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UPWARD MOBILITY - Yerker Andersson

The one common concern
being expressed by all deaf people
is that they be their own spokespersons.
Often the governments will ignore
the organizations of the deaf
and let hearing people serve
as spokespersons for them.
I don't like that idea at all.
I find it very disturbing.


Yerker Andersson is a lanky Swede with a full beard. He projects intensity. His consuming interest is in organizations of the deaf and their relations with other organizations and government agencies.

He is also interested in individuals and their thinking, a demanding teacher, a research scientist, an outspoken critic and a loyal friend.

Sweden's loss was America's gain.

Yerker and his wife, Nancy, a teacher at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, live in a restored row house near Eastern Market on Capitol Hill. Their home is a mecca for international visitors.


I was born in Sweden into a well-educated family. My parents didn't realize I was deaf until I was three years old and at that time my mother was pregnant again. She took me to the hospital when it became apparent that something was wrong and they discovered that I was deaf. When my brother was born, they found out that he was also deaf. They always said that I was born deaf, too.

I was placed in a private oral pre-school program and attended that school for two or three years. At the age of seven I was sent to a public residential school for the deaf. I stayed there for eight years. Two years after I entered, my brother joined me.

When I graduated from school I had two choices: I could enroll in a vocational school for the deaf or go into training with a private firm. The vocational school had only three options for training: tailoring, carpentry or shoe repair. I didn't like any of those choices so I enrolled in dental technology. After I completed training, I worked as a dental technician for 10 years.

During those 10 years, I was very active with the deaf clubs. I held various offices, like the secretary, the director of speakers. I was involved in planning for adult education courses and established a newsletter for the deaf clubs. I gained valuable experience from working with the deaf clubs.

Starting in 1951, I began to write for a Swedish newspaper for the deaf. It was very hard for me to balance pursuing a higher degree via correspondence courses, earning a living through my job and carrying out my responsibilities with the deaf club. I was getting many requests from the deaf club to help them with their activities but I really wanted to pursue my degree.

In 1965 I decided to enter Gallaudet College. I was 35 years old. I entered Gallaudet and graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology. I received a scholarship from the Swedish Bernadotte Fund, which was named after a Swedish United Nations mediator in Israel.

I had to pay for my own tuition while at Gallaudet and I earned my money as a dental technician working during the summers plus 20 hours or so a week during the school year.

Later, I decided to go for a master's degree in sociology which, as you know, isn't a field with guaranteed jobs. I discussed the idea with Dean George Detmold and my old professor, Morris Goldman. They thought it would be better to major in rehabilitation counseling. I also talked with Boyce Williams, who gave me strong support because rehabilitation is his bag. I applied for financial aid and with the help of Williams, Detmold and Goldman, I got into Columbia University Teachers College.

I went to New York City and they gave me a full scholarship--tuition, room and board, everything. I studied for two years and got my master's degree but a problem arose when I had to serve my internship. We were unable to find one in the New York City area because of the prejudice against deaf professionals. Boyce Williams proposed Gallaudet. I moved back to Gallaudet with support from Columbia University and completed my internship there.

My supervisor at the Gallaudet College Counseling Center thought that rehabilitation counseling didn't really suit me. He thought that I would be more skilled as a psychological counselor. As we were discussing the options, we got a call from an old professor of mine named Powrie V. Doctor. He was calling from the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains, New York, and he said they were looking for a counselor. He wanted to know if the counseling center could recommend someone. They gave him my name.

Yes, that was Dr. Doctor, that old and famous source of information on deaf professionals.

I worked for Fanwood for two years, then my old teacher at Gallaudet asked me to come back to teach and I decided to accept the position. I started teaching at Gallaudet in 1964 and I've been teaching there ever since.

Detmold warned me that I would have to get a Ph.D. if I wanted tenure, so I applied at the University of Maryland and was accepted. After many long years of study and interruptions, I completed my Ph.D. in sociology in 1981. I was 52 years old.

In 1972, Jess Smith, editor of The Deaf American, called Jerald Jordan (J.J., as we know him), Gallaudet's computer lab director, and asked him if he could recommend someone to be the foreign news editor for the magazine, J.J. sent him my name and Jess wrote me a letter asking me if I would accept the position. Remember, when I was in Sweden, I was very active in the clubs but after moving to the U.S., I was more or less content to stay on the sidelines and watch the action. I was more or less retired. Well, I decided to accept the offer and once again I plunged into the club life, mostly related to the international aspects. I wrote the foregn news again and have been doing it ever since.

Now you ask me to compare deaf people and their organizations in Europe with Deaf Americans and their organizations. That's a challenging task.

The life of deaf people in America is vastly different from that of people in Europe and other parts of the world. Keep in mind that American culture has tremendous variety. There is a great variety of races, there are all the different religions and people from many nations. It's America, a combination of many cultures. There are also many organizations.

In other countries, Sweden, Norway and Finland, for example, there is only one organization for the deaf which does everything. The national organizations of the deaf in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries are responsible for providing social services, psychological services, employment services, interpreter training--everything is under one organization. Whereas, here in America, you have many schools, programs and organizations and they end up competing with one another. Competition is part of the American philosophy and that makes it harder for us to get together, to get organized. Plus you have to realize that life in America is more dynamic because of the competition.

In European countries, the activity is quieter because of having only one organization. On the other hand, it is easier for the government to deal with just one organization. Also, if the deaf people are having a problem and they want to protest or organize a demonstration, they are already united. They have that cohesiveness in Europe, but not so in America. Take the problem we have been having with CBS and captioned TV programs. In the entire United States we had 1,00 deaf people protesting. That's a fairly small number. But in Spain, when the deaf people found out that the government was considering closing the school for the deaf, they called around and 10,000 people showed up and marched on Madrid. Now remember, Spain is a much smaller country than the U.S. They have a better network there.

There's nothing wrong with the competition here in America but we need a better network. It's important to have communication all the way from the very top down to the bottom and, likewise, from the bottom to the top. Maybe we don't know how right now, but we can find a way.

I'm greatly concerned about the social life of deaf people. Without opportunities for a social life, we wouldn't have interpreters, we wouldn't have good consumer organizations and so forth. Through interacting on a social level, we have the opportunity to express our concerns. When we find that we have common concerns, we have the opportunity to take action through an organization like the National Association of the Deaf (NAD).

I don't think that organizations for the deaf, managed in most part by hearing people, should act as spokespersons for the deaf. I want to see the NAD serve as the spokesperson because it is the only legitimate advocacy organization with deaf people as officers and voting members. It's the veteran positive organization representing deaf people here.

I have traveled to other countries and studied their organizations of the deaf. The one common concern being expressed by all deaf people is that they be their own spokespersons. Often the government will ignore the organizations of the deaf and let hearing people serve as spokespersons for them. I don't like that idea at all. I find it very disturbing, one of my chief concerns.

The World Federation of the Deaf was established in 1951 and it has been having problems ever since in maintaining its goal of keeping the hearing professionals and clergy in subordinate positions in the organization and the deaf on the top where decisions are made; to keep people in their proper place so that we won't get lost in the confusion. The World Federation of the Deaf has had that policy ever since it's been in existence.

The United Nations has asked the governments to work with organizations of disabled people. We've been doing the same thing all along. You have to keep in mind, also, that the governments are getting fed up with having to deal with so many organizations of disabled people and in the future they will set up more national councils of organizations of the disabled, which means that deaf people will be competing with other disabled people for funds from the government. Deaf people will have to take charge of the situation. It will be an interesting challenge.

People need to be cautious when they try to speak for disabled persons. For example, J.J. was telling me how the CISS (Comite International des Sports des Sourds) was forced, well, not exactly forced but more or less the same thing, to join a council of disability organizations affiliated with the International Olympic Committee--the IOC. Everyone seemed to accept the representative for the mentally retarded group who, himself, was not mentally retarded, but they looked with great suspicion at representatives of other disability groups, like the people in wheelchairs, when the representatives were not disabled. There was some hostility there. That shows that we must be very careful to be sure that anyone representing disabled people must be elected by the disabled people, not some self-appointed representative.

To get back to the social life of deaf people, when I first came to Gallaudet College I found that most of the students had residential school backgrounds. We had a lot in common, we knew each other's teachers, we knew about famous deaf people, we shared heritage. We are now getting an increasing number of students from mainstream programs. There is more overlap in our culture and our identity is more diffused. It's more difficult to transmit deaf culture from one generation to the next. We find that many of the students don't even know the name of the NAD president or the names of famous deaf people. That's tragic.

I was reading an article in The Washington Post about Howard University. The university had noticed how many of the black students there didn't know anything about famous black people of the past. So the president of Howard University is supporting the idea of requiring all incoming students to take black studies. Perhaps Gallaudet should have a similar requirement. It's important that the Gallaudet students have some sort of foundation to stand on. Without the foundation, the students are weaker, with fewer goals in life. I firmly believe that Gallaudet should require deaf studies to help students have a sense of pride about their heritage. I think that we will move toward this goal.

I don't think the quality of teaching at Gallaudet was as good in the past as it is today. I don't exactly mean we have better teachers today, just that they are more qualified--at least on paper. In the past most teachers were recruited from schools for the deaf and they had no degree in their field of study. Today Gallaudet has professors with degrees in their fields. Like myself, for example. I have a Ph.D. in sociology--not in the education of the deaf, but in sociology. Now as far as improvement in teaching skills goes, that's another matter. I believe that teaching is an art. Even a professor who is trained in the education of the deaf can be a lousy teacher.

Maybe teaching is in my blood. I'm the fourth generation of teachers in my family. Both my parents were teachers; my father was the superintendent of a public school and my mother was a public school teacher. I think I know what I'm talking about.

Gallaudet has upgraded the qualifications for teaching but the teaching skill varies among the teachers. They need to know more about deafness and deaf people. It bothers me that teachers come to Gallaudet just to teach about their field. That's not right. They should be here to teach about their field plus make a contribution to the deaf world.

I'll use myself as an example: I came here to teach sociology and through my own studies in sociology, I found information applicable to the deaf world and I use that to help organizations improve their activities. In another field, like psychology, the professor should be willing and able to help deaf people understand themselves better. People teaching physics at Gallaudet could apply what they've learned to come up with better electrical systems for the deaf; they could apply what they've learned through technology to develop assistive devices especially for deaf people. That's not being done at Gallaudet because they fail to realize, or perhaps I should say they have forgotten, that traditionally college professors have three functions: the first is teaching, second is research and the third is public service.

I don't think that interpreters can really take the place of a teacher who can communicate directly with his or her deaf students. I believe it's impossible because there are subtleties in communication that are important. We can't ignore this fact. The subtleties of the voice and expressions are enjoyable to hearing people; it enriches their lives. It's the same way with sign language. The subtleties of sign language stimulate the mind, increase creativity. An interpreter can't carry those subtleties from one language to another. It's like when a word is translated from English to French or Swedish, something is lost. There always seems to be something important missing; the interpretation always leaves something out.

Another thing about interpreters: many students who transfer from the NTID and other colleges to Gallaudet have told me that although they got used to having an interpreter in the classroom, they found it very difficult to ask questions. Since the interpreter is always behind the speaker, it may be too late; it will be irrelevant. Now that they are at Gallaudet, they find that they can have a direct link and can ask questions at the appropriate time.

It provides powerful reinforcement for their motivation.

I guess what I want to say is be careful. Mainstreaming is beautiful in theory and I've had some excellent students from mainstream programs. What people don't realize is that different groups have different needs. You can't say that all disabled people have the same needs.

I've been teaching for 22 years. You're right. I love it. I can't imagine what it means to burn out. I don't know the meaning of the word. This spring I taught one girl in my class and that girl told me her father was one of my students. Can you imagine? Of course it makes me feel old, but I really enjoy the challenge of teaching these second generation students.

I tell Nancy, my wife, that I'm tempted to keep on teaching until I'm 70 but I doubt I'll stay on that long because there are so many other areas that I'd like to research if I ever find the time. Right now, my heavy responsibilities with the World Federation of the Deaf takes up a lot of my time.

When I retire from teaching and from the WFD, I would like to do some research related to magazines for the deaf. All the research ever done has drawn its information from books and surveys. Research in deafness has never used the rich resources in magazines for the deaf and that's a big mistake. Our magazines really reflect deaf culture. It's an area of research that's been overlooked.

It's sad what's happened to deaf culture. In the past, because it was so difficult for deafened adults to be accepted by hearing people, they had to go into the deaf world and that group of adults who became deaf later in life contributed so much to the deaf world because of their skills. Nowadays, they're floating somewhere in the middle. People who have grown up deaf often have problems with poor English. People who become deaf as adults tend to look down on those who were born deaf because of their poor English. I think late deafened adults should work together with those who grew up deaf because they have some common concerns, like the need for captioned programs on TV and telephone access. We realize, of course, that sign language may not be all important to them, but we can still work together in other areas.

I'm very worried about the situation. In Sweden, there were two organizations that were in constant conflict with each other. One is something like our NAD and is called Sveriges Dovas Riksforbund (SDR). The other organization is comparable to what we have here in Self Help for the Hard of Hearing (SHHH). The Swedish organization is called Horsel-Framjandet (H.F.). The H.F. is a powerful organization and it has the support of many famous people, but no one who is well-known is a member of SDR. The SDR is a bona fide consumer organization, whereas the H.F. used to be a bunch of do-gooders loosely affiliated with one another. H.F. was strongly opposed to sign language until 1980, or thereabouts, when they decided to drop their opposition. Once they did, the situation vastly improved. The two organizations found a way to work together on projects and developed greater respect for each other. With cooperation, they were able to make sure that deaf people were referred to the SDR and the hard of hearing were referred to H.F.

Remember that Americans like to play with power, and you can add competition to that. There is potential for both competition and cooperation between the NAD and the SHHH.

Sweden isn't a competitive society so it's easier to get people together. The previously opposed organizations were able to work cooperatively but it seems different in America. Another thing to consider is that here in the United States, we have to compete with professionals. In Sweden, the governmen gives the money directly to the organizations of the deaf and other disabled people and they, in turn, support programs for the deaf, like rehabilitation. Here in America, who supports vocational rehabilitation? The government. But the government gives money to the states, which are responsible for setting up and running rehabilitation programs. It's not that way in Sweden: The money is given directly to the organizations of disabled people and they're given the responsibility to establish and manage programs.

If the deaf were given money to spend as they saw fit on programs, you would see a greater sense of pride, sense of responsibility, you'd see more qualified people. The SDR runs its own adult education program, whereas in America, the government hands out grants to different colleges and universities and they end up competing with each other and taking it upon themselves to decide what deaf people need and what's best for them. It doesn't work as well.

Some day, deafness may disappear from the American scene but we can't lose sight of our needs today while we dream of tomorrow.


Epilogue, 1999

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