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If you’re a non-deaf person who generally follows U.S. national news, you probably have a vague idea that there have been protests going on at the only university for the deaf, Gallaudet University, in Washington, DC. You might not be sure why the protests are happening, except that the students don’t want the incoming president, Jane Fernandes, to assume her new duties in January.

But thanks to various news sites, deaf bloggers, and a fabulous Digg-like aggregator, DeafRead, it’s easy to get more detailed information, opinions and background on the fast-moving situation at Gallaudet. Thanks to these resources, I can better understand why students shut down the school (which actually has students from preschool to university age) for three days last week, and why 133 students were arrested last Friday.

Blogger and designer David Panarelli first tipped me off to what was happening online, and how students were using the Net to spread the word to deaf people and supporters around the world. Here’s part of what Panarelli wrote on his blog:

Reporters for major media outlets are apparently not tuned in to the deaf community but frankly, neither am I. And to further muddle the situation, the university administration has used traditional media such as press conferences and press releases, giving everything an institutional feeling that was a bit one-sided. So, with the blind leading the blind on the subject of the deaf, my biggest question remained: why are they protesting?…

While students work to make their voices heard on campus, protest bloggers have launched a media war on a much larger scale by harnessing online tools to organize their troops, broadcast their message, and analyze the latest developments.

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In a nutshell, the students, alumni and even faculty believe that the way the Gallaudet Board of Trustees chose Fernandes to be the next president was flawed and that she was not the right choice to lead the institution. The first round of protests happened in May 2006, when the selection of Fernandes was first made public (this Flickr photo is from that time; see credit below).

“The Board is not in touch with the student body and the alumni,” wrote alum Karl Ewan, in one of the many open letters published online. “The same Board, the most vocal from within, Tom Humphries who coined the term, audism, told the protestors that they cannot meet one of their demands. The same Board who told the protestors that there is a stalemate. The same Board had only five minutes to spare for the protestors to share their issues because they had travel plans to complete.”

The protestors set up their own website and blog to help spread the word about their demands — an open presidential search process, and no reprisals for protestors — while bloggers such as Mishka Zena and Elisa Abenchuchan have given timely updates to what’s happening on the ground and with sympathy protests spreading around the globe. Plus, there’s a helpful Wikipedia entry, as well as a video blog that tells the story of students being physically harassed by campus security last week.

Of course the reaction to the protests and the shutdown of the school has not been uniform. Plenty of deaf bloggers have questioned the protest and the aims of the uprising. Blogger Frarochvia believes the protestors are out to get Fernandes because she isn’t “deaf enough” and doesn’t know American Sign Language well enough.

“Leave aside the questions of [Fernandes’] so-called problems and failures at Gallaudet,” Frarochvia writes. “To people concerned with them, I am not interested in stories or insults or innuendo or letters. Proof. Concrete proof. Evidence. And a very damn good reason why no one came up with these before the official selection. There was ample opportunity. Lacking any proof, there is nothing. Just stories.”

The university itself has given its own online updates to the situation, including frequent open letters from administrators. And the conservative local press at the DC Examiner came out strongly against the protestors closing down the campus, saying that “protesters who take things too far often do their own cause more harm than good.”

But there’s also a danger when mainstream media wades into a controversy outside their areas of expertise. The New York Times was dinged loudly by Gawker for a line in their story — “the protestors complained that their voices were not heard.” The administration was, um, deaf to their complaints, right?

Plus, the Washington Post was slammed on the DeafDC blog for providing online audio of an interview with Fernandes that didn’t have captions for the deaf. “The Washington Post is insulting the entire deaf and hard of hearing community by telling us that they want to have access to our crisis but will not give us access to their reporting of our crisis,” wrote Shane Feldman.

Once again, the Internet has proven to be a galvanizing force for organizing activists, and for disseminating information on both sides of a controversial issue. It’s almost impossible to imagine having to follow this story with only the pre-Internet media providing limited information. Now the protestors can make the argument for greater inclusion in the process of governance at their university by using a more inclusive form of distributed media.

What do you think? Has the Internet helped you follow this story better, or has it only made you more confused? Share the online resources that have helped you get updated information on the protests at Gallaudet University.

[Photo of May protests by blogger Frarochvia.]

UPDATE: USA Today has a good report on the issue of technology and implants which help people hear. The report says that the incoming president has been criticized for being too close to the technology sector, while protestors are pushing for more sign language and don’t want to be seen as disabled. “I definitely feel [Fernandes has] been too friendly, catering to the technology sector of the hearing world that wants to help deaf people hear,” senior Noah Beckman, student body president, told the paper.

UPDATE 2: Jared Evans, one of the people who helps run the great DeafRead aggregator, has a thoughtful post on the present and future of deaf blogs and their growing influence in the deaf community. A couple salient points he makes:

Mainstream media has ironically become the next battleground between the protest bloggers and Gallaudet Administration. The deaf blogs have somewhat helped to even out the playing field for the Gallaudet protesters despite the Gallaudet Administration’s polished relationship with the local media. Reporters of respected newspapers such as the Washington Post have better access to more variety of information for their articles. Both sides of the protest are now vying to get the media reporters to print editorials and articles that are favorable to their respective viewpoints…

The discourse on deafhood will likely be the next focus of many deaf blogs after the Gallaudet protest is done with. The networked blogs could take the discourse to a whole new level. Up to now, we have always depended upon published works of Deaf culture books to spread new analysis and information about the state of the Deaf Community. The pace of the cultivation of Deaf Culture has been slow like a snail due to the long wait of production and low visibility of the information locked inside the physical books. Deaf blogs will move this process ahead at warp speed. The slumbering giant is starting to wake up now.

UPDATE 3: Some commenters pointed out one glaring omission from my report: I didn’t link to or mention one of the more dynamic, opinionated deaf bloggers out there, Ricky Taylor, who blogs at RidorLive. Taylor’s biting commentary is about as close as you could get to a shock-jock type character in the deaf world. His on-the-scene reports — like this one of the protestors taking over College Hall recently — are timely must-reads for anyone wanting to keep up with the latest events at Gallaudet. I had read his blog when putting this story together but neglected to mention him and am sorry about that, because he really is a key player.

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