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College President’s Series:
Gallaudet University: Dr. Jane Fernandes
By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

As a young person, Dr. Jane Fernandes, who was born with limited hearing and became profoundly deaf soon afterwards, attended mainstream schools and spoke English. It was not until the age of 23 that she even learned sign language. Yet just as (in her words) “all roads lead to Rome,” Fernandes felt a magnetic pull to the Washington, DC-based Gallaudet University, the internationally pre-eminent liberal arts and career development institution for deaf and hard of hearing students, which she joined in 1995 as vice president of its Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center.

“Gallaudet is the cauldron where all issues affecting deaf people are developed and thought through, where controversies are talked through,” explains Dr. Fernandes when interviewed with her interpreter by phone. And so, after a six year stint as Gallaudet’s Provost, Fernandes enthusiastically accepted the Board’s offer in May to become its ninth president, the first deaf woman to preside over the university and the second deaf president in its 142 year history.

Speaking in a clear, nuanced voice and peppering her comments with humor, Fernandes outlines the challenges facing modern education of the deaf. “In 1864 when Gallaudet was founded, deaf students were not assimilated into society. They were mostly white men,” she explains. Now, there is more racial diversity, which impacts the curriculum and hiring of faculty. “We want all students to see themselves reflected in the faculty and to feel welcome,” Fernandes says simply. Moreover, more than 80 percent of deaf and hearing impaired students currently attend public schools. “They don’t have a strong sense of a deaf community. We want them to learn about the richness of the deaf community,” she adds. And there are now technological advances such as the cochlear implant that are helping individuals with hearing impairments to process sound better and have a greater opportunity for success. “Students are coming to us better prepared than ever,” concludes Fernandes. “That challenges the University to provide a better and better education for these people.”

And how does she intend to lead Gallaudet into the twenty first century? Fernandes’ goals are crystal clear. “All deaf people should have the chance to learn all languages and forms of communication that they will need when they grow up.” Consequently, the Gallaudet model teaches both American Sign Language (ASL) and English in a bilingual approach. “Sign language was historically seen as something for deaf people who couldn’t speak clearly…The truth is, sign language is on par with other languages of the world,” explains Fernandes. And she’ll continue to emphasize interdisciplinary education, with faculty from different departments teaching the same subject from different perspectives. For example, a popular course on the trial of O.J. Simpson examines that event from the various perspectives of law, public figure status, history, athletics, and race. “This teaches students to respect people who have different views from themselves. We need to respect differences. We must allow deaf people to be who they are. That’s really what’s taught in an interdisciplinary curriculum,” she concludes. Fernandes is particularly excited about a joint venture between two departments that don’t traditionally work together: the Hearing, Speech and Language Sciences Department, that works on cochlear implants, and the ASL Department, that provides education in sign language, deaf culture and deaf history. “It is important for the future that these two schools be brought together,” underscores Fernandes.

But first things first. In response to protests among some students and faculty after her appointment was announced last May, Fernandes realizes that she will have to spend significant time communicating with all key stakeholder groups. She’s planned a series of coffees and small group meetings come fall, and she will be setting up a blue ribbon panel to examine the controversy over her appointment. “Let their [students and faculty’s] voices be known,” she says resolutely.

And—oh yes—there’s a book that’s almost on the way to the publisher, a study of deaf people in history who’ve made important public addresses, titled Signs of Eloquence: A Study of Deaf American Public Address. One of the most evocative portraits in the book is that of Laurent Clerc, the first deaf teacher in the U.S., who traveled throughout the country in the early 1800’s and persuaded Americans through sign language that deaf people could talk. Another figure highlighted in the book is George Veditz, erstwhile President of the National Association of the Deaf, who made an impassioned speech in 1913 on the need for deaf people to preserve sign language. Does Fernandes see an irony in the fact that the battle over the efficacy of sign language in deaf education has been raging for nearly a century? “As long as there are deaf people on earth, there will be sign language,” she answers firmly. “And yet there are all different kinds of beliefs. That’s why diversity is our issue.”

In the end, Fernandes hopes to see a time “when we’re not so focused on which language or technology is best, but rather we look at how those tools that can most benefit students are given to them.” Fernandes is optimistic, too, that the gap between deaf and hearing students is closing. “I see teaching strategies backed up by research being increasingly successful. We are doing better than ever at our job. It’s really a very good time to be deaf,” she concludes philosophically.# 



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