South Africa Journal #8: Deaf Democracy?

July 17, 2011

International Conference Centre, Durban

This is my first ever WFD Congress. I had been a part of the WFD Youth Camp in 2003 in Canada, but this would mark my first time being a full participant of the Congress. Needless to say I was over the moon about this entire experience – to think about the people I would meet and my upcoming presentation at the end of the Congress.

Tired from the long night that ensued the night before with the Youth Congress and making a late-night sojourn for a burger at McDonald’s with 15 Deaf youth waiting in a long line, sandwiched between two cars with terrible exhaust that smoked toxic gas and finally getting our burgers at midnight.

I arrived at the conference centre early morning anticipating easy registration process and witnessing the voting process that would begin a new generation of WFD executives and Board members. I was curious to know if two people I acknowledged – Colin Allen from Australia and Dr. Joe Murray from USA would be elected as President or Vice President.

The registration process took longer than expected. Seeing as I registered very late, three weeks prior to the Congress, my name did not show up on the roster, so I had to run around for some time until it was settled. It wasn’t any easier, because I had no Deafblind guide to take me station to station, interpret what one person was saying – I had to rely on volunteers and to place my hand directly on the person responsible for registration rather than third-person tactile interpreting. Third person tactile interpreting means my Deafblind guide would watch the other person sign and interpret into my hands. It accounts for familiarity and less time consuming to ‘teach’ the other person – most whom do not know how to communicate directly with a Deafblind signing person – and get the business over with in double less the time it would take if I were to tactile directly with the other clueless person.

I was finally given a badge of registration with “DELEGATE” and once it was placed on me, I beamed with price. I was finally a delegate at my first WFD conference!

I rushed past the halls and standing people who were busily chatting away, to enter the doors of Hall 1&2 and I found myself in a darkened room, like a circular hall, with a grand stage up front and hundreds of people sitting and standing around. In the back, I squirmed along with my volunteer guide, Barry from the UK, until I found my seat. Bo from Denmark and Barry volunteered to interpret the voting process, much to my gratitude.

For the rest of the week, because of my late registration and WFD Congress Organizing Committee’s lack of preparing a Deafblind Guide Team, I was left without a guide or interpreter for the rest of the week, so I would have to tap friends or acquaintances to interpret for me or take me place to place. As grateful I am for their support, I immediately found it very exhausting to find volunteers with spare time and the heart to do what I needed. After all, most of them were there to watch, experience and enjoy the Congress, not to work for a Deafblind person.

Back to the Congress General Meeting as it was called. I had arrived in time to hear Turkey plead their case to bid for the next location of the WFD Congress in 2015, It all sounded fantastic. I wouldn’t mind going to Turkey. It sounded so exotic. Next to bid was Mexico. I was far more impressed with their presentation and what they asked for in return from WFD was that the Congress focus on helping Mexico’s grave situation when it came to educating poor Deaf children. Mexico City had a lot to offer. I was deeply concerned about how the WFD Congress organizing committee would deal with the ongoing drug cartel crisis that continues to plague Mexico, and whether the delegates would be at risk in midst of the gunfire. But the team impressed me. I had missed the first bidder – Germany – but I was told their presentation didn’t impress as much as Mexico did. The talk amongst delegates was that Turkey would win.

And so they did. Congratulations are in order for Istanbul, Turkey. You bet you’ll see me there in 2015.  The crowd went crazy over the announcement.

Next, we would hear the testimonies of those interested in becoming President and Vice President of WFD. Two people, respectable for their work with the Deaf communities in their countries and for their long involvement with WFD, were up for the positions. Colin Allen, whom I had the honor of meeting in Sydney, Australia during my travels around the world back in 2010 did an exemplary job explaining why he was best for the position. If I got it right, he had more than 15 years of experience with WFD. And his understanding and willingness to work with the Deafblind community gave him high points in my book. Knowing Dr. Joe Murray back then in 2003, he also had been very active with WFD for a long time. He’s currently a professor at Gallaudet University, the only Deaf liberal arts university in the world. I saw him best for the Vice President position while I envisioned Colin as the President. Many people around me, with no voting power like I, had agreed with the same sentiments.

It was announced that Colin Allen won the Presidency. I could not be any more proud of him. I beamed with joy and fist pumped in the air for him.

One other person ran for the Vice Presidency. A little-known person named Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen came on stage and presented her case for the position. She was very active in the Deaf South Africa Deaf organization and she is the chair of the WFD Organizing Committee.  I thought to myself, ‘Okay, this seems like a nice lady, but since she wasn’t involved with WFD for a long time, I would go with Joe for this position….’

I was wrong. The voting congregation voted Wilma for Vice President, and Joe was voted on the Board again.

I was disappointed. Many of the people around me, standing in disbelief, while the South Africans in the far left corner cheered in jubilation and raised their flag. We all thought Joe would win.

I have a personal beef with Wilma. With the Congress organizing committee for the lack of attention they gave to Deafblind for months before the Congress. In future journals, it’ll all be revealed. In no way do I hold the 2007-2011 WFD Board accountable for the actions of the 2011 Organizing Committee. Wilma, along with others on the Organizing Committee, knew of my complaints about lack of accessibility for Deafblind delegates, as far back as January this year and did nothing about it. I sat there in disbelief, that a person less-known by the large, devoted group of WFD members was voted by a small number of delegates. Not the entire 200 people who stood in that room, but roughly 40 delegates who had voting power.

What baffled me more was the process of voting. For the Youth Congress, the Board and the President, Vice President was elected on the last day of the Youth Congress. It made perfect sense, so that the whole group of delegates would know who they would vote for. And the entire group of delegates – 2 from 30+ countries, would get a chance to vote. Meaning all the people in that room during the Youth Congress could vote their leaders.

But for WFD General Assembly, it was an entirely different strategy. Voting for our new leaders was held on the very first day, disputing any dissent or gaining perspective on who we would want to vote. Those who wanted the top positions only had one day to campaign. I didn’t have any voting power. Nor did the voting delegates know who Wilma was, or what the others who had contributed years and years of their time to WFD would have to offer to the future of our international Deaf organization. 2,000 people were in attendance during the Congress but roughly 40 delegates had the power to vote our leaders.

Why couldn’t the General Assembly be put off until the end of the week? Why couldn’t all the registered members of WFD be allowed to vote instead of representatives from Deaf organizations in 40 countries? The voting process is flawed. I can only hope that in the future it is reversed, so that even if I’m not representing the Canadian Association of the Deaf but a longtime, longstanding member of WFD, I am allowed to vote for someone, who has campaigned the entire week during Congress to gain my confidence and declare the true winner at the end of the week.

I have no great animosity towards Wilma, but I have to say – who is she, really? That makes me uncertain of how WFD would efficiently govern with her in this position, as all I know about her is that she chaired the Congress this year. I want someone who is familiar not only with the WFD governing system, but whom the entire Deaf world knows.

In the end, all I could think about was how I would approach the Turkey 2015 organizing committee and team up in efforts to make the next Congress more accessible, for Deafblind people – but possibly, also, for  the rest of the Deaf delegates who would come and righly deserve their place in the voting process.

After all, we reserve the human right to determine who governs our future. That, folks, is democracy in its true form. Equality for all, with people who we trust leading in front.



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