Random Thoughts and Musings by moi

Musings by a feisty, opinionated Deaf gal who wants nothing but the best for her community and her people

jeudi 5 octobre 2006

To voice or not to voice? That is the question.

For months now, Dr. Brenda Brueggemann's choice to voice instead of signing her speech at Gallaudet's commencement last May has been a source of controversy, and the renewal of the protest has also brought renewed debate regarding her choice. There are those who yowl in outrage, saying her choice was audistic and oppressive, while there are those who defend her choice saying she had every right to choose the method of delivery she felt most comfortable performing.

I’ve had strong opinions about this since the moment it occurred (amazing how plugged in we are these days, n’est-ce pas?), but the controversy has helped me articulate just why I feel so strongly about Dr. Brueggemann choice.

Allow me to preface this by saying that I recognize the diversity in our community and that we have no business dictating one set of norms for whom is acceptable and whom is not in this pluralistic country of ours. People in our community are free to choose what language they want to use in various situations - I absolutely agree with that. Dr. Brueggemann's choice, however, went far beyond the bounds of diversity and was, in my view, a grave offense. I took great affront at her choice that day, even though I don’t care what language choices she makes in her everyday life.

And exactly how did I draw this conclusion, you may ask. Good question. Read on for the answer. *grin*

Fact: Gallaudet University is a place where the vast majority of students are deaf.

Fact: People who go to Gallaudet for their undergraduate degree and stay long enough to graduate have learned how to sign, at least to an extent, if they did not sign before they enrolled at Gallaudet.

Fact: People who go to Gallaudet for a post-baccalaureate degree are working toward degrees in a deaf-related field and should be able to sign to an extent by the time they participate in commencement.

Conclusion: The people receiving formal recognition of the completion of their studies during a Gallaudet University commencement are deaf for the most part and should be able to sign with a reasonable level of proficiency.

Fact: In America (and perhaps elsewhere), people who present addresses at university commencements are expected to tailor their addresses to the graduating students. This involves considering the population that a particular university serves.

Conclusion: To tailor an address to this particular population of mostly deaf signers, it is not unreasonable to expect that someone who knows how to sign would sign their address. Therefore, since Dr. Brueggemann knows how to sign and since this is a group of signers, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that Dr. Brueggemann would have signed her speech.

Fact: Dr. Brueggemann, for whatever reason, chose not to take note of the previous facts and conclusions and chose to address a signing population using her voice.

Fact: Dr. Brueggemann is deaf herself.

Fact: Dr. Brueggemann is the current chair of the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees.

Fact: Dr.Brueggemann is chair of the ASL Department at Ohio State University.

Fact: A university department chair is generally expected to be an expert in her chosen field.

Possible Conclusion 1: Dr. Brueggemann is not comfortable enough signing to use ASL when addressing a large audience.

Problems with Possible Conclusion 1:
*What business does Dr. Brueggemann have chairing an ASL department if she doesn’t sign well enough to use the formal ASL register to deliver an address?
*If a Spanish language department chair were not proficient in Spanish, everyone would howl in outrage. The same is true for any foreign language, including Chinese, Arabic, French, et cetera. It would never be acceptable for a chair of any language department to be uncomfortable functioning in that language in any situation. This conclusion, if accurate, implies that ASL has second-class status and is not worthy of equal respect with other foreign languages.

Possible Conclusion 2: Dr. Brueggemann honestly believes that it is better to use voice than to sign when addressing a signing population

Problems with Possible Conclusion 2:
*She ignored the fact that she was addressing an audience of signers.
*Using an interpreter causes a disconnect between the speaker and the recipent because it requires communication to go through an intermediary, which means that by making the choice to disregard her audience, she failed to connect with her audience.

Possible Conclusion 3: Dr. Brueggemann was playing to the general public and to the media when giving her presentation, ensuring that her words were fully accessible to her true intended audience

Problems with Possible Conclusion 3:
*This makes Dr. Brueggemann seem manipulative and like she is pandering to the public.
*If this is true, then Dr. Brueggemann callously disregarded the students, which is perturbing, since she is chair of the university Board of Trustees.

Possible Conclusion 4: Dr. Brueggemann interprets her role as acting chair of the Board of Trustees differently from most of us who are stakeholders in the University. Most of us regard the position as special and should be held by one who reflects the Gallaudet community, and that includes direct communication without going through an intermediary, while apparently Dr. Brueggemann does not hold this same view.

Problems with Possible Conclusion 4:
*This conclusion is riddled with assumptions. Who is to say what the role of the chair of the University Board of Trustees is? Who defines what the Gallaudet community is?

My personal conclusion: None of these make Dr. Brueggemann look good. They all show her to be the wrong person to lead the University Board of Trustees, especially at this time of crisis. And yes, Dr. Jordan, there IS a crisis of confidence and of leadership at Gallaudet, in spite of your words at the NAD conference. It doesn’t matter whether she’s genuinely not comfortable signing, or she’s manipulative and playing to the media, or or if she’s a believer in speaking and not signing. Any of these situations strongly indicate that she has no business leading the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees and she made a grave mistake in choosing to voice during commencement last May. She needs to change or she needs to go. People who defend this choice are naturally entitled to their opinions, but in my humble opinion, they fail to recognize that it is the combination of factors that make this choice particularly egregious - her status as chair, her job as friggin' head of an ASL department, the audience being signers, and the disconnect that occurs when going through a third party for communication. The woman screwed up big time and I personally believe she needs to quit her job and resign from the Board of Trustees immediately.


  • At 03:10, Anonymous Anonyme said…

    I think Bruggeman could have signed her graduation speech, too. I've seen her sign conversationally, and she signs at least as well as Jane K. Fernandes. Maybe Bruggeman is aware that this is far from fluent ASL and prefers to use her native language - English - and leave the "proper" ASL to the interpreters? As in, maybe she'd rather provide complete spoken English as well as complete signed ASL, instead of some mish-mosh of the two. Such mish-moshes (e.g., simcom, JKF's signing that requires us to fill in lots of gaps, etc.) are never grammatically-correct ASL. And, unless one has access to the spoken English, are never gramatically-correct visual representations of English.

    I agree that it was a very politically-charged choice, and it may have been wise for Bruggeman to choose to sign her speech instead of speaking it. However, her reasoning may have stemmed from wanting to respect ASL enough to let more skilled signers provide the ASL interpretation.

    This often happens, for example, at interpreter conferences. People are often asked to address the audience in thier native langauge, and let the interpreters provide the access to other langauge(s). This is to prevent simcom and other non-languages that are produced when people try to use two languages at once, or when their native language too strongly influences their production of utterances in their non-native language.The point of leaving other language(s) up to the interpreters is to provide access to full, complete, grammatically-correct languages.

    Also, I've seen Bruggeman address other audiences in spoken English -- once at a mostly-hearing disability studies conference, and twice to a mixed deaf/hearing audience at Gallaudet: CLC 2004 and the "Narrating Deaf Lives" conference. When others sign, she watches them sign (and presumably understands at least some of the signed message), but at the same time, listens to a voice interperter who sits next to her. So, maybe she is just predominantly an English user. (Not sure why she's the coordinator of an ASL program, but FYI, Fernandes was an ASL/interpreting coordinator right after she started learning to sign, so apparently it's not native/Deaf signers who make these sort of coordinator hiring decisions!)

    Anyway, just my two cents.

    -Gally grad (linguistics MA)

  • At 14:05, Blogger Otto Weininger said…

    While i am usually in favor for freedom of choice, the situation, indeed, called for sign language. I'm persuaded by your cogent argument, and the analogy with a professor of foreign language at that foreign university should speak their language is rather damning. :)

    This professor failed to ask herself the most important thing before addressing the audience: what will have the most pleasant effect? This failure only raised the audience's resistance, spreading disenchantment, and resulting in near-political suicide.

    The only time i voice is to the hearing people (my parents, the rest of the world), and the only time i sign is to the hearing impaired/deaf. Sometimes i even do both, but not very well! Why bother imposing yourself, if you can adjust to the audience?

  • At 14:19, Anonymous Anonyme said…

    (Hi -- sorry if I'm posting this twice, wasn't sure if it went through the first time.)

    I agree with most of your facts. A few I don't: "people who go to GU for graduate school are working toward degrees in deaf-related field..." It's true that the biggest graduate departments are deaf-related, but many are not. Are hearing grad students required to pass an ASL proficiency test before they're allowed to graduate?

    "tailor their addresses to the graduating students," yes, if you mean CONTENT. Delivery mode, no.

    I disagree with some of your conclusions. Especially: Since Dr. Brueggemann knows how to sign, and this is a group of mostly signers, she should have signed her speech."

    "She is chair of an ASL department, therefore she should be an expert in her field." Who's to say she isn't? Has she not published scholarly articles about ASL? Do you have to have native proficiency in ASL to be chair of a department? It's nice when it happens, but it does not happen often in the real world. My guess is that's simply because there is a shortage of native ASL users with ALL of the appropriate qualifications. After all, the formal study of ASL is still a growing field and there may not be a critical mass of professors who can also chair an ASL department at a university.

    I dispute your conclusions about Dr. Brueggemann's beliefs, disregard, intentions, manipulation, pandering, callousness, etc. Have you considered the fact that by perceiving these things in Dr. Brueggemann, you are projecting your own deficit thinking? Whatever her reasons for choosing to voice instead of sign, they must be bad reasons that disrespect ASL and culturally deaf people, following your logic.

    I disagree when you say none of that matters, yet all of it makes Dr. Brueggemann look bad. She didn't look bad to me. I assume hers are the reasons of a highly-educated, conscientious, caring deaf professional woman who is intelligent enough to consider all the options and choose the best one to fit the situation and her abilities, whatever they are.

    You don't feel she made the best communication choice. You would have made a different choice. Because you are displeased (yet others were not) does not mean her decision was wrong. She did not meet your expectations and therefore she's a screwup? Please. May I respectfully suggest that it is YOU who needs to further explore the emotional reasoning that underlies your conclusions.

  • At 21:18, Anonymous Anonyme said…

    Hello: I did a little browsing on Dr. Brueggemann just now, and thought you'd like to know what I learned.

    1. She does not teach ASL, and she is not the chair of the ASL program at Ohio State University. She is an associate professor in the English Department, College of Humanities.

    2. Some sample courses that she teaches: disability studies, undergraduate writing, and rhetoric and composition.

    Some books she has written include: Author of Lend Me Your Ear: Rhetorical Constructions of Deafness and of personal essays and articles on pedagogy, qualitative research, literacy, rhetoric, deaf and disability studies. Co-editor and contributor Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Editor and contributor Literacy and Deaf People: Cultural and Contextual Persepctives.

    if you'd like to read more, here are the links:



    Since I last ready your blog, I've had occasion to see glimpses of Dr. Brueggemann signing on video clips. Whew -- I don't think anyone would mistake her for a native user of ASL. Not fluent at all. She signs like an oral deaf person. I'm guessing that my original supposition was correct -- she can probably communicate OK in one on one or small groupsituations, but not well enough for a formal stage event like commencement. I doubt many of the graduating students would have been able to understand her, and may even show outright scorn. So, I think it was very appropriate for her to use an interpreter instead. What do you think?

    Knowing that Dr. Brueggeman is NOT a chair of an ASL department surely changes things for me.

  • At 20:10, Anonymous Dianrez said…

    Impressive analysis, step by step thinking. We need more of this type of writing in this highly charged Gallaudet controversy.
    As for Dr. Brueggemann's choice of communication style, it may be true that she signs like an oralist and preferred to use her best style of communication. However, in doing so, she took a stand that can be interpreted in unfavorable ways. A better way to use her preferred method would be to begin with a disarming admission that she is not fluent, that she grew up oral, and that she apologized for using an interpreter while giving credit to those she addresses as signing deaf people. This disclaimer would go a long way toward warming up the climate.
    Not perfectly, you can be sure. There will still be those who are virulently anti-oral and feel they have no place in the Gallaudet community.
    The other alternative she could have selected is to drop the oral thing and go all-signing. Even though she might have used signing in English word order, that, too, would have gone a long way toward assuring her credibility and supporting her roles with the Gallaudet community. I have seen very few deaf people who would criticize a person's signing ability if it was honest and sincere, and only if the signing was so bad as to impede understanding.
    We really do welcome oralists, among all the different types of deaf people. Just as long as they don't go "hearing" on us.

  • At 08:21, Anonymous Anonyme said…

    I believe if a Deaf person who chairs an ASL department use ASL in front of the D/deaf graduates shows respect and if not then it is AUDISM in my opnion.

    Stephen J. Hardy, II

  • At 07:37, Anonymous Anonyme said…

    Stephen: did you read my post above? Dr. Brueggemann is NOT the chair of an ASL department. An oral deaf who chooses to speak instead of sign in botched ASL or sim-com is NOT showing disrespect or audism to a deaf audience. I agree with the first anonymous above that she is making sure that only complete, grammatically correct languages (i.e., English and ASL) are being used. Good point!

  • At 07:41, Anonymous Anonyme said…

    dianrez: are you joking? You're suggesting that an oral deaf who is not fluent in ASL should apologize to a deaf ASL-using audience for speaking English. I don't think any apology is needed here. No one should ever have to apologize for their communication choice. Maybe I'm just an idealist.


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