Ryan Commerson: Ahead of the Times

We all know and recognize Ryan Commerson as one of several highly visible leaders during the 2006 Gallaudet Protest.

But in the aftermath of all that happened at Gallaudet -- more specifically, the continued vigilance against audism not only at Gallaudet but all over the world -- some of us might have forgotten that Commerson went to bat for us long before Tent City.

While I was putting together some notes for Michigan resident Dragan Jaksic's article on the Guest Writer page, I came across a letter Commerson addressed to Cece Winkler, Principal of the Michigan School for the Deaf.

Upon re-reading what Commerson had to say I realized he was ahead of his time. Several of the points he made when he expressed concern about the Michigan School for the Deaf would later apply to Gallaudet University (and beyond).

And, obviously, the Gallaudet protest was not a "one and done" deal. The protest is far from over. Its ripple effect is spreading all over the globe (the incident at Mississippi School for the Deaf is a perfect example). People who work in the Deaf world are now taking a closer look at how things are done. They either question the success of Deaf advocacy as we know it, or face being questioned themselves. Furthermore, the proliferation of Deaf blogs ensures that anytime there's unethical behavior affecting the Deaf community, everyone will know about it at the click of a mouse.

But before we step forward, I want to take a step backward. Let's review some powerful quotes from Commerson's aforementioned letter to Cece Winkler:

1. The simple virtue of thinking "If they can, it means I can too" does wonders to a child's self esteem. This, in turn, is one of the building blocks in foundations of a child's resiliency.

2. My concern is: with the mounting tension, one has to wonder how a Deaf student at MSD can develop resiliency when it seems as though Hearing staff are modeling (both through words and action) their innate beliefs that there are limits to what a Deaf person can do? "Yes, you can be anything you want, but..." The 'BUT' has an enormous weight on Deaf people, about equivalent to a cow sitting atop a person lying on the ground.

These comments floored me because that's the entire premise of my book, Deaf Again, right there. (I often say I'm "Deaf Again" or "Born Again Deaf" because I've lived in two deaf worlds. The first was the one where I internalized the belief that deaf people are and always will be inferior. The second deaf world -- make that the Deaf world -- is the one where I had Deaf role models and learned that it was okay to have a Deaf identity. Guess which world I thrived in?)

If you want me to further validate these assertions, I gladly refer you to a dear mentor of mine, Dolly Schulman. She's the director of The Modern Gestalt Institute in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

It was during Schulman's year-long course in Gestalt Theory and Practice where I learned about introjects. Introjects are messages we internalize from our parents and the world around us after repeated exposure to certain comments and behaviors.

Are you one of those people who eats every single morsel on his or her plate because your parents repeatedly reminded you there are kids starving in some third world country? Congratulations, you've been programmed by an introject.

Another example: if you've ever seen grown men trying their best not to cry in public, you've witnessed yet another introject in action -- most likely these macho types internalized the message that "big boys don't cry." This is powerful programming, folks.

Introjects do not have to be verbal. They can be implied, they can be learned simply from observing other people's behavior. Kids watch their parents and teachers all the time and internalize what they see. In fact, behavior is far more powerful than words.("Do as I say, not as I do" does NOT work!)

So if Deaf children grow up in the company of authority figures who, discreetly or otherwise, believe deep down that Deaf people are inferior, these Deaf kids are going to grow up with one hell of a nasty introject. It can adversely affect their ability to become leaders and thrive in the world at large. In fact, it was in Deaf Again where I wrote about my own self-imposed glass ceiling. It took me a long time to get past that. Where do you think I learned to think this way?

As I read Commerson's letter to Cece Winkler, all of this came back. I knew immediately that he was right. And I also realized that way before Tent City was ever erected, Commerson was starving in his own tent in Michigan to fight on behalf of the psychological and educational wellbeing of Deaf children. (For those of you who were out golfing or something, Commerson was on a hunger strike back then.)

Inspiring? Yes. Mission accomplished? Not quite. We still have a long way to go. But it begins right now with a big "Thank You" to Commerson for getting the ball rolling in Michigan. It jarred the consciousness of the Deaf community and I believe we're collectively ready to toss out the "inferior" introject that's been hanging over our heads for centuries.

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