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Loud and clear: students of color fight to save Chicago's deaf education program.

WHEN ANGELA VASQUEZ AND OTHER STUDENTS in the deaf education program at Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago heard that four of the 10 teachers in their program were being laid off because of budget cuts, they were angry, frustrated and sad.


"We wanted to follow them, like little penguins," said Vasquez, now a senior at Whitney Young, communicating in sign language through an interpreter at Access Living, a disability rights and services group in Chicago.

The layoffs announced last spring came on the heels of a series of program cuts that students feel have compromised the quality of deaf education at the high school. The deaf program cuts were part of a massive $26 million cut in special education programs in the Chicago public schools that took effect this fall.

Vasquez said that since the teacher cuts took effect, things have changed. Since there are only six teachers certified for deaf education instead of 10, it is harder do exist," said Redding, noting that about 44 percent of deaf students are people of color, while about 94 percent of the teaching force in deaf education is white. "We are discriminated against as Black people and as deaf people, thus we are discriminated against doubly as Black deaf people."

Robert Davila, the deaf son of Latino migrant workers, who became U.S. Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, said that from elementary school through his doctoral studies, "I was never taught by a minority teacher, nor did I ever see one in any program I attended."

The 2004-2005 annual survey by Gallaudet Research Institute found that of nearly 37,000 deaf students nationwide, 50 percent are white, 15 percent are Black, 25 percent are Latino, 4 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander and 0.4 percent Native American or Alaskan native. Of those, 47 percent attend mainstream "regular education" schools, 30 percent are in special classrooms within mainstream schools, and 28 percent are in schools for the deaf.

At Whitney Young and most other mainstream schools, deaf students attend a combination of all-deaf classes with a deaf education-certified teacher and mainstream classes aided by an interpreter. Since learning in a mainstream, hearing class and shuttling between the two types of classrooms can be confusing and chaotic, students say strong mentors and caring teachers are especially important.

But with so few deaf education teachers of color, the white cultural bias that pervades the nation's education system is that much more acute.

A debate about race that had been simmering within the deaf education community became very public last spring when Gallaudet University, a prestigious deaf school in Washington D.C., picked only white candidates as finalists to become the new president. Many thought University of Arkansas professor Glenn Anderson, the first Black deaf person to get a doctorate, should have been named a finalist. Students were also angry that the search process excluded them. When the new president was named, students camped out in tents in protest. At the end of October, the school's board agreed to look for a new president. Gallaudet's student body is 61 percent white, 11 percent Black, eight percent Hispanic, seven percent Asian/Pacific Islander, three percent American Indian/Alaskan native and nine percent non-citizen immigrants.

"I do think that the search committee had a certain profile in mind with regard to the types of candidates they were seeking," said Anderson. "No doubt, the announcement of the three finalists raised a lot of questions about the fairness of the presidential search process."

In the end. the cuts at Whitney Young were made despite the students' organizing. "Everything is much different now," said Vasquez, 18. "We don't have enough help." She blames herself for not somehow preventing the cuts, but she plans to continue the type of advocacy she learned during the effort. She envisions a career teaching and helping deaf people get healthcare in the Philippines. Currently, Smock and Whitmore are assisting her in a study of whether local hospitals have interpreters on staff for emergency situations.

Other Whitney Young students also want to build careers as advocates or role models for their community. Abimbole wants to return to Africa and work with deaf people. Christina Salgado, who became hearing impaired at age 5, wants to work as an interpreter. David Cardenas wants to be a computer programmer. Daniel Pye wants a job in human resources. Brittany Tyler wouldn't mind being an actress.

"I care so much about [helping deaf people] because I don't want their dreams to be ruined," Vasquez said. "We are a small world, and we want to show the big world that we can do it."

Smock thinks Vasquez will make a big impact.

"Self-advocacy needs to cover school, employment, the justice system, healthcare and so on," she said. "People fall through the cracks because they don't know how to advocate for themselves. But once you start speaking out, you will always know how it feels. Once you have been heard, you will always know that people need to listen to you. Once you take a risk, you will always know your own measure. Once you know that someone has had their foot on your neck, you'll never let that foot near you again."

Kari Lydersen is a staff writer for the Washington Post out of Chicago.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE
Author:Lydersen, Kari
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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