Monday, February 24, 2014

How many 'Claudias'?

Excerpt from Jamaica Observer column by Jean Lowrie-Chin

Claudia L Gordon Esq - Senior Policy Advisor for the Department of Homeland Security, Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
The speaker at two events last week - a Jamaica Association for the Deaf Benefit in honour of Mrs Valerie Facey and the Annual Cobb Lecture Series sponsored by Ambassadors Sue and Charles Cobb - was a lady from St Mary, Jamaica.  She became deaf at eight years old and was kept out of school for three years. She was none other than Claudia L Gordon, award-winning Jamaican-American equal rights advocate who now works at the White House.

Ms Gordon remembers a woman who would frequent her community and make guttural sounds. She said everyone called the woman "Dummy" just because she was a deaf mute. Claudia said that if her ambitious mother had not decided to move with her to the US when she was 11, she would have probably ended up being another "Dummy" in her community.

Instead, Claudia was taught sign language and excelled at the Lexington School in Queens, New York. She then graduated cum laude from Howard University, and gained a degree from the Washington College of Law, from whence she started her dynamic career of public service.

"Every child deserves quality education," she declared. "It is an undeniable right. It is important that deaf children be taught in their own language. In the US, there were laws that ensured that I had equal access. I had the same opportunity as others because I had an interpreter."

She spoke of the reliability of the system: "At Howard University, the interpreter came every day and it didn't cost a penny, because that's the law in the USA. I was given the tools that levelled the playing field for me."

Ms Gordon challenged us: "What are we not doing? We should be influencing attitudes, beliefs and perceptions about people who are handicapped. When I was eight my friends disappeared as they thought if they came near me, they would go deaf."

"We need to see the disabled as persons; not for what they cannot do, but for what they can do." She called for our children to be given the opportunity and that we find solutions to the communication issue. Further, she asked: How many Claudias are there in Jamaica who are not being empowered?

"We need strong, solid interpreters, a training programme in which deaf people will be included," she suggested. "You should invest in a school to benefit our island." She pointed out that Jamaicans abroad are "doing amazing things", and that we should be striving to build a Jamaica that reflects a new diversity... "Disability will touch us at some time in our lives. We're doing ourselves a favour for later."

The trailblazer encouraged the JAD to empower deaf people to serve. "Assistance is different from empowerment," she observed. "If deaf people can lead themselves, we'd have done our jobs." It was a great endorsement for future plans of the JAD, who plan to build a facility of higher learning.

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