Loud and Clear on Deaf Rights
I. King Jordan, Gallaudet's first deaf president, symbolizes progress for the hearing disabled
WASHINGTON — BEFORE I. KING JORDAN was deafened in a motorcycle accident as a young man, he'd never even seen a deaf person, let alone thought about the disability. So it's ironic that the Gallaudet University president has brought unprecedented visibility to what he calls the ``hidden'' disability of deafness. Indeed, once you've seen Dr. Jordan's expressive brown eyes smiling through a graceful blur of sign language, you can't forget him.
Take his recent trip to Los Angeles, for example. Planning to do Southern California ``right,'' he rented a convertible. Top down, he got no farther than the first stoplight before a driver recognized him and was calling excitedly, ``You're from Gallaudet!''
This is not unusual, even though it has been three years since the Deaf President Now (DPN) student protests. That March 1988 week of demonstrations won the ouster of a newly appointed hearing president and the installation of Jordan as the first deaf president of the university for the deaf.
``DPN is ongoing ... the awareness level of Gallaudet, of deafness, of what deaf people can do has changed a lot,'' explains Jordan orally as well as in sign language. ``The name `DPN' has taken on much more meaning than a week at Gallaudet.''
And Jordan's job itself has taken on more meaning than what the already-weighty title of university president implies. There are added demands as the symbol of deaf civil rights.
``He is very much aware of his role as a symbol of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community as well as the broader disabled community,'' says Philip Bravin, an IBM Corporation executive, a Gallaudet alumnus, and chairman of the university's board of trustees. ``He works very much to try to represent all these groups and ensure that the world down the road is a better place for all of those people to live in....''
DPN has become a ubiquitous term in the Gallaudet community. It is used to define different eras, like BC and AD, and to describe the civil rights of the deaf.
DPN - and Jordan as its symbol - is credited variously with being a fund-raising and federal-funding bonanza for once-obscure Gallaudet, blasting open career opportunities for the deaf, giving a new level of self-esteem to the deaf, and influencing passage last fall of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
``The food is even better'' after DPN and Jordan, quips graduating senior Deborah Dee.
While Jordan initially thought the DPN movement would fail and had to be convinced by students to participate in demanding the school's first deaf president, he clearly has not skipped a beat in taking advantage of the opportunity for the deaf.
People are hearing a lot more from Gallaudet with a deaf president than they did during the school's previous 124 years under hearing leadership.
Jordan's charm - an unselfconscious liveliness - has become a handy tool in fund-raising and lobbying. And with the stamina of the marathon runner that he is, he is constantly touring the country promoting the university.
Expecting Jordan's travels to begin to pay off, the university projects $5 million in private support this year. That's a dramatic increase over pre-DPN years when private support hovered at just $1 million annually because administrators didn't fund-raise for fear it would decrease federal support, explains Carol Parr, Gallaudet vice president of development.
JORDAN'S extra legwork in Congress paid off immediately in 1988 when he won the university a 6 percent increase in federal funding after his predecessors had begun to face decreases.
He was also instrumental in lobbying Congress for Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf (TDDs) provisions in last year's disabiliities act.
With TDDs, deaf people can telephone hearing people by typing in and receiving messages. Responses are relayed through third-party operators who are essentially the deaf person's voice and ears. The 1990 act mandated these systems as a basic phone service for the deaf.
``The Gallaudet administration now is not just sensitive [to deaf issues] but it is advocating for the deaf,'' says Betty Martin, special assistant to the president for institutional affairs and a colleague of Jordan's during the 20 years he was a psychology professor and dean here.
Only five years ago she says, the university administration could not be convinced of a need for TDDs for the faculty. Now the president is actively supporting phone-relay system legislation.
A walk across the Gallaudet campus, where a sea of hands chatter in sign language, nets only stray criticisms of Jordan - the comment that because he was born hearing he has the command of his voice and advantages those born deaf do not have, or a comment that his ``signing'' isn't expressive enough (though to those unfamiliar with the deaf community he's hardly a poker face).
Most students express the feeling that Jordan is ``one of us.''
He is. Within years of losing his hearing at age 21, he had learned sign language and earned his bachelor's degree in psychology right here at Gallaudet. (He went on to earn his PhD at the University of Tennessee.)
And it is the change he and DPN have effected at the heart of Gallaudet that seems most dear to Jordan. Students' self-esteem and confidence is up - and the outside world's openness to them is correspondingly up, he says.
``During my time [in college here] students simply didn't aspire to be lawyers or doctors or dentists or businessmen really. Most of the people who came to Gallaudet came with the understanding from the very beginning they were prepared to be teachers or dorm counselors or work in service occupations,'' Jordan says.
``Now students come and want to be writers and want to be doctors and lawyers.
``Deaf people can do anything,'' Jordan says frequently, noting that the only difference between the deaf and the hearing is the method of communication.
But how can an employer be expected to hire nonhearing people for phone-dependent jobs?
``An excuse,'' he responds. ``The telephone has been the scourge of deaf people for years and years. The answer to that is technology and the relay service [now mandated by law].''
With technology - like computer devices that will transmit a voice directly into a typed message - and the growing public awareness of the abilities of the deaf, Jordan sees a future of much easier interaction between the deaf and the hearing.
``It's really a good system but when people first hear about it they are a little bit nervous,'' he explains. ``For example, one of our graduates from 1988 is now a stockbroker. Merrill Lynch said, `Oh this is really a phone-dependent job.' So they came here and we gave them tips on how to help with things like interpreters and using computers. He's now a very successful stockbroker ... in the top 20 percent.''
Jordan says that hesitancy by employers will diminish as more deaf people succeed in new areas of employment.