THE bleachers at a recent Gallaudet University benefit basketball game between dueling Democratic and Republican congressmen were packed with students. Just like students anywhere, they were chattering and jostling - but mostly in silence. Their hands were doing the talking. Applause - wiggling the hands over the head - was not for sound but for visual effect.
A visit to the school, chartered as a college by President Lincoln in 1864 and as a university in 1986 by Congress, offers a glimpse of the culture of the deaf and hearing-impaired, who constitute 8.8 percent of the United States population.
While the only real difference between the deaf and the hearing is the manner of communication, says I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet, that difference alone leads to others which make for the deaf culture.
Gallaudet, the only liberal arts university in the world exclusively for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, is widely considered the mecca of deaf culture. Funded by Congress ($69 million this year), the 99-acre Kendall Green campus in northeast Washington is the most concentrated center of research, teaching, social activity, public services, and resources for the deaf in the world.
All the university's 2,400 students and 35 percent of the faculty are deaf or hearing-impaired. All classes are conducted in sign language - though not all professors can sign.
Many students arrive unable to sign at all, having made their way up through mainstream schools. But all students are expected to become bilingual - that is, able to communicate in English as well as American Sign Language, which is a whole separate language with its own syntax and vocabulary.