Dr. I. King Jordan became the eighth president in the long history of Gallaudet University in 1988, following a student protest that demanded that the position be filled by a deaf person (see accompanying article). In the years since, he has become a major spokesperson for hearing disability awareness. ABILITY Editor-in-Chief Chet Cooper had an opportunity to sit down with Dr. Jordan following his appearance on the long-running TV game show "To Tell the Truth," where the eloquent administrator baffled all four of the celebrity panelists.

CC: When did you become President of Gallaudet University?

KJ: March 13, 1988...after a student revolution.

CC: How did they choose you?

KJ: I was one of the three finalists for the position. Two of the finalists were deaf and one could hear. Originally they picked the one who could hear, but the students basically protested and shut down the campus. Then, after a week of back and forth, the (newly appointed) president resigned and the Board met and selected me. I've been there ever since.

CC: Were you soliciting for the job or did they find you?

KJ: I was trying for the job. When the president resigned in the fall of 1987, I began by meeting with my family and said, "Should we go for this?" And the family actually went away for a weekend to a campground, sat around, and discussed how it would affect our lives. The family said, "Go ahead. Go for it." We had no idea how much it would change our lives. After that, I studied to become president. I did research on budgeting, the U.S. Congress, higher education administration. I think by the time the interviews came around I was a very prepared candidate.

CC: What is your background?

KJ: I'm a psychologist. I was a psychology faculty member and then I became an administrator of the department, then the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. At the time of the presidential search I was the dean.

CC: You were on the Gallaudet staff?

KJ: Yes, I was.

CC: So you didn't have a transfer or move from out of state. You were already in D.C. at the time. Why do you think it took so long for Gallaudet to finally have a deaf president?

KJ: In the past there were very few deaf people who had the credentials to be President. Back in the 40s, 50s and 60s there were almost no deaf people who had a Ph.D. degree. But...in the late 60s, more and more deaf people began to go on and earn terminal degrees and get experience in administration. People began to recognize that a deaf university should have a deaf leader. It still took longer than it should have.

CC: You had hearing for the first 21 years of your life, then lost it. Can you tell us about that transition?

KJ: The first part of my life was very ordinary. I grew up outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in a little town, and went to a regular high school. I was a...very average student in that high school. Then I joined the Navy, and while I was in the Navy I was in a motorcycle accident and woke up deaf in a hospital. In the Navy I realized that I needed more of an education because I saw people were automatically promoted or became officers if they had an education. After I became deaf I knew I really needed an education, so I enrolled in Gallaudet...with a changed heart. Gallaudet opened my eyes to the fact that deafness should not be a barrier to education, should not be a barrier to occupation. And that was 35 years ago. Now, that's my mission in life--to help other people. Being deaf helps me recognize that it's not just hearing people but deaf people who have allowed ourselves limitations on what we can do. I'm always preaching to deaf people not to let that happen. You can do anything you want. You aspire to do "X." If you work and study, you can do "X." I tell hearing people, "Don't pre-judge a deaf person's ability. Give them a chance and you'll see that they will do well."

CC: As you know, within the deaf community there are different views on people speaking in public. How does the fact that you have a great speaking voice affect those views of people that might not agree that you should speak in public?

KJ: That's a very good question and a very difficult issue. There are people who are born deaf and grow up deaf who don't speak at all, and some of them have told me that they resent a little bit that I do speak. But, you know, I have to be myself. I have to do what I'm comfortable doing. I sign...with my wife, and my wife is hearing. I'm committed to sign in everything I communicate, but I also speak. I still believe that I reach more people when I do that. I bridge two different cultures and two different worlds, and I think that bridge still needs work. I think if I can sign and speak in a situation where the people who are there--both hearing and deaf--can understand me, there is an advantage to doing that. At the same time, I've always told people...not to judge or evaluate an individual based on speaking voice. The message is what's important. What you say is much more important than how you say it.

CC: I watched Heather Whitestone when she first won Miss America discussing the issues she had with certain people suggesting that she shouldn't speak in public. She could read lips more than others can read lips, which I guess was another issue she had a hard time with. What are your views on what happened with her, and how certain people are dealing with those issues?

KJ: I, again, can only tell you what my position has been. I believe it is completely an individual's choice. People have to communicate in a way that they feel most comfortable. There are people like me who can switch around, and if I'm in a group of just deaf people then I often find that my voice will turn itself off without my thinking of it. I will be signing with people and all of the sudden I will realize that I'm not talking, I'm just signing. Other times I'm making a formal presentation to a mixed audience, and I'm very careful to try and sign clearly and also speak clearly. It's just the way I communicate. Heather Whitestone should be permitted to communicate in a way that she feels comfortable. There are some marvelous deaf people who are very oral...and when we get together and talk, they can sign to help communication. There is Marlee Matlin who, when she got her Academy Award, was criticized by the deaf community for speaking.

CC: What do you think of aural implants?

KJ: Again, that is an individual choice. I sat down with a married couple, both of whom have been deaf and members of the deaf community all their lives, and talked about the fact that they both have implants, and both of them have said that it's a big benefit for their careers. They can both use the telephone now, so they don't have to use the relay service. They talk directly with customers and potential customers and they say it is a great benefit for them. They attended the NAD Conference a couple of months ago. They were there. They were active. They were involved. People respect them. Also at the conference I met a little boy who was either eight or ten who signed fluently and his parents signed fluently to him. (The subject of implants) will be taken up this fall at the National Deaf Education Center and will focus on K through 12 education. The rationale for opening the doors is...based on how it can enhance hearing and speaking. We're going to be looking at education: how can an implant integrated in a visual communication environment assist in educating the children.

CC: Tell me about being on "To Tell the Truth." Is this your first time on national television?

KJ: It was a very humbling experience for me. When I first became president I was interviewed by all the morning shows--ABC, CBS, NBC--and I was the subject of one of the featured segments on 60 Minutes back in 1989. So, I've been on national TV several times, but I've never been on a fun show like this. I've also been on NPR several times, and ironically this happened because the producer (of "To Tell the Truth") heard an interview that was broadcast on NPR. When he heard that interview, he said, "That would be a good person to have on the show." So, they did some research and invited me to come, and it was really fun, too. The producer wanted it to happen, but the rest of the staff resisted the idea. They said, "How are we gonna do this? This is going to be really hard to do. What kind of adjustments do we have to make?" And as it turned out they didn't have to make any adjustments except for having someone stand on the stage and interpret. That was the only difference between me and the other guys.

CC: Was "To Tell the Truth" a fun experience for you?

KJ: (laughs) Oh yeah, it was fun. It was really fun, and I've always said any positive exposure--and this show will definitely be positive exposure--any positive exposure will help deaf people. People who can hear will say, "Oh, they're not so different."

CC: Do you remember the show when it was originally aired?

KJ: Yes. Yes, I do.

CC: It's great that Kitty Carlisle is back.

KJ: I went up and met Kitty Carlisle, and told her that I remember the show. I used to watch it, and I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be standing up there as one of the guests. I mean, I could really think back to "Would the real Joe Blow please stand up?" And this time it was me standing up. It was kind of a thrill.

CC: And you beat them all.

KJ: Well, I say again that's a mixed thing. (laughs) We divided up five thousand dollars. I told the staff people that I was going to take my share and give it to Gallaudet and I'm delighted to do that. I think I got 20 percent or 22 percent or 30 percent (of the audience).

CC: 22 percent.

KJ: So, I was the lowest, right?

CC: Yes. (both laugh) I've seen your picture in different publications and I've met you at various events where you were a speaker, so I was surprised to be in the audience and notice that nobody recognized you. You'll have to get a better publicist.

KJ: (laughs)

CC: How long is your contract with the university?

KJ: I serve at the pleasure of my board. They can replace me at any time they choose.

CC: After the TV show?

KJ: (laughs) I don't have a time contract. You read about having a five-year contract. I don't have that. If they called me tomorrow and said, "Don't come back on Monday," legally they'd be within their rights. I meet regularly with the board and I think we'll both know when it's time for me to stop.

CC: Were you involved in the Kellogg Conference Center?

KJ: Yeah, that was my idea. My visit to the Kellogg Foundation shortly after I became president...led to the grant. Yep, I was very, very much involved in that.

CC: It really is a wonderful facility. More people should know that it exists.

KJ: It's a wonderful center for conferences that are for about two to three hundred people. It's probably the most accessible conference center anywhere. It's accessible physically. It's accessible communicatively. It has all of the state of the art communication equipment like infrared assistive devices in conferencing. Specifically it has an auditorium that seats almost three hundred people, and the center itself will accommodate seven hundred to eight hundred people. There's a whole floor of meeting rooms. It has sleeping rooms for nearly two hundred people located on the Gallaudet Campus, which is in north D.C. It is very easy to get to and from. It's about ten blocks from the Capitol Building. Many organizations come use the building who have never seen deaf people before, and we employ a lot of deaf people and professional staff there. Visitors have the opportunity to get the kind of services that make their conferences work, and at the same time get assistance from deaf people. So, the center helps us to spread the word that deaf people are very capable. It's a nice opportunity to bring people from the outside to learn about what we do.

CC: Isn't there an international proponent to the center?

KJ: Oh yeah, that's good that you said that. We have special booths for foreign language interpreting and the listening devices that I talk about. We have devices not just for people who are hearing impaired, but you can choose from up to four languages at the same time. I can think of an example where the President of Kazakhstan was there, and there were three languages going on. The individual would be speaking in his language, perhaps Russian. And in some isolation booth somebody would be listening to Russian and translating it into English. People who wanted English would listen to the headset...set to the English channel. At the same time there were sign language interpreters who stood and listened to the English translation, then signed in American Sign Language what this man was saying in Russian.

CC: We know, of course, that there is American Sign Language. Is there such a thing as Russian Sign Language, or is that International Sign Language?

KJ: Each country has its own individual sign language....



More stories from Gerald McRaney issue:

Interview with Gerald McRaney

Experience Music Project

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