One of eight children growing up in St. Louis, MO., Gerry Buckley was born hard-of-hearing. As he grew, his condition progressed. The more hearing he lost, the more disconnected he felt from the world around him. To cope, he pretended to hear the conversations of his friends and family as he sat in silence.
“You act like you understand. You become a good faker,” he explains. “But I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the time I was done with high school.”
After graduating in 1974, Buckley came to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a college at Rochester Institute of Technology serving deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Unlike his experience in his mainstream high school, he was surrounded by deaf students just like him, as well as hearing students who were interested and cared about deaf culture. It was transformational.
“In high school, I would have to watch for visual cues. I’d laugh when they laughed, but I never really knew what was going on,” he recalls. “I came here, and all of the students were talking, communicating. You don’t have to fake it. You can be who you are.”
But the climate outside of NTID wasn’t as welcoming. As a social work major, he and his fellow classmates had difficulty getting placements, even in Rochester. People simply weren’t ready for a deaf workforce. Buckley was undeterred.
NTID was a national experiment, established in 1965 through an act of Congress. As a young student, Buckley was reminded that the eyes of the nation were on him and his peers.
“There was a feeling that we were breaking barriers. That was our role. That was our responsibility,” he says.
After graduating and working in state hospitals and mental health institutes, Buckley increasingly found that he was educating the people he served, helping them to become self-advocates. He channeled this passion into more schooling, obtaining a master’s of social work from the University of Missouri and earning a doctorate in special education from the University of Kansas. For the deaf, education meant so much more than a diploma.
“Until we have equivalent degrees, we can’t speak for ourselves.”
“There was a feeling that we were breaking barriers. That was our role. That was our responsibility.”
He also got involved in the political process, lobbying for establishment of deaf social work positions, and seeking to help an underserved deaf population dealing with issues such as suicide, alcoholism, and domestic abuse.
“There was no mental health system for the deaf. The system wasn’t serving them. It didn’t know how,” he remembers.
In 1990, Buckley made the decision to return to NTID, this time as an educator. He was again called by a sense of responsibility, to give back to the school that had given him so much opportunity. He also felt an even greater responsibility: One of his three children is deaf.
“He started bringing me to NTID functions when I was seven years old,” recalls Dr. Jennifer Miller, Buckley’s daughter. “He’d point out a wide variety of deaf role models, and it really cultivated my interest in coming here and being a part of the college experience once I was older.”
Like Buckley’s experience decades before, Miller felt a sense of belonging in Rochester.
“I was very young, but distinctly remember feeling shocked by how quickly we were invited to events and holiday get-togethers,” she says. “It was thrilling to understand everything, and strangely wonderful to be around people who didn’t see me as different.”
The exposure to deaf culture at NTID and in Rochester contributed to Miller pursuing her own dreams, without worrying about being limited by her deafness. She is now a veterinarian living in Rochester.
After serving NTID for nearly 20 years, Buckley was named NTID president and RIT vice president and dean in 2011. He can think of no better place for new deaf students to learn and find a sense of belonging.
“I say Rochester is the only place that you have to worry about finding people who don’t sign,” Buckley says, joking that it can be difficult having a private conversation in American Sign Language in Rochester, because so many Rochesterians sign.
“Most places here have learned how to communicate and be accessible. Because it’s so comfortable, many students don’t want to leave, but they should,” he says. “We’re preparing them to give back. We want them to go back and work on advocacy for other opportunities in other cities.”
Buckley stays focused on the future, always looking for ways that he can positively impact the deaf community, and not resting on achievements such as a 94 percent job placement rate and higher average salaries for NTID graduates.
Right now, the bulk of his time is spent working with the students at NTID, preparing them for a career and life ahead.
“I have the best job in the world. This place believed enough in me to help me overcome my doubts. I look at the students, and I know one day one of them will replace me. One of them will look up and say, ‘That’s possible.’”