PHYSICAL handicaps such as deafness have often been obstacles to employment. But as far as the students at Gallaudet University were concerned, deafness was a prerequisite for the next president of the world's only liberal arts college for the deaf. Last week Gallaudet's trustees chose as president Elizabeth Ann Zinser. She came to the job with a good reputation as a manager and a scholar but no hearing impairment or even knowledge of sign language. The school erupted in protest, and at the end of the week, Dr. Zinser resigned.
The students and faculty wanted ``one of their own'' to lead the school. Gallaudet has never had a hearing-impaired president in its 124 years, and students and faculty had long felt it was ready for one.
The reaction to Zinser's appointment was unfortunately personal and pointed - she was hanged and burned in effigy. But it is clear that appointment of a deaf president would be a major morale boost for Gallaudet and the whole deaf community.
It is ironic, though, that those so adamant against discrimination on account of hearing impairment should wish to exclude someone for lack of that impairment. Much has been done in recent years to open doors for the disabled; much remains to be done. But handicap is never at the heart of anyone's identity.
``Special needs'' institutions - whether for women, for racial minorities, or the handicapped - are by definition not in the mainstream. At some point we hope society will be open enough that membership in a special group will neither determine nor limit opportunity. We're not there there yet, though, and naming a deaf president of Gallaudet would be a helpful signal as society works toward an inclusiveness and sensitivity to individual need which enrich us all.