Today, there are growing numbers of individuals with a disability who are beginning to break the glass ceiling. This is in no small part due to the opportunities created by those who came before them and the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act.
Thirty years ago, an unusual protest took place in Washington, D.C., that gave voice to a historically oppressed group. At Gallaudet University, deaf students demanded that a future president at the college be just like them. In other words, deaf.
Throughout its storied history, presidents at Gallaudet, the world’s only university for the deaf and hard of hearing, could hear and were never fluent in American Sign Language. The student’s “Deaf President Now” protest was short, powerful and successful.
At the time, I was a junior attending Western Washington University in Bellingham. Having been raised in rural Lewis County, my life up to that point was one of assimilation. Because of my moderate hearing loss, I learned how to speak first as my primary language. I was outfitted with hearing aids and, with help from a speech-teacher, learned to take auditory cues and process information. I graduated from Chehalis High, attended Centralia College and transferred to WWU.
Imagine my surprise that March evening when the news broke that deaf students at Gallaudet were protesting. For 124 years there had never been a president who had been deaf. The student movement led to the appointment of the university’s first deaf president, Dr. I. King Jordan.
Imagine if Spelman College (a historically black liberal arts college for women) were run by a white male president. In essence, there are places and times when having appropriate leadership role models matters.
The Gallaudet movement made an indelible imprint on me, and a door had opened. That fall, I took time away from WWU to attend Gallaudet for a semester. I embraced the study of deafness from a cultural perspective and learned American Sign Language. I eventually transferred back to Western, graduated and attended graduate school at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.
Just two years after the Gallaudet protest, in 1990, a federal bill recognizing disabilities was signed into law: the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. As a result, today I see much progress. I can go to a theater and watch a movie with subtitles; request an interpreter if I need one. I see sloped sidewalks studded with yellow-dots to help those with visual challenges become aware of where the sidewalk ends and the street begins. More streets can accommodate those using wheelchairs.
While the landmark ADA law was intended to make places of public accommodation accessible, it fell short in helping police hiring practices. Too often, government entities and businesses are looking for the best résumé yet fail to see the best candidate.
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Despite the progress, it’s impossible to overlook instances of bias throughout society. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t see the news media using the tired old phrase, “fell on deaf ears.” To me, it perpetuates the myth that the deaf are incapable of reasoning. I assure you, with three degrees, strong parental guidance and a lifetime of decision-making, I am very much capable of reasoning.
As a veteran public-school teacher, there are days when the best I can do is to try to narrow the gap of understanding between my students who hear and those who cannot or those who have another disability.
I like to think my students someday may become CEOs or able to hire highly qualified, disabled individuals in career-level jobs. Perhaps one day we may have someone in a state or federal office who is deaf. After all, Washington state has a highly talented lieutenant governor — Cyrus Habib — who is legally blind and carries out his official functions with success.
Today, there are growing numbers of individuals finally beginning to break the glass ceiling, despite a disability. This is in no small part due to the opportunities created by those who came before them and the landmark ADA law, a good law that needs to open the door even wider.