Technology No Longer Distances Deaf Culture Gallaudet University for deaf students has announced a new president, Jane Fernandes. In the 18 years since the school selected its last president, much has changed for deaf people. Students know they must struggle to make their way in both the deaf and the hearing world, but technology is increasingly helping them.

Technology No Longer Distances Deaf Culture

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The world's only university for deaf students has a new president. Jane Fernandes has been tapped to lead Gallaudet University. She is the first woman to hold the post and only the second deaf person. For the last six years, Fernandes has been provost at Gallaudet. The school has always been an important symbol to deaf people, especially after its historic choice 18 years ago of its first deaf president.

Now, as NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports, Fernandes will work to help students succeed in both the deaf and the hearing worlds.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: When hearing people come to Gallaudet, they often expect a campus for deaf students is going to be a quiet place. Sometimes it is. So quiet you can hear the songbirds in the trees on the campus green as a few students walk to class on a sunny day.


SHAPIRO: And sometimes Gallaudet's a noisy place, like inside the student center, at the food court. There's an International Day celebration going on. A deaf student from Nigeria, in an embroidered robe, bangs a large drum while students from Africa and then Japan dance.


SHAPIRO: Other students eat lunch in groups of six or even 10, crowded in at small round tables. The round tables make it easy to see what everyone else is saying in sign language. And when these students sign, it's elegant, even dramatic. Their fingers fly. They slap one hand into the other and use strong facial expressions to drive home a point.

Some of the students have some hearing. Others can feel the vibration of the percussive bass. When the drumming stops, students at the lunch tables raise their arms over their heads and wave their hands. That's sign for applause.

At Gallaudet, when they talk about diversity, often what they mean is diversity in the range of hearing, from people who are deaf to ones who have some hearing.

TOM BALDRIDGE: Okay so, obviously, I'm using my voice today. Last class we were talking about workplace issues.

SHAPIRO: Tom Baldridge is teaching his class on business ethics. Most students at Gallaudet have signed all their lives. But others lost their hearing only recently. Some use regular hearing aids or cochlear implants.

BALDRIDGE: End of chapter six, discipline and discharge.

SHAPIRO: When Baldridge teaches, he signs.


SHAPIRO: But today, a student in the seat closest to the front has asked him to sign and speak. Of the 15 students here, she's one of just a few who has a hearing aid.

ANDREA: Voice for me. I can understand him. It helps me.

SHAPIRO: It's not easy for the teacher. To sign and speak, Baldridge has to use two languages at the same time.

BALDRIDGE: Our students here are all required to learn sign language. So by the time they graduate, almost all of them are fluent signers. That doesn't mean that they're fluent when they take the class with me.

SHAPIRO: When Baldridge signs, he's using American Sign Language, or ASL. That's the first language of people who are born deaf, also of hearing children who are born to deaf parents. Both of Baldridge's parents are deaf. In Indianapolis, where he grew up, he learned Sign before he spoke English. ASL and English have different grammar, different word order. In English, you'd say: Have you visited Gallaudet? In ASL, you'd sign: Touch Finish Gallaudet You?

BRADLEY MILLER: (Through translator) Because, you know, we all live in the hearing world. All deaf people live in the hearing world.

SHAPIRO: Bradley Miller is one of the students in this class. He's speaking through a sign-language interpreter. Before Gallaudet, Miller went to a school where people read lips or could hear. For Miller, that other school was often a lonely place.

MILLER: (Through translator) You know, if I joined the basketball team, who could I talk to? If I'm on the bus going to away games or whatever, you know, I just sit there by myself. Wouldn't be able to talk to anybody. And so the coach here, James DeStefano, recruited me to come to Gallaudet and I was able to talk to everybody, communicate with everybody. And so it was a lot more fun. And so the access is greater here.

SHAPIRO: But Miller knows that Gallaudet may be the only place he'll ever be where everybody speaks his language, everybody signs. So he's gone to speech therapy classes, where he speaks and reads lips.

MILLER: (Through translator) I don't want to leave the community or leave my culture. I just want to learn more about that. And I know that my speech has to be better if I want to get a better job. But, you know, getting an interpreter, that's not always possible, having an interpreter on the job site every day.

SHAPIRO: To speak and read lips is called oralism. At Gallaudet, it was often dismissed as a way of adapting to the hearing world. Signing is seen as more of a statement of deaf culture. It's a tension that goes way back.


AUDREY HEPBURN: The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.


SHAPIRO: In MY FAIR LADY, Professor Henry Higgins teaches a poor flower girl to speak proper English.

HARRISON: I think she's got it. I think she's got it.

HEPBURN: (Singing) The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.

HARRISON: By George, she's got it!

SHAPIRO: Henry Higgins was modeled in part on a Scottish teacher of speech named Alexander Melville Bell. Only Bell didn't go around making the Eliza Doolittles of London lose their Cockney accents. Bell taught deaf people how to read lips and to speak in the hearing world.

For George Bernard Shaw's play and the Lerner and Lowe musical, it was easier to make the female lead someone who could hear, talk and, of course, sing.

Bell's son was Alexander Graham Bell. He, too, taught speech and helped lead deaf educators to replace Sign Language with the teaching of speech and reading lips, so that deaf people would adapt to the hearing world. That put American Sign Language in eclipse for about a century. Its revival was boosted by the Gallaudet student protests in 1988, when the school picked its first deaf president. To use Sign became an expression of deaf pride and belonging to the deaf world.

Some of Alexander Graham Bell's biographers say when he helped invent the telephone, what he really was trying to do was come up with a device to help his deaf wife communicate. No other piece of technology would more cut off deaf people from the hearing world than the telephone. Today deaf people have found technology to connect them to both worlds When's the last time you saw a telephone booth? At the Gallaudet Student Center, they have them.

KING JORDAN: This is called a videophone booth. See there are four here. You can see, three are in use.

SHAPIRO: I. King Jordan is the current president, the school's historic first deaf president. He shows off a bank of phone booths, each with a black curtain and a videophone inside.

JORDAN: Here, what you do is you sit down and you turn it on. Automatically, an interpreter appears. And that interpreter asks you who you're trying to call. You give a phone number.

SHAPIRO: That's to call a hearing person. Or a deaf person can just dial up another deaf person with a TV phone. Many students have web cams on the computers in their dorm rooms.

Even more popular is text messaging. Students walk across campus, often with their heads down, banging out messages on Blackberries and Sidekicks. And on this day, as Jordan walks back to his office, he gets a message on his. It's from his grandson. He's nine. He's hearing. And he's on vacation in Florida.

JORDAN: He used his grandma's pager and he typed, "Well, I just wanted to say hi since life is not fun without you."

SHAPIRO: Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: The 1988 Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet was a defining moment for the disability rights movement. You can read more about that at our website,

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