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Behind the Struggle at Gallaudet U.: Deaf University Has History of Protest

StoryNovember 01, 2006
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Gallaudet exploded on the scene in 1988 when students launched a protest to call for the appointment of the university’s first deaf president. Until then, the school had always been led by a hearing president. The "Deaf President Now" protest received national media attention and helped to raise awareness of deaf culture. We’re joined by freelance writer and Gallaudet grad David Kurs. [includes rush transcript]

Gallaudet exploded on the scene in 1988 when students launched a protest to call for the appointment of the university’s first deaf president. Until then, the school had always been led by a hearing president. The "Deaf President Now" protest received national media attention and helped to raise awareness of deaf culture. To advertise for the rally, one Gallaudet alumnus printed flyers that read: "It’s time! In 1842, a Roman Catholic became president of the University of Notre Dame. In 1875, a woman became president of Wellesley College. In 1886, a Jew became president of Yeshiva University. In 1926, a Black person became president of Howard University. and in 1988, the Gallaudet University presidency belongs to a DEAF person." David Kurs is a freelance writer who graduated from Gallaudet in 1998. He will also be interpreted by Jennifer Kaika.

  • David Kurs. Freelance writer who graduated from Gallaudet in 1998.
  • Jennifer Kaika. Interpreter.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: David Kurs is a freelance writer who joins us now. He graduated from Gallaudet in 1998. He, too, is being interrupted by Jennifer Kaika. Can you talk, David, about the significance of this latest struggle, in the context of activism at Gallaudet?

DAVID KURS: Well, the protest in 1988 had a very clear objective: to simply have a deaf person become president. And everybody could agree on that. This time, the issues were more complex. But the overarching theme that everybody sees, or that I see, is related to social justice. Everybody has a voice that deserves to be heard, and our voice had not been received by the board of trustees nor by the administration. The access to information that the board had was controlled by the president’s office and administration, and with such a lack of fairness in communication and access to communication, the protest began.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the history of Gallaudet.

DAVID KURS: Sure. Again, regarding the "Deaf President Now" movement and that protest, that was the first protest in Gallaudet’s history.

AMY GOODMAN: Even the founding of Gallaudet, how it was founded.

DAVID KURS: Let’s see, it was 1864 that Abraham Lincoln signed a charter that created Gallaudet University, which was a place for deaf people to get their education. And since that time, deaf people have always felt that they had a home there. It’s an inclusive environment, where the language of instruction is ASL. People can come in from different backgrounds, even people that are hearing, people that are deaf but grow up in mainstream environments. We all have felt home there. And it’s been a place for deaf people to go to for 150 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the politics of signing, and how that fits into the leaders that are being looked for at Gallaudet University?

DAVID KURS: Sure. Dr. Fernandes commented that she felt that the protest was about her signing abilities and her background, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a fact that 80% of students at Gallaudet come from mainstream educational environments. They have families that are all hearing, and Gallaudet is and always has been a very inclusive place. The community is very accepting of new technologies. We do whatever we can do to make our lives just that much better. And students were very upset about the way that Dr. Fernandes brought in identity politics and played the deaf card into this discussion. But the issue really does boil down to her failed leadership.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, David Kurs, what the term "audism" is?

DAVID KURS: Audism is a form of discrimination towards deaf or hard-of-hearing people. It’s just a very broad term that could be used to describe what happens when hearing people don’t have the same attitude or view of deaf people as they would of any other hearing person. And a view of them as unequal is a reflection of audism.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about both 1988, the first major protest movement at Gallaudet, leading into now, what that does at the university for the students who take a very strong stand, end up getting arrested and actually win their demands?

DAVID KURS: Well, in 1988, the protests only went on for one week. It, again, was a very clear-cut protest from beginning to end. This protest, overall, has been much more emotional and in ways much more dramatic, because of how long it’s taken place. It has gone over for seven months, and initially it started in May, died down for a bit, and then was sort of reincarnated this October.

In this protest, we saw a lot of issues finally being brought to the surface on campus about audism, racism and other such issues. And all of these issues, as we all know, are very complex. But once the board was finally able to get full access to information and what was actually going on on campus, they finally made the right decision.

I think that Gallaudet will become a better place after this, because the voices from the community, from the students and the faculty, will be much more represented.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, David Kurs, for hearing people, can you talk about what they should understand about people without hearing.

DAVID KURS: Just that we’re just like all of you guys. We live with our deafness, just like anybody lives with any other characteristic. It’s a fact of life. And we’ll keep on fighting for the things that matter the most to us.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, David Kurs, I want to thank you very much for joining us, freelance writer who graduated from Gallaudet in 1998. And I also want to thank Jennifer Kaika, who interpreted for David and LaToya.

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