. Would they like that? No. Now imagine telling hearing people not to talk — which is their native mode of communication — outside of the classroom,” said a hard-of-hearing student who chose to stay anonymous.
“It is just a matter of hearing and deaf people respecting each other’s language. We want to use the beautiful benefits of ASL to discuss philosophy, biology, and even Shakespeare — that is Gallaudet’s niche. Why do we even mention deafness or hard-of-hearing people in our mission statement? That establishes classifications in hearing levels when it doesn’t even matter in our ASL environment. Our emphasis should be on bilingualism,” Sirvage continued.
“There needs to be an establishment of zones throughout campus where people are allowed to use whatever language they feel comfortable communicating in,” said Malkowski. “The more students feel comfortable and less stressed on campus, the more likely they will be capable of picking up sign language in academic environments and from other peers.”
“Gallaudet administration must be clear on the functions of public spaces. Is the cafeteria a place to rest and unwind or a place to exchange information?” Sirvage asked. “There must be clear policy expectations to ensure that hearing students, as well as oral and hard of hearing students, to immerse appropriately in signing environment. There have to be resources and support systems — students can’t immerse completely in just 6 weeks.”
Heuer is looking forward to having different forums and discussions on the collaboration between the different groups within the deaf community. “It will be healthy when the different groups of students, faculty, and staff come together to form a resolution. We can rebuild Gallaudet,” Heuer said.
Who is Gallaudet? A community, perhaps, that is willing to come together to learn both ASL and English bilingualism, preserving the uniqueness of the ever-changing deaf culture.
Correction: The article originally named Robert Sirvage as a Deaf Studies professor; it is edited to instructor. Also, in a quote, we printed “in deaf culture”; it is edited to “in signing environment.” We regret the error.
Photo credit: Amelia Dall