We Need a Deaf Oprah Winfrey

When Oprah Winfrey forked over $40 million to open the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, I wasn't surprised. Hey, this is Oprah. When someone with that kind of money wants to make a difference, the sky's the limit.

But my jaw dropped when I learned who was appointed as acting head of the school. It was none other than Joan Countryman, my former math teacher at Germantown Friends School. She's the perfect person to take on such a challenging and rewarding assignment. (Mrs. Countryman will run the school for about a year before turning over the reins to Nomvuyo Mzamane, who will become permanent head of the academy in 2008.) Mrs. Countryman's calm and reassuring demeanor, her high expectations, and her faith in her students helped me learn a thing or two about math.

If memory serves me correct, I was in Mrs. Countryman's class during the neurotic days before I had a sign language interpreter. (Yes, I was a mess back then. There's a reason Gina Oliva calls mainstreamed students "solitaires.") If Mrs. Countryman could get me to understand math, she can do anything.

But of course, you knew I couldn't resist bringing a Deaf angle to this story.

As I marveled at pictures of the new facility, the realization hit me:

We need a Deaf Oprah.

Oprah, as an African-American woman who grew up facing numerous challenges of her own, wants to reach out to South African girls who deserve a chance to succeed. I'm all for it. And I also recognize that the Deaf community needs a Deaf Oprah, one with tons of moolah, who is willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference in Deaf education.

Why? Because Deaf education still has a long way to go. I'm sorry to be the bearer of such grim news, but you knew it anyway. We all know about Deaf students graduating from high school with subpar reading levels. We've had workshops, forums, conferences, Deaf Studies programs, websites, blogs, vlogs, and so on. Our awareness of the issues and our advocacy on behalf of them are truly admirable. But the results?

We stink.

You may argue that we already have some great programs with some highly innovative ideas and you would be right. The problem is something on a much larger scale that goes well beyond what a small number of schools are able to do.

It starts with the American education system in general. The people at the top have a very different mindset of what it means to be Deaf. Their opinions and their goals are very different than ours. This becomes problematic when we need more laws and educational policies in our favor. It is for this reason we need more Deaf leaders at the higher rungs of the education ladder. (Or, someone who has as much moolah as Oprah and can thus build their own damn school.)

I'm not saying that every top-level administrator in the Department of Education is a virtual Dr. Evil who sits in his lair cackling, Let's see what else I can do today to destroy the Deaf community. I really believe that most are well-intentioned people who just don't understand. If you play a word association game with them, say "Deaf" and they'll usually respond "rehabilitation." They look at us as people who need to be rehabilitated, not as people who can thrive with ASL the same way hearing kids can learn via spoken English. It's a belief system, one that's difficult to change.

It's sad that the Deaf community still has virtually no control over its own education. Lawmakers and school districts call most of the shots, not us. The interpretation of Least Restrictive Environment went awry long ago and its impact is still felt today. When parents of Deaf children fight for what they feel is the most appropriate education for their kids, they face intimidating, uphill legal battles with their respective school districts.

The answer, again, is very simple. All we need is a Deaf Oprah. We need a Deaf Oprah who makes a ridiculous amount of money and then hands over a blank check towards the building of the most incredible, top-notch Deaf school of all time. This groundbreaking program would have to be the best of the best. It would need to blow away people with results.

The entire staff would have to be fluent in ASL, and at least 50% would need to be Deaf. (Role models, role models. Can't say enough about that.)

I'm talking about accessibility galore. Even the bathrooms would have closed-captioned TVs in every stall.

There would have to be a screening process or an entry exam for students. All of the incoming students would need to be at age-appropriate reading and writing levels. This might seem elitist at first, but bear with me -- the end result is good for everyone.

The odds are that a great majority, if not all, of the Deaf students accepted into this program will have had access to language since birth. They could be DODs (Deaf of Deaf) or they could be Deaf kids of hearing parents who've gone along with the recent baby sign language craze. Either way, you know these kids are going to thrive in this environment.

This is nothing new. It's already worked in Sweden.

And then, when a significant number of these kids grow up to be academic and professional dynamos -- I'm talking engineers, computer technicians, doctors, lawyers, the works -- the rest of the country can't help but notice. And that's when lawmakers and school districts will respond accordingly. They'll recognize ASL-friendly Deaf schools as a viable option -- not as a last resort -- for the Deaf children who may benefit from them the most.

Just my two cents -- uh, $40 million.

Got change?

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