Disability Studies Community Blog

Book and Media


Reviewed by Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur, Rhode Island College, Email: marthur@ric.edu

Keywords: Deafness; leadership; higher education

T. Alan Hurwitz’s easy-to-read, insightful memoir is, in a way, a mashup of two different but complementary texts: one, a primer on leadership that would be of use to anyone seeking to be an effective, inclusive leader, especially in higher education; and the second, the tale of a deaf man building an extraordinary life in a world that had not yet learned even the basic principles of accessibility. Hurwitz was the first born-deaf president at Gallaudet and the child of two deaf Jewish parents (note: Hurwitz uses the lower-case “deaf” throughout his text, and thus that is the term used in this review). 

The bridge between these two narratives consists of Hurwitz’s keen observations on education. By using his story to illuminate the experience of deaf students, he provides fertile ground for deeper thoughts about what educational institutions are and are not doing for the students they serve. While Hurwitz spent his early years in a deaf school, he was left to figure out much of his later education on his own—with no access to interpreters or even written notes from instructors to clarify homework assignments. He developed his own support systems and accommodations, building on what classmates were willing to do to help. While he emphasizes the importance of deaf representation in the professions and academe, he also highlights the ways in which mentors can help young people imagine futures that may at first seem impossible. Hurwitz also points out how important full participation in the non-academic aspects of college life is for students and shows how Gallaudet provides an environment in which deaf students automatically achieve such participation (for example, at Gallaudet, interpreters voice what ASL users sign, whereas at mainstreamed institutions, interpreters sign oral speech). It is an interesting thought experiment to consider what an educational environment built in the model of Gallaudet but oriented around other disabilities might look like—for instance, a college for the blind and visually impaired or for the neurodiverse.

Reading these sections of the text provokes thoughts about how scholars and practitioners in higher education can make all of our campuses places where disabled students belong (and not just belong, but truly feel that they belong). Yet today, he notes, deaf-serving institutions can face difficulties around recruitment of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, given greater access to mainstreamed institutions. The expansion of federal legislation like IDEA, Section 504, and the ADA have made it possible for folks to go to the college of their choice. A reduction in vocational rehabilitation funding and the fact that state-level funding schemes keep students in state have also reduced opportunities for students to attend deaf-serving institutions. 

Throughout the book, Hurwitz illuminates his ideas about leadership. He explores the experience of working with both good and bad leaders, especially the ways in which leaders do or do not learn to work with the communities they lead. He discusses the process of seeking and obtaining an administrative position in higher education, demystifying that process in ways that may make it more accessible for historically marginalized populations. He also details the process of making hard decisions about issues like program closure. Perhaps most usefully, he outlines his own personal philosophies of leadership, noting the importance of leaders encouraging their subordinates and focusing on people; of communication, clarity, transparency, and inclusiveness; and of seeking input about and providing rationales for change. In a brief afterword, Hurwitz elucidates 10 principles of leadership and provides suggestions for how to develop leadership skills.

When Hurwitz was born, the nurse did not understand his parents’ speech well enough to get the name on the paperwork, so that nurse ended up naming him. This anecdote speaks so pointedly to the need for cultural competence and accessibility in medical care. Similarly, Hurwitz relays his father’s experience of being treated abusively at work and not knowing how to go to his union for support. Many passages in the book are devoted to the changes that technological and social developments have provided for deaf people, including the development of TTY and texting technology, as well as professional interpretation. The experiences he details speak to the extent to which our social conditions are often far more disabling than our disabilities, a fact especially true of the deaf experience, as well as of the importance of ensuring that individuals know where to turn when they experience injustices.

Hurwitz was denied a religious education, and thus, full participation in religious life (until well into adulthood) due to a grandfather who felt that “individuals who did not possess all of their senses” (p. 23) were exempted from such participation, though he did attend synagogue. Jewish communities do far better today, as communities have come to understand that disabilities are not disqualifications from participation (see, for instance, the Orthodox Union’s Signs of Bar Mitzvah handbook), but there is still much work to be done to ensure that deaf and other disabled people are fully engaged in communal life. Yet, Hurwitz notes that he faced more social discrimination in college as a Jew than he did as a deaf man. 

While it takes up but a few pages, one of the sections of the book that is the most profound is the discussion of a controversy around a building at Gallaudet named after Alexander Graham Bell, who many in the deaf community critique due to his promotion of both eugenics and oralism. A campus study commission initially chose to retain the building’s name but reword a plaque on the building, but even those who were initially opposed to the name change were eventually convinced that it was necessary. The process and its resolution could be instructive, as Hurwitz notes, to other institutions grappling with such conflicts—especially the fact that the needs of the current community are the most important consideration in how to move forward.

The text is meant as a memoir, and thus it is no surprise that its engagement with academic scholarship is limited, though it does provide brief snippets of modern American deaf history from an insider perspective (including the conflicts between signed and oral educational models and the development of various institutions and organizations serving deaf people). That said, the discussion of so many of Hurwitz’s experiences and arguments could have been enhanced through the use of conceptual frameworks and ideas from disability scholarship more generally and deaf studies specifically. However, this absence could in fact make the text a fruitful source for classroom discussion, as students could be asked to provide the connections to scholarship that are absent on the page. Portions of the book could be an effective tool for helping to reach faculty who may be skeptical about the necessity of considering the needs of students with disabilities in their classrooms, especially his discussions on classroom interpreting (and its collateral benefits for hearing students). The lack of an index does make the text harder for readers to use in an academic context, but it is a quick, engrossing read, and one worth diving into for scholars of academic leadership or the lived experience of deaf people. It is so clear from Hurwitz’s story how easily the world could have deprived itself of his level of skill and leadership if he had experienced just one more stumbling block at the wrong time—or had missed out on just one engaged mentor.

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