Clintondale students recognize deaf community

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published May 3, 2018


CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Nearly 30 years after protests took place at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., local students learned how the protest started and about its intent at the school for the deaf and hard of hearing.

On March 6, 1988, a protest called “Deaf President Now” began at the university to publicly decry the Gallaudet Board of Trustees’ decision to hire a hearing person over three qualified deaf candidates as the school’s seventh president. At the time, no deaf individuals had presided over the university since it originated as an act of Congress in 1864.

The protests lasted about a week, after which the new president resigned and a deaf individual was selected as president.

Three decades’ time has allowed schools of different learning levels to take note of that particular protest and what it meant for the deaf community — as well as for non-deaf students who live among them.

On March 15 at Clintondale High School, for the second consecutive year, sign language students experienced the challenges of communicating without hearing. For an entire school day, the students communicated with one another and their teachers using only sign language and written messages.

Joe Ferzo, Clintondale’s sign language teacher, said the scene at Gallaudet more than 30 years ago was a seminal time in the history of the deaf community. He said the deaf were primed to provide a voice for their own community.

“Literally, what was at stake was deaf people not being treated like children,” Ferzo said. “They can do everything you and I can do as deaf people, but they can’t hear.”

Sending the message to high school students was more than just teaching them about the protest. Rather, it promoted insight as to how deaf individuals live on a daily basis, as well as how others treat and view them. As Ferzo said, the goal was to make students “more sensitive” when they come into contact with a deaf person.

The high school doesn’t have any deaf students enrolled this year. Sign language is offered as a foreign language due to a change in state curriculum years ago. The program is in its third year and continues to grow, with 15 to 20 students enrolling in their first-ever — or “level one” — sign language class. A group of “level two” students are more acclimated with sign language.

Ferzo said that by the school day’s sixth hour, students were getting creative with their messaging, using cellphones as well as miniature whiteboards to get their points across.

Students later submitted journal entries to reflect on how others treated them that day.

“In some cases, people were not very inclusive,” Ferzo said. “They were almost actually mean to the kids because the hearing community expects people being able to talk. When my students were instructed not to, they came across that negativity.

“As we were reflecting on it, the students can see more of the, ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on people because of deficits or lack of ability.’”

Ferzo has taught at the school for 18 years and has seen the diversity of the student population increase. He said kids often fall back on what they know, with one of those things being able to talk.

As such, his class held a silent lunch April 20. While commiserating and eating pizza, the students practiced their sign language skills.

“It’s a culmination of, would you be able to live without your hearing?” Ferzo said.