An Interview with I. King Jordan – Deaf President Now, the ADA, and the future for Disability Rights
We talked recently with I. King Jordan Jr., whose story of advocating for the rights of individuals with disabilities spans more than 30 years and traverses the halls of Gallaudet University, the nation’s leading university for the education of students who are deaf and hard of hearing. Jordan, a consultant on disability programs for Johnson Scholarship Foundation, shares some of his history, including his memories of the historic year when he became Gallaudet’s first deaf president. We also talked about advancements and continuing challenges for the deaf and others 30 years after the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
AF: Tell me about the technology that makes our call possible.
KJ: It’s called video relay service interpreting (VRS). The simple explanation is when I dial your number, instead of the phone calling you, it calls the interpreter, and interpreter then calls you. I talk directly to you and you hear me. When you talk, the interpreter signs what you say, and I see her. And it’s just the most wonderful technology going. It’s just terrific. I never used a phone from 1965 until about 15 years ago (2005). I would sometimes have to go ask my neighbor to make a phone call for me. Now I can make phone calls from pretty much anywhere.
AF: I figured technology plays a big part in advancements for people who are deaf.
KJ: It’s a huge part. Its simple things…well simple now, but things like captions on TV. For the longest time, there were no captions on TV. In my family, we have a joke that we watched Love Boat and Fantasy Island every Sunday. They were terrible shows, but we watched because they were captioned.
Not all captioning is good. In fact, some is borderline atrocious. You can test it yourself. Turn on your television; turn on a news show, like Chris Matthews. Turn on captions but with no sound and tell me how much you can understand. Speech recognition captioning is getting better and better, and in time, I’m hoping it will improve.
AF: What percent of deaf people can speak as you do?
KJ: It’s not a large percentage. People like me are called deafened. There are two distinct categories – people who are born deaf and people who become deaf later. The later you become deaf, the more you are acculturated into hearing culture. My primary language is English. I can sign American Sign Language and understand ASL. But when I make a VRS call, I ask the interpreter to interpret in English so I understand exactly what you’re saying. In some deaf circles, it’s frowned on to speak.
When I first became president of Gallaudet, I was discouraged to speak in public. But I have very strongly taken the position that there are many ways to be deaf and many ways to communicate. All of them should be respected, and a person’s choice should be respected.
AF: Before preparing for this interview, I had never heard the term, Deaf Culture. I found it interesting that there are people who would like to see it considered a difference, not a disability.
KJ: Deafness is a difference, and while people who are deaf can’t hear, we can pretty much do anything else. One thing that bothers deaf people and bothers me is the paternalism or condescending that happens. Don’t be sorry for me. Just look at me when you speak and try to think of what I can do, not what I can’t do.
AF: You’re best known at Gallaudet’s first deaf president. Tell me about what happened at Gallaudet that year.
KJ: Oh yeah. It was a remarkable time. When the position was announced, people started to contact me to encourage me to think about applying. Everybody in my family was 100 percent supportive. So I was a very serious candidate. (I prepared like) it was graduate school for me. I read tons of materials, then brought together a group of friends to help me prepare for my interviews. I don’t know how many applicants there were originally, maybe 100; then they narrowed down to 12. It was announced that 6 were deaf and 6 were hearing.
The students started to rally for the next president being a deaf person. (It came to be called the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement.) Then there were 6 semi-finalists; 3 hearing and 3 deaf. All six were brought in for interviews. Then it was narrowed to 3. Of the 3, two were deaf and one was hearing. The hearing candidate was vice chancellor at UNC Greensboro. She was a very experienced higher education administrator; much more experience than I; but she didn’t have any experience with deaf people. I believe her undergraduate degree was in nursing; at one point people thought she would come with the medical view of deafness not the cultural view.
The three of us met with the board. I thought I did really well. I told my wife I thought I had a good chance. The next day, I got a call from the deaf man who was chair of the search committee. He gave me a short, maybe two sentence message: The board has decided to select someone else. Thank you for your candidacy.
AF: So that’s what launched the protests?
KJ: I was home, but on campus, the students and faculty were ready to celebrate. The press release the University handed out said, “GU selects first female president.” They had selected the only hearing candidate, Dr. Elisabeth Zinser, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. You can imagine that press release didn’t set well with those hundreds of people gathered on campus.
One great visual from that day of protests is a police officer who was trained to work with demonstrations. First thing he does is pull out a bull horn. Of course everybody’s deaf. And people who are not deaf, they won’t interpret for him.
At that point, the group decided to march through the city streets to the Mayflower Hotel where the Board of Trustees was staying. Once they (police) saw they couldn’t control the march, they basically provided a police escort. They had a car in front to protect the marchers and a car behind. At the hotel, the chairman of the board (of trustees) agreed to see a few of the people who had marched. One came out of the meeting and reported (that the Board of Trustees chair said) “Deaf people are not ready to function in the hearing world.”
That was Sunday, March 6, 1988. That really started the protests. Students, staff, alumni went back to the campus. They chained all the gates closed. They even hotwired a school bus and drove it across the entrance and flattened its tires.
The protest went on for basically a week.
I’ll give you a couple highlights:
On Wednesday I got a phone call from the provost telling me that the president-elect (Dr. Zinser) was in town and that she wanted to meet with the leaders of the protest. The provost wanted me to put her together with the leaders. She wanted to tell them what she would do as president. I went onto campus.
The group agreed, but said, “We will allow her to meet with the four student leaders, but she can’t come on campus. We’ll rent a hotel room. Then you and Dr. Zinser can come.” Then a Gallaudet University driver came and took me and Dr. Zinser to the hotel. Actually, it was a small motel room. So there was a bed and one chair, four student leaders, me, Dr. Zinser and an interpreter. The students were polite. They said, “We don’t have anything against you; we don’t dislike you, but we will never allow you to become the president of Gallaudet. If you think the four of us could make that happen you’re mistaken.” We met for maybe less than an hour. They basically said, “Dr. Zinser, we’re talking in circles now. We’re done, period.” In American Sign Language, that period – that’s a very emphatic sign. It was more like an exclamation point than a period.
AF: What was the turning point?
KJ: The turning point may have been ABC’s Nightline. The host, Ted Koppel, welcomed and interviewed the president of the student governing association, Greg Hlibok who was one of the student leaders, and the president-elect, Dr. Elisabeth Zinser, and Marlee Matlin, a deaf actor. Don’t ask me why they had Marlee Matlin! Perhaps because she was a famous deaf person. There was one great line during the show when the host said something like, ‘This is very confusing. We have a deaf man, and his interpreter who is voicing for him is a woman. We have a deaf woman, and the interpreter who is voicing for her is a man.” It was actually kind of funny! Greg just won the night. He was articulate, thoughtful. That was Thursday night.
On Friday morning, Dr. Zinser announced her resignation. It was clear she would never be welcome on campus. So the board came back to Washington DC. The short of it is they offered it to me. I actually had to think about it because I knew there would be enemies on the board. How can a president succeed if he doesn’t have the full support on the board? The only way I would accept was if it was made clear that the board vote to appoint me was unanimous and that I would have their full support. That was Sunday, March 13.
We then had an impromptu press conference. I made a statement. When that was over, we all went back to campus.
There was a club on campus called the Rathskeller. Everybody was there. The juke box was on and jacked up to max volume so everyone could feel the vibration. Everybody was partying. You could see representatives from the press celebrating. They were 100 percent on the side of the students.
I’d like to say something about the Board of Trustees. Some members of the board were medical doctors. They understood deafness from a medical point. The board conducted its business by voice and sound. They were nearly all hearing people.
I often say it wasn’t really a protest. It was a revolution. One of the things that happened very much like in a revolution was the board was radically changed and soon had a majority of deaf members. For my entire presidency there were interpreters, but they were there for the hearing people.
I am able to sit in a conversation with deaf people in which only ASL is used. When I’m in that group, my voice stops. Then I’m signing more like a deaf person but because I learned sign in my 20s, I’ll never be fully fluent (as deaf people who learned ASL as young children)
AF: I think you were uniquely suited because of your ability to communicate in both ASL and spoken English.
KJ: It’s more than just two languages. It’s an effort I made for all 19 years to try really hard to build bridges. Here’s one example: There’s an organization called the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. They are very strong supporters of spoken language and listening skills. When I communicate in public, I use what is called ‘simultaneous communication.’ That means that I speak and map signs onto my spoken English. When I first became president there were a couple vacancies on the board that needed to be filled by deaf people. I persuaded the board to elect the sitting president of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf. So, they agreed and selected him. I got a lot of flak for that. There’s a group of people called Strong Deaf who were very acculturated in the Deaf Culture who wanted to keep it small and protect it. I wanted to widen it.
I think everyone realized that there was now a deaf president, and while I may not have been everybody’s first choice, and many would have preferred someone who was born deaf and grew up deaf, I was strong about my deafness and accepting of my deafness. Pretty much everyone wanted to support me.
Perhaps the most important result was the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA had been sitting in committees in Congress. And DPN sort of kick-started the ADA. Both sponsors of the ADA – Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), and Anthony Coelho (D., Calif) – the sponsors both said without DPN the ADA probably never would have happened.
AF: Let’s talk about the ADA. Where have we gone and what needs to happen next?
KJ: That’s a painful thing for me because the employment of people who are disabled is just as bad today as when the ADA was passed. The recognition that people with disabilities have strong abilities is not in people’s minds. The problem is everyone is emphasizing the dis in disability. Why can’t you focus on the ability, not the dis! When they think about deaf people, they think about the fact that you can’t hear, not what you can do.
I guess the whole issue of attitude still hasn’t changed enough. We’re always going be second-class citizens. In many respects I’m not “equal to.” I’m “better than.” I’ll settle for “equal to.”
AF: Will advances in technology help?
KJ: It will help. There are ways that technology can be used in communication – obviously improved ways for communication. Statistically, there’s all kinds of evidence that disabled employees make good employees. Often times their attendance and work records are better, and still people are hesitant to hire them – still so many people who can’t get over that mental barrier. They don’t think that a person will bring the skills that they need.
AF: What about the cost of technology? Would it be a problem for a deaf person born into a lower income family?
One of the things the ADA stipulates is that employers and the public sector must make reasonable accommodations. If you hire someone who is deaf, you might need to hire an interpreter or purchase video relay equipment. National associations have shown that the cost of accommodations is small. You make this reasonable accommodation, and it often ends up benefiting more than the people who are disabled.
One example is something we mentioned earlier, captions. When the captions are good, a person learning English as a second language can listen and read at the same time. Another example where captions really help is in sports bars. You can’t possibly have the sound on at all because they’d be overlapping each other. With captions, of course everyone benefits.
Another example is curb cuts. They’re required by law now so people who use wheelchairs can navigate sidewalks. But much more frequently they’re used by people pushing baby carriages or on bicycles or skate boards.
AF: What was Gallaudet like right after DPN in your first years?
KJ: For the first couple years we were really at an enrollment maximum of 2,400 or 2,500. We really couldn’t fit any more. I understand the numbers are going down now. For quite some time, it was really high. For me, first day of class and day of commencement are highlights. I know so many who have gone on to different careers. That makes me feel really good.
AF: Tell me about changes you made once you were president
KJ: When I earned my Ph. D. in 1973, the number of people who were deaf who had Ph. Ds. was just a handful. I mean it was really, really small. I realized it’s difficult for deaf people to go to graduate school and work as graduate assistants or research assistants because of issues with interpreters. I set up a program where students who were attending Ph. D. programs at other universities could apply and receive from Gallaudet a stipend that was much the same as a stipend would be for a teaching assistant at that university. I established the program and called it Presidential Scholars. Several people who participated in the program have completed their Ph. Ds. That was one I was really, really proud of.
AF: Tell me about your graduate school experience at the University of Tennessee. Wasn’t that your first experience away from the deaf community?
KJ: It was a big challenge. Back then (fall of 1969) there were not really a lot of professional interpreters. I was thrust into a situation where I just made do – I did the best I could without interpreters. Part of the down side of speaking well is that when people hear me speak, they assume, “He must be able to hear something.” I’m not really good at lip reading, and I couldn’t count on teachers facing the class.
So I came up with my own solution. I would ask students in the class if they would be willing to give me a copy of their notes. I gave them notebooks with carbon paper. At first it was rather awkward, but people soon realized they took better notes. And I always asked 3 people to do it. So at the end of each class I had three copies of notes. As it turned out after the year, we would have study groups, and the study groups used my notes. It worked out OK!
It’s a little ironic because the University of Tennessee has a department of deaf education where they prepare students to become teachers of the deaf. But I was in the School of Arts and Sciences, and there was no help from the Department of Education. I finished in 4 years ‒ from B.A. to M.A. and Ph. D.
AF: Let’s go back to the ADA. Where do we need to go from here?
KJ: How we do it, I wish I had a good answer. But as far as where ‒ we need to reach a place where people who are disabled and seeking work have an opportunity to be employed. We’re not there. Interesting, one of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation grantees is Bridges from School to Work. Their success is absolutely amazing. They’re able to pair an individual student with an individual employer representative and the employer. The employer representative who works for Bridges, he or she continues to follow the employee and works with the employee. That success rate is unbelievable. About 80 percent get jobs. There’s nothing like that anywhere else. But it’s expensive. So it’s not a model that is easy to replicate or take to scale. But there are organizations that are doing wonderful things.
I believe that if more of the people in the C-suite offices understand the value, then more and more people (with disabilities) will be hired. One of the sayings I’m very proud of is that “Deaf people can do anything except hear.”
Remember the press conference I mentioned? I was named president on Sunday March 13, and on Monday, there was a press conference. The university auditorium was packed with reporters. It was standing-room only. At first I was nervous, but they asked me easy questions. In retrospect, I’m sure they were deliberately soft questions. I called them puffballs, easy questions. I was standing behind a podium with probably more than 15 microphones attached to it. Then at the very end, a local TV reporter said something like, “Dr. Jordan, all of this is really good and all the students clearly value that. But really, after they graduate what kind of jobs can they do?”
Without even thinking about it, I said, “What kind of a question is that! Deaf people can do anything except hear.”
Angie Francalancia is a communications specialist for Johnson Scholarship Foundation.