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Civil rights win for the deaf. Gallaudet students hail symbolism of deaf president

Gallaudet University students are claiming a significant civil rights victory for deaf people in their successful drive to have a deaf person named president of the institution. Observers inside and outside the Gallaudet community tend to agree. And a number who were interviewed by the Monitor after a deaf faculty member was named president of the only university for the deaf in the United States tended to see the event as the latest in a series of advances for the deaf and other handicapped people in recent years.

The appointment Sunday of I. King Jordan, a deaf man who was dean of Gallaudet's college of arts and science, capped a hectic week during which Gallaudet students closed down the school. They were protesting the appointment of Elisabeth Zinser, a North Carolina college administrator who is not deaf and does not know sign language.

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Dr. Zinser had been chosen over Dean Jordan and another deaf candidate - Harvey J. Corson, superintendent of the Louisiana School for the Deaf. Jordan was named president after Zinser relinquished the appointment; Jan Bassett Spilman, chairwoman of Gallaudet's board of trustees and a strong supporter of the Zinser appointment, resigned from the board.

``We will no longer accept limits on what we can achieve,'' Jordan told a cheering crowd of about 250 students Sunday night. ``I am confident we will walk boldly into a future without artificial limits. It is a historic moment for deaf people around the world.''

In its 124-year history Gallaudet had not had a deaf president.

Mr. Corson of the Louisiana school, in a telephone interview, called the Zinser appointment the ``last straw breaking the camel's back.'' The seven-day student strike was not just a reaction to a specific circumstance, he said, but a revolutionary eruption caused by ``years of inequities, injustice, and unfairness.''

The students equate their struggle to the black civil rights movement. They say that, like American blacks, they suffer prejudice, paternalism, stereotyping, and a denial of equal opportunity in the hearing world.

There is an attitude of ``we know what's good for you, trust us,'' says Gallaudet doctoral student Jerel Barnhart. He says it is a fundamental block between deaf and hearing people. ``I'm sure you can find a qualified white person to head the NAACP, or a qualified Catholic to head B'nai B'rith,'' he says. ``Hearing people can say they understand, but they can't.''

John Banzhaf III, a George Washington University law professor who heads his university's public-interest law project, has filed a discrimination suit against Gallaudet with the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights. He says that if Gallaudet is found to be in violation of the district's anti-discrimination law, it could be required to set up an affirmative action plan to place deaf people in more high administrative positions at Gallaudet.

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Progress for the deaf has followed much the same timetable as progress for other handicapped people. Such improvements as closed-caption television for the deaf and ramps for people in wheelchairs have come only in the last 15 years, notes speech pathologist Nancy Tarulli. ``Society is changing,'' she says, ``but how much? Deaf people still are discriminated against all the time.''

William E. Castle, director of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, says: ``The past 20 years has been a boon for the deaf in the country.'' Mr. Castle cites legislation beginning in 1973 that bolstered public education for the handicapped and set uniform standards for deaf education in particular. ``The deaf have never had it so good,'' he says, ``but things could always be better.''

As a group, Ms. Tarulli points out, deaf people are underemployed. Many must learn language from vibration, she explains, and their voices sound strange to hearing people. As a result deaf people suffer from a prejudicial attitude that makes speech and level of intelligence synonymous. ``People don't have the patience to enunciate and speak slowly'' she says.

But the deaf are making inroads. A 1987 study done by National Information Center on Deafness (NICD) shows that the deaf have entered the ranks of physicians, dentists, lawyers, and members of the clergy. There are deaf administrators, psychologists, social workers, counselors, and vocational rehabilitation specialists.

And there are 1,300 teachers of the deaf who are hearing-impaired themselves.

Deaf people drive cars, hold pilot's licenses, and pursue the same leisure activities as everyone else.

But David Wolfe of NICD says that educators have tried to get the deaf into the mainstream by requiring them to look, act, and function like hearing people. ``That's like trying to solve the race problem by making everybody white,'' he says. ``Some of these people have never heard a sound. How can they be expected to speak or act like hearing people?''

Mr. Wolfe says, ``With the right adjustments deaf people can do anything hearing people can do, given limitations. You won't see a lot of deaf musicians.''

But progress hinges on a hearing-world willingness to make adjustments, says Jerel Barnhart, who lost his hearing in midcareer as a public school psychologist. Adjustments in the work place for the deaf can be as simple as attaching a light to a machine to indicate when a process is finished, putting a deaf secretary in charge of filing and typing, bringing an interpreter in for meetings, or using visual cues and written reinforcements in conversations. Wolfe says a lot of intelligence is wasted because of resistance to adjustments.

Gallaudet English teacher James Tucker, who is deaf, says the student victory is a sweeping statement on behalf of all deaf people. He says his father, who is deaf, ``is a master wood craftsman, top man in his shop. He never became the foreman because he couldn't use the phone.''

The student victory, Mr. Tucker says, ``made me think of my father. It made me think, yeah, a deaf person can be top dog.''

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