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Deaf President Now 31 Years Later: Reflections & Questions

Thirty-one years ago this week, deaf students protested and shut down Gallaudet University, asserted the right of deaf people to self-determination, captured international attention, inspired broad public support, and made successful demands that resulted in the first-ever deaf university president. 

One of my earliest memories as a deaf child was attending a Deaf President Now (DPN) rally 3,000 miles from Washington, D.C. and experiencing the sweet anticipation when I. King Jordan was selected. When he declared to the world that “deaf people can do anything except hear”, it felt like the sun was about to rise after a cold winter night.

The widespread hope was not misplaced. Would the current achievements of deaf people have been possible if not for the metaphorical doors that the protest events opened in American public life? Nobody can ever know for sure. 

What I do know, however, is that both of my deaf grandmothers worked in the back offices of a bank because it was one of the few available jobs to deaf women. And that my deaf father had to ask his neighbors what the TV was saying about President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. 

Because of the protest events of 1988, though, we have an unprecedented amount of accommodations in public life to access critical information and pursue employment centered around our passions, interests, and talents today. This is not an exaggeration. Two U.S. representatives who sponsored the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 – Senator Tom Harkin and Congressman Stony Heyer – said the ADA would not have happened if not for the DPN protest. 

Yet, while the university, community, and country have made social progress since that fateful week, it is hardly enough. There is still plenty of work yet to be done. That some people have moved forward should not obscure the fact that some others are still left behind today. That some phrases may have worked yesterday should not stop us from questioning whether they might be stale today. 

As for the latter, 31 years later, it is quite interesting that DPN has continued to be a predominant force in how we advocate for ourselves. When we achieve something today as deaf people, for instance, and are then asked by those looking in: But, how?! In response, our instinct is, as almost as certain as our knees snap when hit with that orange reflex hammer, to relive that fateful moment in 1988 by pointing out: 

WE CAN DO ANYTHING EXCEPT HEAR! 

But is this not a yawn-inducing 31-year-old statement? (Hippies have “Make love, not war.” Radicals have “Piss On Pity.” Is this really the best we can do?)

This is not merely a cosmetic observation. How we motivate each other and talk about our breakthroughs goes beyond mere expression if we take responsibility for how language might be interpreted by others. 

What we do not discuss enough is the naivete, the dullness of the DPN motto that we persist on throwing around like a tattered baseball at a Rawlings conference picnic. In 2019, “Deaf people can do anything except hear” is not only boring and circular. 

(Imagine blondes announcing that they can do anything except not have blonde hair!)   

Thirty-one years later, if one thing has become clear, it is that ‘deaf people’ are complex individuals whose lived experiences intersect and collide. Put differently, what about Matt Maxey of Deafinitely Dope? Is he deaf? (Yes.) Can he hear? (Well, yes.) Can he wait at coffee shops for his friends without fearing arrest? (Probably not.) 

Thirty-one years later, as we revisit historical monuments and social practices, it is somewhat of a mystery why this reflexive saying hasn’t been debated yet. It is 2019. We ought to be able to talk about, and improve on, outdated declarations that were once incisive wisdom, which is perhaps an inspiring sign of the social progress that we have made since 1988. 

In any case, the DPN protest is a timely anecdote. 56 years ago, a charismatic minister said we have a dream. 31 years ago, four student leaders marched on the US Capitol and announced that we still have a dream. Today, many of us still share dreams.

But how do we make dreams real? We do not have to look at fairy tales for answers. 

In the spring of 1988, students in Washington, D.C. were warned about rules and laws, given explanations, but, nevertheless, persisted. 

At the end of that historic week, a deaf president was selected by a hearing-majority Board of Trustees. Two years later, the Americans with Disabilities Act passed with a Democratic controlled Congress and a Republican president.

Thirty-one years later, in this day and age of polarization, contempt, and tribalism, we ought note that the path for achieving progress remains similar. 

The local genesis of the DPN movement in 1988 may have been that “Deaf people can do anything except hear” but its universal legacy rests in illuminating the truth that people cannot do much without listening to others. 

That the soundness of progress is not centered around yelling and hearing, but on confronting our minds and moralities for shared understandings with those with whom we might not identify at first glance.  

May we celebrate the 31st anniversary of the DPN protest by remembering that we have it in our power to re-imagine, re-describe, and re-create our worlds. The tricky part is that it takes moral courage and human cooperation.

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How Small Choices Can Save Democracy

In this day and age of polarization, gridlock, and bigotry, we can, nonetheless, revitalize our democracy with the most basic choices.

Preserving our country from boorish and malevolent forces might feel like an Herculean task requiring enormous effort and massive cooperation. But, in truth, our small choices matter. Over the span of our lifetimes, they could make the difference between an authoritarian state and a robust democracy.

After all, we move mountains by starting with a pebble. Reformed alcoholics swear by the mantra of taking it a day at a time. Marathoners cross the finish line not by counting down 26.2 miles but by putting their left foot in front of their right.

Some of the great democratic changes in recent memory originated with simple choices. The sit-ins of the early 1960s that were a vital part of the civil rights movement, for instance, were initiated by four college freshmen at North Carolina A & T who connected with each other courtesy of conversation over smuggled beer in the dorm. The rest was history when one asked his fellow bootleggers deep into the night whether they were “chicken or not?”

That is, progress in the United States is not all that different from tapas in the world of gastronomy. It is a micro dish centered around personal connection and reciprocity.

If we think of our democracy as “of the people, by the people, for the people” then to neglect colleagues, neighbors, and strangers is to miss the forest for the trees.

As in marriage, the presence of mutual responsibility and trust is central to a healthy democracy. The absence renders it unlikely. People divorced from community and commitment are those most likely to commit violence and practice fanaticism.

It was a privilege to be interviewed by a brilliant young filmmaker, Dexter Mueller, for his short documentary for a C-SPAN competition. As you can see, he makes this fundamental point about the essence of civic duty — our responsibilities as a democratic citizen — and what it could involve today.

I hope you enjoy this documentary and think about changing the world by, perhaps, inviting a new classmate to a house party, joining an organization, or having coffee with somebody you don’t know quite well.

Or, yes, even washing the dishes tonight.  

Why Sports Matter

When one of my more perceptive students walked into my office last semester to talk grades and life, she made a snarky comment that I still think about today. Upon seeing the sports-related memorabilia on my office walls and bookshelves, she scoffed and asked me, “Don’t you have better things to do with your time?”

I think I laughed and dodged the question with a dismissive wave of the hand, telling her something like, “And that is why you, not me, who will run the country someday.”  

Now that I think about it, however, that comment per se did not necessarily reflect a mature observer of what matters in life beyond her years (although she is exceptionally wise about important stuff from whom I have learned so much) so much as it illuminated the worrisome cynicism of our day and age about what matters in life.

If we pay attention to the chatter around us and in the media, it feels like it is becoming hip to discount, and even disparage, the value of sports. To write them off as silly, as frivolous, as unhealthy, as back-breaking labor, as archaic, as a waste of time in an unjust world replete with grave problems.

And it is not just chatter. Youth participation in sports, game attendance and live sports viewership, and traditional fandom are falling like grass before the mower.

While the causes of these negative trends go beyond simple ideology, such as how playing and watching sports have become prohibitively expensive, ideas have consequences. While those critics have good intentions and are not wrong about problematic issues in amateur and professional athletics, fact remains that sports are more important than ever.  Not in spite of, but precisely because of, our serious challenges in society today.

As a lifelong admirer of sports and as the Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) at Gallaudet, I am convinced that sports are essential to not only psychological well-being but also the social and political change that we seek.      

At the individual level, sports teach our leaders of the future valuable skills that can hardly be taught as efficiently anywhere else. There are compelling reasons, for instance, why a survey of high-level female executives found that 90 percent of them had played sports. And why the graduation rates for women and people of color at colleges and universities are superior for student-athletes than their peers who do not play sports. Playing competitive sports teaches time management skills and the value of hard work. It nurtures inclusion and confidence.

My six-year-old daughter, who was sometimes painfully shy, is playing organized basketball now, and I see a sense of pluck today that was not always present. Whereas she could barely dribble a basketball more than twice with her dominant hand before joining the basketball team, she can dribble with both hands for nearly as long as she likes today. Not because of luck but because she has taken a liking to dribbling everywhere in the house, to my wife’s dismay.

When she reminds her three-year-old brother at the dinner table that she is better than him at basketball whenever he tells her that he is Superman, I secretly smile while telling them to cut it off.      

At the sociological level, sports do not only combat the loneliness and polarization that wreak havoc in this day and age. They also foster social trust, which is a prerequisite for systemic change. At the Willigan Tournament a couple of weeks ago, a national wrestling tournament for deaf schools, I was taken aback by the rabid extent to which students and adults of all stripes rooted for their respective schools.

No longer were they fiddling on their phones in their bedrooms, swiping left and right, up and down, in their own worlds. Instead, they were blissfully in the moment, stomping, chanting, jumping, and celebrating together, as if their lives depended on it.

School spirit is neither trivial nor primitive but a fundamental necessity for a sense of belonging and progress. The more we share common experiences and celebrate shared goals, the more we can have a community of greater solidarity within which more serious problems can be addressed.

At the political level, athletes are the most effective kind of advocates. When I coached men’s basketball at Gallaudet, we played a game versus a school in upstate New York in a one stoplight town smack dab in the middle of nowhere. They have an excellent basketball program and had advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament for three straight years at the time. When we came back from being down by 6 with a minute and a half to upset them on a buzzer-beater, their head coach, as well as a random fan from that town, e-mailed later that week to commend our players for playing so hard and never quitting. What was left unsaid but implied, however, was a profound realization that Gallaudet’s student-athletes were just as capable as theirs.

That is, we can yell (assert?) that “deaf people can do anything except hear” on rooftops until our voices (hands?) turn hoarse (weary?). But as they say, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a difference? It is only when we participate in the arena can we advance the truism.

As a former boxer, statesman, and explorer of unmapped lands said, it is not the critic who matters but our women and men, whose faces are marred by sweat and blood and toil, on our courts and fields.

This is why we should play and cherish sports. And celebrate our athletes. And root for our teams at deaf schools and at Gallaudet. Not as crude, silly tools of the human search for conquest and entertainment, but because they teach valuable skills and lessons, which can engender the very change in ourselves and the world that we wish to see.

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Best Non-Fiction of 2018

Alfred Tennyson claims the New Year is a whisper that we will be happier. Others rhapsodize it is a 365-page book waiting to be written. For me, it is an ideal time to think about the best non-fiction I’ve read last year and then write down my personal thoughts and the lessons that I’ve learned from each with special focus on possible applications to deaf people. Because, you know, I am not an elephant. If I forget my son’s birthday and to take out the recycling bin on a regular basis, I probably should take notes after reading relevant stuff scarier/funnier/more thought-provoking than fiction.

So, here is a totally non-scientific list of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in 2018. I have five, of course, because this is 5tern.com, because I have never heard of a “Best of” list with four or six, and because you don’t have time for ten. In no particular order, here goes:  

BELICHICK. The biography of Bill Belichick, the current head coach of the New England Patriots, highlights the truism in the NFL that “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” An entertaining (yet unlikely) claim in the book is how Bob Colbert stole playcalls in the NFL as an advance scout with expertise in reading lips by virtue of having coached football at Gallaudet, the “university serving the deaf and hearing-impaired.”  

Really? I’ve studied, played, coached, and taught at Gallaudet for about 18 years now, and the only stuff I can read is inane stuff like non-fiction books and the lips of people (without mustaches) enunciating “fuck you.” Note to biographers and/or fabulists: speechreading is a difficult skill requiring rigorous training. Spending time with deaf people and then squinting your eyes through binoculars is hardly enough.

But anyway, as a sports fan who has long wondered about the secret of sustained success of certain teams like the San Antonio Spurs, the book was illuminating. It nailed home that intelligence, curiosity, preparation, and toughness are as important as jumping high and running fast and yet, massively undervalued. Despite being a Giants fan, I will root for the Patriots in the Super Bowl next week out of (begrudging) admiration, thanks to Ian O’Connor’s brilliant insight into the greatest football coach who’s ever lived.  

EDUCATED. Tara Westover’s lyrical memoir about growing up in the southeastern mountains of Idaho with paranoid, anti-science, survivalist parents and going on to graduate from Harvard and Cambridge is not only a remarkable story in and of itself. (Her father tried to discourage her brother from attending college by lecturing that “There’s two kinds of them college professors. Those who know they’re lying, and those who think they’re telling the truth.” After thinking about it for a good while, I have concluded that I am both kinds.) It is also powerful reading for many of those who leave home for an education and then view their family and community across a cultural valley.      

THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND.  Why is this generation the most depressed, anxious, self-righteous, and suicidal ever? According to Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, it is because we believe a “great untruth” that children are fragile. And then, with the best of intentions, we shield them from independent decision-making, scrapes, and potentially difficult situations more than ever. The book makes me think of how parents often host a “Trick or Trunk” event where trick or treating is done on Halloween night from parked car to parked car in the school parking lot. And the booming popularity of AAU basketball, which has rendered pick-up games, in which kids draft teams and call their own fouls, rare. In both instances, we’re denying kids the valuable opportunity to roam and explore and do wrong, and mediate conflicts, on their own.

“Resilience” is a hot/smart buzzword these days, but how do we develop it? According to Haidt and Lukianoff, it is by exposing our youth to “normal” stresses and tensions (as opposed to extreme) that will allow them to develop toughness. Think of the immune system, for instance, which requires exposure to certain germs and allergens at a young age to develop the necessary capacity to fight them later on. Contrary to the popular trend of eliminating peanuts at schools and in the diets of children, doctors now recommend that kids are exposed to food containing peanuts almost immediately after birth to harden the immune system and avoid life-threatening allergies later on. Psychological resilience is not all that different, in that it requires independent exposure to open-ended challenges “early and often.”

This makes me wonder about the Deaf community.  Are our students at deaf schools exposed to sufficient normal stresses and tensions?  Should we continue to prepare the road for our leaders of the future by seeking a comfortable environment whenever possible, or should we prepare our children for the road with a more holistic approach? I do not claim to know the answers, but the sociopsychological benefits and risks of prizing self-esteem and ease over experience and accommodation, ought to be considered and debated at the very minimum. For that alone, the book is a must-read for parents, educators, and Deaf people alike.

FACTFULNESS. This uplifting yet grounded book pokes holes in the simplistic, pessimistic, hysterical thinking of this day and age with clear, unpretentious, fact-based advice. In one of my favorite chapters, Hans Rosling asks us to assume that our categories are misleading, and to challenge them by looking for differences within and similarities across groups, which is something we do not do quite enough with ‘Deaf people’ and the ‘Deaf community.’  

In another, Rosling points out that sweeping explanations and vivid solutions are attractive because we have the human tendency to want to seem knowledgeable and useful. We often try to explain and solve particular trends and issues with general assertions, based on our personal background, at the expense of complexity and nuance.

Well-intentioned activists in the Deaf community will explain critical issues by pointing at language deprivation, for instance, and Hearing and Spoken Language advocates by bringing in majoritarian culture. This inclination is what Rosling terms “the single perspective instinct.” (Or what English philosopher Gilbert K. Chesterton called “the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.”) He advises that we resist the temptation to see every problem as a nail when we are handed a hammer. Instead, we ought to step back and use our toolbox, rather than a single tool. In all, I cannot recommend this book enough. (And hey, Bill Gates and Barack Obama agree with me.)  

BORN A CRIME. Trevor Noah, writing about his childhood dealing with apartheid in South Africa, is a masterful storyteller. He challenges stereotypes and preconceptions with colorful anecdotes that entail heartbreak, laughter, and serious thought about growing up different in a strange world.

A major takeaway from the book is racism and colonialism are fraught legacies neither easily understood nor undone that must be dismantled with persistence and care.

Another thought-provoking point is, as he argues, fluency in certain languages are hierarchical forces equated with intelligence and competence which, above all else, wrongly or not, defines who we are to people.

I now watch The Daily Show at every opportunity for the incisive humor and profound wisdom that Noah imparts, and root for his continued success.

What about you? Have you read these books? If so, what did you think? Any recommendations for 2019? Hit me up and let me know.