Deaf Advocates Angered Over Key Appointment

Protesters object as hearing person chosen to run agency that oversees schools for hearing-impaired
Verity Stevenson
The Toronto Star, November 10, 2015.> , Nov. 10, 2015 A loud campaign advocating for a deaf superintendent circulated online and around the world, then didn’t get what it was fighting for. The Provincial Schools Branch (PSB), which oversees the provinces’ four schools for the deaf, announced last week it hired a hearing superintendent, Jeanne Leonard.

The announcement also said the branch hired Heather Gibson, who is deaf, in a new position called “assistant to the superintendents.”

Though that brings a deaf person to an administrative level previously dominated by hearing people, some in the deaf community say that’s not what they were asking for.

“It totally doesn’t make sense – there are qualified deaf candidates,” Rose Etheridge said through an interpreter at a protest Monday in front of the Ernest C. Drury School for the Deaf in Milton. “They’re trying to pacify us,” added Etheridge, whose Oct. 22 video calling for a deaf superintendent has hit 20,000 views. (The hashtag #PSBSuperintendent2015 followed the video and generated hundreds of posts from across the continent.)

However, two of the community’s most outspoken advocates – Barbara Dodd and Zak Smith, who was arrested last year for staging a protest over concerns about learning conditions in Ontario’s schools for the deaf – say they are satisfied with the appointments.

“I believe Jeanne Leonard would work together with Heather Gibson as good team,” Dodd said in an email Sunday evening. “I personally know (Jeanne Leonard) myself, she does care and value for Deaf students.”

Leonard, who succeeds retired Cheryl Zinszer in the position, has two decades of experience in deaf education. Smith, Dodd’s son, said he’s happy with the hires, too.

“Now) there are two well-qualified people who can sign, which I consider … a huge bonus,” Smith said, contrasting the two with Zinszer, who he says is not fluent in ASL.

All the same, others in the community want the new superintendent to resign, and protests were staged at several of the province’s schools for the deaf. They also want more transparency in the hiring process, saying no deaf people were on the panel selecting candidates.

In a statement issued Monday by spokesperson Gary Wheeler, the ministry of education said the superintendent’s role in overseeing other portfolios, including “Blind and Demonstration Schools students with learning disabilities . . . The superintendent . . . is responsible for building a shared vision of student and system success.” The Star was unable to reach Leonard.

About 50 people stood outside Ernest C. Drury school on Monday morning, waving bright-coloured signs that read “Deaf Superintendent Now” and “French lead French/ Hearing lead Deaf.”

Etheridge, whose two children are in the PSB, said Sunday via Facebook that without a deaf superintendent, “the ministry will continue to see us through a disability lens.”

Aisha Haji, 15, who was at the protest, said through an interpreter that she had many elementary teachers who weren’t fluent in ASL and it was difficult to converse with them. “They would always say, ‘Can you say that again?’ ”
she said, mimicking her childhood frustration. “I just wanted to have a one-on-one conversation.” She wants that reflected in the upper levels of the deaf education system.

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