March 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 3

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My Journey Into the Deaf-World: 
A Visit to Gallaudet University

Erik Olin Wright, ASA President

Erik Olin Wright speaking about Real Utopias at Gallaudet University.

Erik Olin Wright speaking about Real Utopias
at Gallaudet University.

The first image of Gallaudet: two students in animated conversation strolling along a walk next to classic liberal arts type buildings—an everyday thing to see on campus, only they are talking with their hands. I have, of course, seen people signing before, but this was the first time I had visited a place in Deaf-World and spoken, with the help of an interpreter, for an extended period with Deaf people. The day was extraordinary.

I was visiting Gallaudet as part of my ASA Presidential project of giving lectures to universities and colleges that serve historically marginalized groups. At first this project was restricted to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), but after a conversation with Margaret Vitullo, ASA Academic and Professional Affairs Program Director, I asked if Gallaudet could be added. Margaret taught at Gallaudet for 10 years and was very enthusiastic about the idea. Since the school in Washington where ASA Council meetings had just met, this was logistically easy to organize for a February visit.

Margaret explained to me that Gallaudet was torn between two ideals: It was both a cultural center and a University. It was a symbol for Deaf World, a global site where Deaf Culture was dominant, a place that was welcoming to all Deaf people. In that model the university should accept almost everyone. But it was also an institution of higher learning designed to educate people and for that it needed “standards.” As Deaf students become more mainstreamed and as universities around the country invest more effort and resources in adequate accommodations to their needs, many Deaf students now have options. This increases the challenges faced by Gallaudet itself.

These challenges struck me as similar to challenges faced by HBCUs. In the era of segregation HBCUs were a place where black students in the South could get higher education. HBCUs embodied black culture but also advanced black education. They faced challenges around standards because so many black students came from dreadful primary and secondary schools, but it was part of their mission to deal with these deficits and they served a positive purpose under the historical circumstances. With integration, black students, especially the most talented, have many options. To be sure, there are reasons to attend an HBCU: the environment is less fraught with racial tension, students do not have to be on guard, and they can learn and excel without having the context defined as competition with whites. Many of the same conditions seem to be present at Gallaudet.

In preparation for the visit I decided to learn some ASL (American Sign Language) so I could give a greeting at the beginning of my talk. Margaret told me about a book, A Journey into the Deaf-World, and explained that the expression “Deaf-World” was a term used within the Deaf community to describe their cultural and social world.  Proficient in ASL, Margaret also gave me my first lesson. In Madison, I had three more lessons from ASL instructors, one from a deaf woman, and two from a professor of communicative disorders and her student. In the end, my greeting was, “Hello, I am thrilled and honored to be here. Thank you for welcoming me to give a lecture in your Deaf-World.”

The lecture was in a beautiful space designed with the specific objective of being congenial to the Deaf. This meant having lots of light and good sight lines for visual communication. I was introduced by Thomas Horejes, a young, energetic Deaf sociologist on the Gallaudet faculty. After I did my signed introduction, I added a few comments about my experience signing.  This comes directly from the recording of the lecture:

“Before giving my lecture I would like to tell that this past week when I had my first exposure to sign language has been a powerful and moving experience — a new engagement with language that was outside of my life experience. I found one of the signs I learned especially meaningful—the sign for “lecture”. [I gave the sign.] The idea conveyed by the sign was that I was taking ideas from my head and sharing them with you, throwing them out. That image, visually, made me feel differently about the word “lecture” – it was a kind of revelation: that when you put words into visual, body motions, you can learn something about the words. I feel that after a week of this I have a little understanding of what is in play with Deaf culture. I have told some students that it is worthwhile to take one week of sign language. To take one sentence that they would like to say and learn it well, because it will change the way you think about speaking a language.”

I then gave a version of my real utopias “stump speech”—a general explanation of the idea of “real utopias” and how to think about its moral foundations, followed by a discussion of a few examples. At the end of the lecture I briefly explored the question “what would be a Deaf real utopia?” I went on to discuss the Real Utopia theme at the ASA and invited everyone to come or to watch the plenary sessions on the web with captioning. After I finished speaking there was a lively question and answer discussion. A number of students and professors came up and asked me questions in ASL.

Following the lecture, my wife and I joined a number of sociology faculty members for lunch.An interesting discussion began on the complex issue of cochlear implants between an individual who had been Deaf from birth and another who became Deaf as an adult. Both learned ASL as adults. The person who was Deaf since birth had been mainstreamed as a child, learning lip-reading, and only learned ASL as a young adult. Many issues were in play in the discussion:

At what age was it appropriate to have cochlear implants? If a young child is to have this procedure done, then it means that the parents would have the power to impose it on a child. The contrary argument  is that the benefits of the procedure are greatest if done early, because the brain can adapt more easily to the implant signals; which can have a bigger impact on language acquisition and cognitive development.

I also learned that many of the students at Gallaudet have large challenges to overcome because while growing up they lacked access to the diffuse general knowledge that most undergraduates had. Much of this knowledge is picked up serendipitously by the young in overhearing conversations, and casually watching the news and listening to the radio, all things that are much less likely for Deaf children, especially if their parents are hearing. A child Deaf from birth also has a larger challenge learning to read, because words are purely marks on a page with no sounds connected to them. Each word has to be learned as a separate entity. As a result many Deaf students read at a relatively low level, but are still trying to do college work.

The day ended with relaxing dinner with a number of sociology faculty and two interpreters. The interpreters had to work hard, and their professional code meant that they weren’t supposed to eat while on the job. As it was explained to me, there is not a direct sign for every word spoken, so sometimes the interpreter has to spell out the word with hand spelling. They seemed to do a wonderful job, because the conversation flowed smoothly and easily. Unlike in a foreign language, in signed interpretation, interpreters do a simultaneous translation, since there are no sounds.

For more about Erik’s travels including a complete version of this account, see Erik Olin Wright’s ASA presidential travel blog at


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