Security personnel directed traffic and shuttle buses transported admirers from far-flung parking lots March 20, as Dr. I. King Jordan joined the likes of violinist Itzhak Perlman and physicist Stephen Hawking as recipient of the National Courage Award.
Presented annually by Minneapolis’ Courage Center to individuals who have made “outstanding contributions in leadership on behalf of people with disabilities”, the award honors citizens who have displayed courage in meeting and overcoming a disability, and who serve as a symbol of courage to others.
Jordan excels on both counts. Deafened nearly three decades ago in a motorcycle accident that nearly took his life, he went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Gallaudet in psychology, and both master’s and doctorate in the same subject from the university of Tennessee. A faculty member at Gallaudet for the past 17 years, the popular professor’s academic achievements include positions as Chair of the Psychology Department and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
And then, in March of 1988, the soft-spoken teacher became unwitting party to a revolution.
In all of its 124 years, the nation’s only university for the deaf had never had a deaf president. Minutes after trustees chose its seventh chief administrator, who was neither deaf nor conversant in sign language, student protests began. They continued to spread in both number and intensity, until the new appointee was forced to step down after just four days, and Jordan ultimately became the first deaf president in the institution’s history.
Since then, he has translated personal popularity and zeal into academic improvements at his alma mater, and steadily increasing visibility and understanding for the hearing-impaired and persons with other disabilities throughout the nation.
A moderate and persuasive voice for the cause of all those considered to have disabilities, Jordan is an explainer, not a whiner. His explanations are rational and appealing, highlighting similarities instead of differences, abilities instead of disabilities. His acceptance speech at the award ceremony was titled “Empowerment: our time has come”, and its message was received with the same enthusiasm granted its presenter.
During his two-day visit to Minnesota, the now nationally prominent administrator adhered to a personal schedule more reminiscent of a political than academic figure, including one banquet, one luncheon, two receptions, one conference, the award ceremony, two speeches and a half-day visit to the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault.