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Behind the Barriers at Gallaudet

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Angry students shut down Gallaudet University, the nation's only college for the deaf, for three days this week. And last night police arrested dozens of the protestors, who were charged with unlawful assembly.

NPR's Libby Lewis has been covering the dispute. Here's a page from her Reporter's Notebook.

LIBBY LEWIS: What do the protestors want? I went to the campus this week to find out. Nearly two decades ago, Gallaudet students blocked the campus gates to shut it down and demand that the Board of Trustees pick the first deaf president to lead the university. That president, I. King Jordan, is now ready to retire. His successor, Jane Fernandez, is deaf. But her selection by the school's board of trustees has unleashed a new protest and a Pandora's Box of grievances and expectations at this school that's a portent symbol for the deaf world.

So what's coming out of that Pandora Box? It's pretty sprawling and deeply emotional. Here's what I heard form protesting students and some faculty members who are supporting them: oppression, racism, audism - that's defined as an attitude that someone is superior just because they can hear and speak.

One student leader, Ryan Calmerson, says he believed audism pervades the campus because the school's administration, faculty and staff aren't all fluent in American sign language and don't always use it as their primary form of communication. Calmerson is signing. An interpreter is speaking.

Mr. RYAN CALMERON (Student) (Through interpreter): People come here for one reason and one reason only, for access. They don't get that anywhere else. People come here because people are suppose to know their language, sign language.

LEWIS: Another student leader, LaToya Plummer, says she believes racism is a big problem at Gallaudet, too. She says there aren't enough African-Americans in senior positions. She says as a black deaf woman she feels three times as oppressed as other people.

It's as though some of America's toughest social issues - race, language, relationships between people who are different - have all been funneled into this tiny spot.

SIMON: NPR's Libby Lewis, at this week's protests at Gallaudet University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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