The Death of a 'Strong Deaf.' (Student Activist Carl DuPree Killed by Gallaudet University Campus Security)

By Treesberg, Judith | The Nation, February 11, 1991 | Go to article overview

The Death of a 'Strong Deaf.' (Student Activist Carl DuPree Killed by Gallaudet University Campus Security)


Treesberg, Judith, The Nation


The Death of a 'Strong Deaf'

On November 9, 1990, student activist Carl DuPree was killed by campus security officers at Gallaudet University, where my daughter is a student. Every day since, I have scanned the morning paper and the evening news, waiting for an outcry that has not come. The underlying issues go undiscussed, and all the mechanisms that led to Carl's senseless death remain in place. The student movement that shut the campus down less than three years ago, demanding a deaf president for Gallaudet, is fragmented and uncertain. "We don't know what to do," says my daughter. "We are all in shock."

Like Carl, my daughter is Deaf. At 19, she is one of the 500,000 or so Americans who define themselves by the use of American Sign Language and their affiliation with the Deaf community. Like 90 percent of the parents of deaf children and more than 80 percent of their teachers, I am hearing. For half my daugther's life, I sought out the advice of those educators as well as doctors, audiologists and speech pathologists and diligently practiced the drills they recommended. Then, in the summer of her 10th year, we met other Deaf people for the first time, and in a circle of signing strangers I glimpsed the adult she would grow up to be.

Since the beginning of history, Deaf people have gathered into adult communities and devised visual languages as well as strategies for coping in a world where they are vastly outnumbered. Until recently, the hearing majority, including their birth families, has stubbornly refused to recognize the authenticity of either their language or their experience. Nevertheless, a growing worldwide movement has actively begun to challenge medical models of deafness and call for recognition of Deaf people as a distinct linguistic and cultural minority. When I look at my daughter now, it is the only description that makes sense to me.

We moved from our small Midwestern town to Washington, D.C., home for Gallaudet University, the world's premier institution of learning for the Deaf. Expecting the best in deaf education, I was stunned by what we found. Instead of a school run for the benefit of the Deaf student body, I discovered that Gallaudet is occupied territory, a small island overrun by hearing, speaking teachers and administrators who have neither desire nor incentive to learn the language or culture of the Deaf community. In the Precollege Programs at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School and Model Secondary School for the Deaf, bright children were falling behind, and failure was blamed on everything but the fact that their teachers could neither use nor understand their language. Deaf students from kindergarten through college endure endless hours in the classroom with hearing teachers who cannot sign or who sign poorly. Students survive by their wits, by constructing elaborate self-help strategies and by bonding in a fierce, impenetrable loyalty.

I couldn't bear it. I took my daughter out of deaf school and enrolled her in a small private school in Maryland with a progressive curriculum. She graduated from the eighth grade with honors, but she was the only Deaf. (That is how she put it: "I am the only Deaf." In many Native American languages, the name of the tribe is also the word for people or friend. In my daughter's lexicon, Deaf is another work for family.) I have tried to put the memories of those nightmare years behind me, but they returned full force when I heard the news that Carl DuPree, one of the family, had died just inside the door of the Ely Student Center.

Because Deaf people depend on visual patterns, not sound, for communication, they require a visual language to fulfill their linguistic potential and to explore the full range of their thoughts and feelings. By the time my daughter reached high school, I could see that her English skills, which so impressed everyone, were limiting her to predigested information. …

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