After losing his hearing due to a motorcycle accident when he was 21, I. King Jordan spent a lot of time denying the fact he was deaf. He says he considered himself “a hearing person who couldn’t hear for a long time.”
Now Jordan, who became the first deaf president of Gallaudet University in 1988, has become a champion for what deaf people can accomplish. As he told a reporter when he was named president, “Deaf people can do anything—but hear.”
Next March marks the 25th anniversary of the weeklong student-led protests at Gallaudet University that ushered Jordan into the school’s presidency. The protests began when Gallaudet’s board of trustees named a hearing person as president, but students and faculty felt it was time for a deaf president to lead the school instead. The protests, which became known as the Deaf President Now movement, ended with King’s appointment. After 18 years as Gallaudet’s president, Jordan stepped down in 2006, but he maintains close ties to the deaf community and remains an advocate for the disabled.
When Jordan first found he could not hear, he clung to his doctor’s promise that it was due to head trauma and that his hearing would probably return. Before the accident, Jordan had planned to remain in the Navy and to enroll in helicopter pilot school. Instead, he enrolled in Gallaudet and graduated with his bachelor’s degree. Jordan went on to earn his master’s and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Tennessee, and he joined Gallaudet’s faculty in 1973.
Jordan was the dean of Gallaudet’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1988, when the president announced he was stepping down. At the urging of friends and with the support of his family, Jordan decided to apply for the position. He spent weeks preparing, and he felt confident of his chances after his day-long interview. But on Sunday, March 6, the board of trustees announced it had instead chosen Elizabeth Zinser, a hearing person, as the new president.
Students were not happy with the announcement, because the board had promised it would work to hire a deaf candidate. So the same night that the news of Zinser’s appointment was released, the protests began. Jordan didn’t learn about the protests until the next day, when he arrived at work to find the university gates locked. Initially, he supported the board’s decision to appoint Zinser, because he felt he had to in his position as dean. He even arranged a meeting at a local hotel between Zinser and the student leaders of the protest on the Wednesday after the announcement (he still has the hotel room key from that day). But the meeting didn’t yield a solution, and Jordan received a phone call that night from former Gallaudet President Pete Merrill, who advised him to “listen to your heart, what’s in your heart, and follow that.”
The next day, Jordan decided to support the Deaf President Now movement. Zinser resigned that night, and the board asked him to become president. It was at a press conference on the Monday after his appointment that a reporter asked what deaf people could actually accomplish, even with a college degree. Jordan responded with what would become his mantra: “Deaf people can do anything—but hear.”
In the years that he served as president of the high-profile university, Jordan mingled with presidents and world leaders. He recalls communicating in sign language with Queen Silvia of Sweden and Diana, Princess of Wales, whom he describes as “a lovely person.” He also recalls meeting former President George H.W. Bush, who greeted him with, “Hiya, King!” For the 1996 Olympic Games, Jordan was chosen to carry the torch through the White House grounds and light the cauldron on the South Lawn. He even received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Clinton in 2001.
“When I had these opportunities, it was not just me having an opportunity,” Jordan says. He explains that when hearing people met him and communicated with him through a translator, they were probably thinking, “Wow, this is really a high-achieving individual, and he’s deaf, so deaf people can do these things.”
In 2005, Jordan announced he would retire from the presidency at the end of 2006. He faced controversy himself when he supported the board’s decision to appoint university Provost Jane Fernandes to succeed him. Students protested against the appointment, arguing that Fernandes was not highly regarded by faculty and students. The demonstration resulted in the arrest of more than 100 student protesters on Oct. 13, 2006, a day now known as “Black Friday.” The board rescinded Fernandes’s contract as a result of the protests, but Jordan still stands by his support of her. “I think she would have been a good president,” he says. As for Black Friday, Jordan says that he passed on a warning to the protesters from the police that they would be arrested if they blocked the street. “I didn’t have them arrested,” he says. “The police arrested them, because they wanted to be arrested.”
Jordan’s work has extended beyond the deaf community. He served on the Congressional Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of People with Disabilities that advocated for passing the Americans with Disabilities Act. Jordan has christened himself a “freelance advocate,” as he sits on the boards of seven foundations that support nonprofits. Jordan maintains friendships on Capitol Hill and used those relationships to reach out to members of Congress concerning the changes that the Federal Communications Commission is proposing to make to Video Relay Service, which people with a hearing or speaking disability use to communicate over a phone with help from a sign-language interpreter.
“In the past, people saw limitations,” he says. “People defined me and other deaf people by what we couldn’t do.”
This article appears in the Dec. 10, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily as Royal Vision.