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.