I think all of us who belong to deaf and hard of hearing organizations and groups have been watching with interest the events unfold at Gallaudet University in recent weeks. As part of this blog, I do have a few personal observations I could share. In an article in the Washington Post today Gallaudet was identified as the nation’s premiere university for deaf AND hard of hearing people. So, the activities on the campus do touch the lives and the educational choices of the people we serve at the Hearing Loss Association. The issues involved with the current state of unrest on the campus at Gallaudet are complex and involve more than the selection of a president. There are many undercurrents and back stories that most people will never even know about.
American Sign Language (ASL)
The vast majority of our members have hearing loss, and do not choose American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary means of communication. We do have about 5% of our membership who choose to communicate with ASL either occasionally or frequently, and we support their choice to learn this language. In fact, my wife is fluent in ASL and teaches it to hearing students at a private school. Our membership, however, reflects our country, where the vast majority of the millions of people with hearing loss choose to communicate in spoken English. If Gallaudet is to be truly inclusive and include hard of hearing students as a significant portion of their student body, then American Sign Language (ASL) must continue to be an optional form of communication for their students and faculty, not a required one. 98% of hard of hearing students will never become proficient in ASL. We are not sure that inclusiveness in communication choices is the direction that the current protestors want to take the university.
This is also a question about money, as many issues are. In 2004 Gallaudet had revenue of $150 million and had 1900 graduate and undergraduate students. $17 million came from tuition and fees, and more than $100 million came from the federal government. The Hearing Loss Association has enjoyed a cooperative relationship with Gallaudet, especially in research programs related to hearing assistive technology. We have advocated for continued and expanded funding for the important Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center that is housed at Gallaudet. Given that Gallaudet is heavily subsidized by the federal government, and that they are recognized as the premiere university for deaf AND hard of hearing students, then our members certainly should pay attention to what is occurring at this university. The Future Medical and technological solutions for people with hearing loss continue to advance. Cochlear implants, advanced digital hearing aids, and potential medical breakthroughs will continue to shape the future. Terms such as deaf and hard of hearing are becoming less useful in describing people who are experiencing hearing loss.
Our organization focuses on the millions of Americans who have a hearing loss and wish to use various communication strategies and technology to manage their own hearing loss and thrive in the mainstream of society. We still have a long way to go in how the public perceives hearing loss, protection of civil rights, and the challenge of accessibility. It is difficult to know if the current turmoil will lead to this reality being embraced and advanced, or denied and fought against.