May. 15, 2006
Depending on whom you ask, the issue is either as narrow as the proper way to hire a school president or as broad as how the deaf community defines itself.
On a recent school day, students and teachers at Phoenix Day School for the Deaf took up the debate. They talked about education, about pride, and about prejudice. And about what it means to be "deaf enough."
All classes at the Gallaudet University are specifically designed for the deaf and taught in sign language.
But Gallaudet is more than just a school for the deaf. It is viewed by many as the center of deaf culture.
That is why deaf people in Phoenix care so much about the school. It's why debates about the school are often passionate.
Gallaudet recently named Jane Fernandes as its new president. Her credentials appear to be impeccable.
She had been provost of the school for the past six years. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in comparative literature. She is deaf.
But as soon as she was announced as the new president, students and faculty began an around-the-clock protest.
They said they did not like the way she was chosen. They argued that her tenure at the school has been uninspired and that her academic credentials were high but not high enough.
The faculty gave her a vote of no confidence.
But what could have remained a relatively minor protest turned into a heated debate in the deaf world when Fernandes said she was opposed because she was not "deaf enough."
Fernandes was born deaf, but after intensive therapy she learned to speak fluently.
She attended schools for the hearing and did not learn American Sign Language until she was in her mid-20s.
Lynn Dunn teaches sign language to students at Phoenix Day School for the Deaf. Her daughter, Renca Dunn, 18, a student at Gallaudet, was one of the protestors and came to the Phoenix school to talk about the controversy.
Dunn told a class of freshmen that the protest was simply about procedure. She says the board of trustees at Gallaudet did not listen to the students and faculty who supported another candidate for the presidency.
"We the students feel we were ignored," Dunn told the class. "We are the deaf community."
Bonnelle Amann is a teacher at the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf and a Gallaudet graduate.
"I love the school. My husband graduated from Gallaudet. I graduated from Gallaudet. Our two sons graduated from Gallaudet," said Amann through an interpreter. "It has nothing to do with her ASL. Or not being 'deaf enough.' She said that, not us. Is she the right person for the job? That is the only question."
Sean Stone, 17, of Gilbert, will attend Gallaudet in the fall. He said he is not sure how he would define "deaf enough," but he knows the presidency of his future school is a uniquely important position.
"Deafness to me means a severe hearing loss, speaking ASL, being able to communicate with other deaf people and being proud of being deaf. There is nothing wrong with being deaf."