Gallaudet University wouldn’t provide DeafBlind students of color with housing — why?

Like most universities, Gallaudet University reduced on-campus housing due to the pandemic and invited students with special circumstances to apply for housing.

However, an investigation for this piece found a reality very different from promises made by the university. Four DeafBlind students who lived in the residence halls during the spring semester when COVID-19 hit needed to remain on campus. The university denied the requests from the two DeafBlind students of color but promised housing to the two DeafBlind white men.

Let me rephrase: Gallaudet denied housing to 100% of the DeafBlind students of color applying for special consideration to live in the residence halls this fall.

In one fell swoop, the school erased racial diversity from the DeafBlind population living on campus.

Based in Washington, D.C., Gallaudet describes itself as “the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for Deaf and hard of hearing students.”

The school’s status as the only signing university in the world drew Ali Goldberg to Gallaudet. Goldberg is DeafBlind and signs with others through tactile sign language — holding his hands over a person’s hands to feel the signs. Gallaudet stopped providing Goldberg tactile sign language interpreters when the pandemic started.

Sighted instructors and students continued signing through video, a format that is inaccessible for Goldberg.

“If I did not have good friends I would not have been able to complete my classes,” he told me. But now he’s home in New Jersey because the school has denied his request to live in the residence halls. Without the friends in DC who could tactile sign with him, Goldberg doesn’t know how he will access his classes.

In response to my inquiries, Gallaudet’s Public and Media Relations office offered this explanation: “You may recall that we had a nationwide problem of not being able to adequately equip our frontline healthcare workers with the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) due to supply shortages. For that reason, it was problematic to obtain the PPE necessary to protect our DeafBlind students and tactile interpreters. We evaluated each affected student’s situation to ensure there would be effective alternatives.”

Ashley Jackson is another DeafBlind student who has not received tactile interpreting services since the start of the pandemic. When the school canceled tactile interpreters for her Master’s in Social Work, she at least had her friends in the DC area to help.

“We were so fortunate to have friends helping us get to the end of the semester! If it wasn’t for them, we would have no idea of what to do,” she wrote.

Jackson described relying on friends to help her get food since school staff, despite wearing personal protective equipment, were afraid to tactile sign with her. “I immediately went into a deep depression because I had other personal issues to deal with and didn’t have the support to help me out.”

Back home in Tennessee, Jackson struggles with the anxiety of tackling her classes this fall without her supportive friends or the limited disability services on campus.

She was shocked when she learned Gallaudet denied the housing requests by her and Goldberg, both of whom are fully blind, but approved requests by two partially sighted DeafBlind students.

Did Gallaudet decide it would be easier to simply remove blind students from campus rather than create a plan for safely providing tactile interpreters?

The Americans with Disabilities Act and other civil rights laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Despite what some people think, the pandemic does not suspend a school’s legal obligations under the ADA.

The students’ experiences highlight how ableism, disability-based discrimination, intersects with racism.

Gallaudet has an extremely visual culture.

The two DeafBlind students the school approved to stay on campus, James Groff and Philip Wismer, are white. Jackson and Goldberg are both students of color, and when they were on campus they received comments that they look Black or mixed.

Gallaudet denies race was a factor. “Due to privacy and confidentiality reasons, we cannot address specific situations. However, race was not a factor when considering students’ applications for emergency housing,” said the Public and Media Relations office in response to my requests.

Wismer is grateful he can live on campus this fall, but he feels tokenized. ”I noticed the fully blind students have the hardest time at Gallaudet while those who are white, male, and partially sighted are easily supported,” he said.

Groff also expressed disappointment with the school’s decision.

“I find it very disappointing, even heartbreaking, to receive news that some of my fellow DeafBlind students, who happen to be People of Color, were not afforded the same opportunity to reside on campus this fall,” he wrote in an email to the Gallaudet housing office. “I just want to be sure that, as a DeafBlind person who is an aspiring future US Senator, that my fellow DeafBlind students are not getting the short end of the stick or no stick at all.”

Civil rights laws depend on enforcement. Students across the country face the choice to tolerate oppression or advocate for justice.

When you find the courage to advocate, you help all the students who come after you.

This article originally appeared on The Tempest.