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Ike Okwara speaks about the Black Deaf experience

Rachel Tolmach / THE GATEPOST

By Dorcas Abe

Staff Writer

On Feb. 27 the Center for Inclusive Excellence (CIE) with the Department of American Sign Language (ASL) and the ASL Club hosted a talk with Ikechukwu “Ike” E. Okwara, an advocate for disability rights and former president of the Rhode Island Association of the Deaf (RIAD), to discuss the history, and unique experiences faced by the Black and Deaf communities. 

Bruce Bucci, program coordinator and professor for Deaf studies made the introductions. He is a long-time friend of Okwara and stressed the importance of allyship in improving our future.

He said, “The goal for today is to be inclusive and to change the world.” 

Bucci introduced others who made the event possible.

Jefferey Coleman, vice president for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement (DICE), expressed his excitement, stating this was his first time being part of this kind of event.

“I hope this allows us to find ways we can further engage with intersecting identities in the various communities we interact with and are a part of,” he said.

Jerome Burke, director of the CIE, said he was excited to hear Okwara’s presentation, adding he was happy the ASL Club wanted to highlight the Deaf Black Community.

“They could have chosen any other activity or highlighted any other month, but for them to chose to celebrate the Black community - I’m really appreciative of that,” he said.

Luce Aubry, World Languages Department chair and ASL and interpreting professor, expressed her happiness to see many familiar faces.

Kristen Porter-Utley, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, said she was delighted at the large turn out for the event and thanked the CIE and ASL club for organizing it.

T. Stores, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, and Angela Herbert, ASL/English Interpreting professor, greeted the crowd.

Bucci also introduced Jessenia Kolaco, secretary of the ASL club and senior ASL interpreting major, Kayla Barboza, ASL club president, and Gwendolyn Schutt, vice president of the ASL Club.

Okwara said he was born and grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. He became Deaf at 10 years old, forcing him to stay home for two years, as the school he went to did not accept Deaf students. 

He added his sister was able to find a school for the Deaf and he was able to continue his education in Nigeria until 1981 when he came to America to attend college at Gallaudet University. 

Okwara also spoke about his time working in Rhode Island.

“I was involved in a lot of different things in Rhode Island and working with so many people in different communities - you have to take risks to take action and make change,” he said.

He also brought up the diversity of the Black community. “Black people today come from lots of different backgrounds - they might come from Africa, the Caribbean, or be born in America.  

Okwara contrasted the racism Black people in America experience with his childhood in Nigeria. He said he didn’t experience race-based discrimination and oppression until he came to America.

“I grew up Black and proud,” he said. 

He said while people come here for the American dream now, the circumstances which first brought Black people to America were not voluntary.

“They were slaves for so many years, working so hard, they had no rights - they were not considered citizens,” he said.

He said now as a Black person life is better than back then, as Black people have lots of rights, and back then even when laws were made to give Black people rights they were not followed. 

“Black people who are born and raised in America have a different experience than mine, but despite all the oppression we have not given up,” Okwara said.

He spoke about some of the amendments to the Constitution that established rights for Black Americans - the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery, the 14th which gave Black people equal rights, and the 15th which gave Black men the right to vote - a law passed in 1870 that was not fully realized until 1965.

Okwara said this law was blocked with extra barriers to voting such as poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, white primaries laws, intimidation by job loss, the KKK, denial of credit, and threats of eviction.

It wasn’t until 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that Black people were truly allowed to vote.

“This was truly one of the most powerful laws in America,” he said.

Okwara spoke about Black people’s opportunities in society today, mentioning they have held jobs such as president, vice president, U.S. senators, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and the president of Harvard, when Harvard did not even accept Black students for 211 years.  

He said that while many things have improved, there is still racism, discrimination, stereotyping, and disparities in economics and healthcare.

“There is still a long way to go,” Okwara said.

Okwara then spoke about his experiences as a Black and Deaf man. He said people used to ask which identity he considers himself first. He said when he was younger he considered himself Deaf first but now, experiencing the racism in America he says Black first because people don’t know he’s Deaf by looking at him. 

He said while he shares some experiences with other Black people, it is a different experience being Deaf and Black.

He spoke about the way Black and Deaf people have been excluded. He said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded 1909, works for the betterment of Black people, but not Deaf people.

The National Association for the Deaf (NAD), founded 1880, works for Deaf people, but Black people could not join until 1964. 

The National Black Deaf Advocates was founded in 1982, after which the NAD formally apologized for their treatment.

He pointed out that during segregation there was a law that said “separate but equal.” Black Deaf children were not allowed to go to white Deaf schools - they often had to go to other states to find Black Deaf schools which their families would have to pay for or the child would stay isolated, he said. He explained this was not equal treatment as they had more barriers to access. 

Deaf clubs also would not accept Black kids, he said, and added even now, Black Deaf kids don't see anyone who looks like them in power - there's no “affinity.”

He spoke about how Black Deaf kids need role models and named some he has met and respects.

He started with Andrew Foster, the first Black Deaf person to graduate from Gallaudet, and added he is considered the Father of Deaf Education in Africa, and created the school that Okwara went to. 

Okwara then brought up Glenn Anderson, the first Black Deaf person to earn a Ph.D., and Shirley Allen, the first Black Deaf woman to earn a Ph.D.

He then mentioned Khadijat K. Rashid, first Black Deaf person to become provost of Gallaudet University, and Claudia Gordon, the first Black Deaf woman attorney, adding that one of his daughters was inspired by Gordon to attend her alma mater Howard University, and his other daughter was inspired by Gordon to go to Harvard Law school to become an attorney. 

Finally, he named Opeoluwa Sotoma, the current commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. 

Okwara went on to mention the barriers Black Deaf people face in the world - oppression, racism, and discrimination, specifically naming “audism,” discrimination against Deaf people. He spoke about how a lack of interpreters caused an increased impact of the AIDS epidemic. 

He ended the talk saying, “We need to do more to understand the needs of Black Deaf people,” and quoted Eldridge Cleaver, who said, “You either need to be part of the solution, or you are going to be part of the problem.”



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