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The Michigan School of the Deaf Fiasco

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:02pm

There’s been some accusations/attacks over on Fookem and Bug’s blog towards me about the Ryan Commerson/MSD situation. I find it incredulous for people to accuse me and my mother of destroying deaf education in Michigan. Furthermore, I did not email parents/others telling them to not support him. I did nothing during the protests except write a few emails to The Tactile Mind Weekly. Then long after the protests ended, I had brief dust-ups on DeafDC. That is the extent of my involvement.

My mother on the other hand, as an advocate for deaf/hh children here in Michigan was extensively involved with this situation. With her permission, I’ve decided to post portions of my mother’s letter to the state superintendent about the MSD protests.


March 16, 2006

Michael Flanagan
Superintendent of Public Instruction
Michigan Department of Education
608 W. Allegan Street
P.O. Box 30008
Lansing, MI 48909-7508

Dear Mr. Flanagan:


I state my point bluntly: I am very distressed that in general, the Department has chosen to legitimize Ryan Commerson’s tactics, and in particular that it has chosen to commit our tax dollars to appeasing this one individual and his cohorts. I therefore wish to know how much of the public’s money will be spent placating these protesters, the leaders of whom are, by their own description, radicals.

This has been one of the most difficult things I have ever undertaken to write. I am torn between knowing how very important it is for parents and educators to listen to the Deaf Community with respect to the education of Deaf and Hard of Hearing [DHH] students, and my very strong conviction that Ryan Commerson and his co-agitators are less interested in the best interests of the students than they are in exploiting them, their parents and members of the Deaf Community, to further their own ends; that they are not always honest; that they are fueled by personal anger and perhaps hatred, rather than by love for DHH students; that they deliberately employ tactics that I consider to be unethical, some of which are purposefully designed to manipulate others.

I am further torn knowing that the Department is well past overdue in terms of listening to what the Deaf Community has to say about the education of DHH students. However, what the Department takes from anyone must be tempered by the knowledge, expertise and motivation of each individual. I remain torn knowing that many DHH persons are legitimately angry and that we should validate their anger, while also knowing that we cannot allow anger to guide policy and practice. While we must improve the educational outcomes for DHH students, we cannot overlook the needs and rights of each unique DHH student, and we cannot sacrifice the rights of the parents of current and future students in perceived compensation for past failures.

Above all else, I hope that the message I convey to you today, essentially a request to rethink the Department’s treatment of Ryan Commerson and his supporting agitators, which would hopefully result in a rejection of him and his cohorts, their methods and demands, will not be construed as a request to dismiss in general, the concerns of the Deaf Community. Toward this end, I make my case.

While Commerson is certainly the central figure in the “protest” of the alleged policies and practices at the Michigan School for the Deaf, he is certainly not the sole leading agent. Commerson has frequently contributed articles to The Tactile Mind Weekly (, commonly referred to as TTMW, which is an e-zine that was intended to be a literary journal for Deaf writers.

Alison Aubrecht, Deaf and formerly an employee at MSD, is a featured writer, whose column appears in TTMW.

John Lee Clark, who is Deaf Blind, is the publisher of TTMW; his wife Adrean, who is Deaf, is the creative director of TTMW; Christopher Jon Heuer is the marketing director of TTMW.

Some, if not all of these people were undergraduate students together at Gallaudet University. All of these persons are quite literate. They have college degrees. None were educated using the BiBi approach. By her own report ( Aubrecht uses signed English, rather than ASL.

It has been noted that when Heuer visited MSD at Commerson’s invitation, he communicated simultaneously using spoken English and signed English. Regardless of their own histories and habits, these protesters condemn simultaneous communication [Sim-Com] and the use of any variety of sign other than American Sign Language [ASL].

They began the attack against MSD in unison, following a pre-determined plan. I come to these conclusions based on the words of these people, themselves, as they appear in the TTMW, the “Starving for Access” blog ( [SFA blog] and the MSD Students blog (

Well before Commerson’s hunger strike, he was writing personal attacks against Ms. Winkler and Ms. Steenwyk in the TTMW. Some of the things he wrote are blatantly vicious and betray a personal agenda against them. Ms. Winkler is particularly targeted, with Commerson attacking her on a personal as well as a professional level, evincing a campaign to portray her as inept and an oppressor of DHH persons.

Commerson has accused Cecelia Winkler of flatly refusing to consider adopting a Bilingual-Bicultural [BiBi] philosophy of education at MSD, and of stating that Deaf persons are disabled. Commerson’s cohorts, many of the MSD students, and many of the readers of the SFA blog have accepted these accusations as gospel truth, simply because Commerson has said so. Of course, it is relatively easy to twist the truth and make false accusations when one knows one has nothing to lose. Having no money and no assets provides significant protection from civil suits. Even those who are slandered and libeled cannot wring blood from a turnip.

I know Commerson’s claims to be false, because I know Cecelia Winkler, having worked with her over the course of many years. So, approximately two years ago, when these attacks upon Ms. Winkler first surfaced in the TTMW, I directly asked her about Commerson’s accusations. She was naturally distressed by the false accusations and the personal attacks, and she unequivocally denied their veracity.

She informed me that what both she and Ms. Steenwyk conveyed to Commerson was that MSD would not adopt a BiBi philosophy as defined by Ryan Commerson. This is entirely different from a blanket refusal to consider a BiBi philosophy of education for MSD. Ms. Winkler expressed great regard for the BiBi philosophy, but not for many of the demands that Commerson characterized as part and parcel of a BiBi program.

She also was very mindful of the rights of parents and was particularly concerned about employing ASL as the sole through-the-air language with students who enter MSD with little, if any, mastery of American Sign Language [ASL], and in particular for those students who have disabilities in addition to Deafness, for whom use of any form of communication is a challenge. While MSD must and rightly serves all DHH students who need to be in a signing environment, Ms. Winkler is a wise and experienced enough educator to know that one approach cannot serve the needs of all students. There must be sufficient flexibility in MSD’s communication policy, to allow for meeting the diverse language needs of the MSD students. Commerson’s version of BiBi lacks that flexibility, and was properly rejected.


Well before Commerson began his protest and hunger strike, MSD officials, led by Ms. Winkler, were already undertaking the task of revising MSD’s communication policy. This was commonly known, as reported by Freida Morrison, president of the MSD Alumni Association [MSDAA] in her letter that was re-printed on the SFA blog at In part, she states:

The protest is unnecessary and inappropriate at this time. First of all, Starving for Access supporters never approached or attended general meetings to open up the discussion about ASL or BI/BI issues. We had general meeting recently, November 19, 2005, and shared new information regarding the plan to work on implementing BI/BI philosophy. Starving for Access supporters never made the effort to attend any meetings or contact us. We did not know about the protest beforehand and were surprised to hear about it on the morning of November 21, 2005.

MSDAA has been working with Strategic Plan Committee developing a proposal, specifically using BI/BI (ASL/English) methods. We just started dialogue with the State Board of Education (Beth Steenwyk and Jacque Thompson). The State finally agreed to hear about using BI/BI in MSD. This is a long process and will not happen in few days. Cece Winkler, the Principal of MSD, has been willing to open up and work with us.


So why does Commerson and his cohorts persist in promoting these falsehoods? Such accusations are sure to inflame the Deaf Community and turn many against the MSD administration. I believe that at least some of the answers are to be found in the SFA blog. In this blog both Commerson and Heuer reference Saul Alinsky, and his book, Rules for Radicals. It is this book that sets forth the general plan that Commerson and his cohorts follow. While I, personally, refuse to spend money on that book, there are several references on the Web that suffice in providing a good idea of what Alinsky advocates, and what Commerson, et. al., are implementing.


That Commerson and his cohorts would use Alinsky’s tactics in order to achieve some nebulous victory (the goals of the protest are ever-changing, as evidenced in the SFA blog) while dismaying, is not shocking. What is shocking is Commerson’s indoctrination of MSD students in Alinsky’s techniques. At, Commerson, himself reports in an interview with Aubrecht:

I want it on the record that I have never denied having contact with the students.

I have been in touch with several students over the past few months, students who have expressed they feel frustrated and oppressed at MSD. Many of those students were looking for ideas on how to effect change. I discussed Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” with those students and encouraged them to think of non-violent, legal ways they could protest without breaking rules.

This is hardly the work that Commerson was hired at MSD to do. It is also inconsistent that if, as Commerson claims, language deprivation is rampant at MSD, the students would be able to express their feelings of oppression and frustration to Commerson, much less understand Alinsky’s teachings or Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that Aubrecht posted in its entirety on the MSD student blog, for the edification of the students.


Since writing to Dr. Hughes, I learned that in furtherance of his agenda, Commerson assisted MSD students in setting up a student blog, ( that is open for contribution by anyone, and for all to read. Taurean Burt, one of the student who manages the blog, wrote, “Thank you RC and Kid for participent [sic] this, this is also reason why I am start to set up and let have our MSD student’s rights to set up their own opintion [sic] down here and get us some of idea how to improve MSD.” ( ).

In the student blog, MSD students are encouraged to read the Starving for Access blog, “Check out: Written by: alison at 2005/11/21 – 13:37:22.”

Commerson, Aubrecht and Heuer also use the student blog to engender anger and rebellion as well as to turn the students against Ms. Winkler and other MSD staff. Given the writings of Commerson, Aubrecht and Heuer, perhaps it is also their goal to turn the students against hearing persons, in general, and hearing parents of DHH students, in particular. When the Department legitimizes Commerson’s efforts, it also legitimizes his indoctrination of minor MSD students. I am horrified.


If one reads the SFA blog and TTMW, one finds Commerson, Aubrecht and Heuer filled with deep and abiding anger toward hearing persons. While some of the personal stories told by members of the Deaf Community are filled with anguish that is palpable, Commerson’s and his cohorts’ brim with anger that arguably spills into hatred. Remember that the MSD students have been encouraged to read the SFA blog. This blog is dominated by Heuer. Even knowing that minor students read the blog, Heuer has written there, “Have you thought about organizing? Seriously organizing with every intention of packing an ugly punch?”


Commerson has published on the SFA blog all correspondence between himself and/or Aubrecht and John Austin, Jeremy Hughes and Cecelia Winkler. Anyone who cares to read it can witness Commerson’s demands, not just of Ms. Winkler and the community in general, but also to the Department. His arrogance, his insolence, his disrespect and his threats are exhibited for all to read. His insulting questioning of Dr. Jacquelyn Thompson’s judgement, abilities and suitability is counterpoint to his excoriation of Cecelia Winkler as a leader of the referent group.

All who read the blog are similarly witness to the Department’s acquiescence to this uncredentialed, petulant agitator, as it legitimizes and honors not only his demands, but also his tactics and methods. This is a strong lesson not only for MSD students, but for all students in Michigan’s public schools. It is of great interest to parents and advocates.

Will the Department so honor every person’s demands? Will the Department commit similar funds to all those who take their grievances to the street or who otherwise rebel against an LEA, ISD or the Department, in spectacular fashion? Will the Department accept responsibility for the health and welfare of every person who is disgruntled with any public education agency in Michigan, who takes potentially harmful action in order to force submission to his or her demands? Will it similarly appease groups of parents who take public and sensational action to secure, for example, ABA programs for their autistic children, or Orton-Gillingham programs for their learning disabled children? Will the Department be as accommodating to all others who insult and demand, as it has been to Ryan Commerson? Or will the Department discriminate against all others?

The SFA blog is a peek into the souls of the chief actors in the MSD protest: Commerson, Aubrecht and Heuer. One would have to read the entire blog in order to fully appreciate what MSD is really facing, and what the Department is legitimizing. I can only list just a few of the things that are revealed there:

  • Commerson and his cohorts have purposefully introduced “Outside Agitators” into the protest. Posted by the “moderator,” OA [Outside Agitator] #3 explains:

    Thus begins the group: Outside Agitators. The primary goal of this group is to teach different tactics for self-advocacy, group advocacy, and for challenging the system of Haves. The goal of this group is to offer ideas and feedback, ranging from the expected “move up the political ladder” to more radical tactics that may be employed should they be deemed necessary.

    • The SFA blog, though dominated by Heuer, is rife with postings from anonymous persons, including those who use the pseudonyms OA#3, OA#14, OA#6, among others. These anonymous messages include those from the Outside Agitators, who pursue their stated purpose, employing the tactics prescribed in Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Heuer tries to justify the anonymity, claiming that it protects them from retaliation. Their anonymity protects them, too from being held accountable for their words, and from being sued for libel.
        • The SFA blog in general, and the messages of Heuer, in particular, are filled with misinformation not only about the staff and administration of MSD, but also about the achievement levels of Deaf students who have Deaf parents, the MEAP, and the provisions of NCLBA, among other things. Neither Commerson nor his Agitators have the honesty to correct the references by others to Commerson being a teacher. Commerson, in fact, taught at MSD on a substitute’s certificate. He is not a certified teacher endorsed to teach HI students; he does not have an education degree; he does have a BFA degree in film making.
        • Initially, Commerson and his cohorts attempted to assure parents that they respect their rights, and that it is not their intention to tell hearing parents how to raise their children or to dictate what kind of communication mode to use. The authors of Letter to parents,, are apparently ignorant of how condescending their letter is. The placating tenor of the letter, however, soon gives way to deep-rooted resentment and disrespect, if not outright hatred, toward hearing parents of DHH students. Unwittingly, their words will drive parents of young DHH children to oralism, rather than to American Sign Language.
        • Heuer preaches that unless changes are made now, the window of opportunity for learning to read will close before the students can achieve literacy. Heuer consistently claims that the “neural pathways” shut down at about age 12, or perhaps sooner. He makes claims about learning to read that the literature actually documents relative to language acquisition, based on neuro-biological studies of neuronal plasticity. Heuer uses his inaccurate claims to engender fear in parents, and inspire them to act quickly as he instructs. He predicts dire consequences if parents do not follow his instructions, not only because it will soon be to late for their children to learn to read, but also predicting, “Your school is going to be a dumping ground for 13 year old illiterates every other school can’t handle AFTER they’ve sucked him dry for all the propoganda [sic] energy he has to offer their programs.”
        • Disclosing his ignorance of placement procedures and truancy laws, Heuer instructs the bloggers, particularly parents of MSD students, that the way to break the union’s refusal to terminate poor quality teaching staff is for the parents to withdraw their children from MSD en masse. He writes:

        …the one thing that would send these institutions into a state of widespread panic, the one thing that would open them up 100% to new ideas and make them a thousand times more willing to pursue new options…is if we all withdrew our children from that institution AT THE SAME TIME.

        A few more issues bear in-depth consideration. A great deal is discussed about the poor record of academic achievement record of DHH students. Many writers to the blog point out that these are national statistics and no one seems to have any data that is specific to MSD students. Even Heuer admits that the issues of teachers who have poor sign skills and the dismal literacy level of the average deaf student are national problems, not unique to MSD or even to Michigan.

        Yet, Heuer expresses outrage at the suggestion that the referent group promised to Commerson by Jeremy Hughes, focus on the education of all DHH students in Michigan, rather than exclusively on MSD. Given the acknowledgment that the education of DHH students is a national issue, and Heuer’s claim that it is a crisis situation, why would anyone oppose making the focus of the referent group education for all Michigan DHH students?


        In sum, Commerson and his agitators would not be able to control such a referent group. That such control is sought was voiced by Heuer, when he wrote to the SFA blog:

        I would think that Dr. Hughes or any MSD administrator would infinitely prefer to talk to a rep for all of you than all of you together. It will help facilitate things, especially if you start moving outside of the area of just Bi-Bi-related concerns. Some of you seem to have listed other concerns as well, and you don’t sound like you’re just going to discuss these things in your meetings and not eventually approach MSD admin on them. So when you eventually do make that approach, a rep could be helpful. . . Plus this would put us all a step ahead of whatever Referent Group that gets formed. [Emphasis added.]

        There is no escaping the fact that education for DHH students in this country is dismal. Michigan must improve its efforts in the delivery of education to all DHH students in this state, not just to those attending MSD. MSD, as an institution whose constituency is the entire State, has unique problems and characteristics.

        Nonetheless, I believe that it is wrong and wholly unwise to establish a referent group to scrutinize MSD, alone. I am utterly aghast that the Department has kowtowed to Ryan Commerson and his demands and threats. I am horrified that much of our scarce public money will be dedicated to appeasing the Agitators. I want to know exactly how much money that will be.

        I do not want the children of Michigan to learn the lessons that Commerson and his ilk wish to teach them. I do not believe that anyone other than Ryan Commerson, himself, bears any responsibility for what Commerson may do to his health if his demands are not met.


        The Department should never reward methods and tactics such as those Commerson and his cohorts employ. If Ryan Commerson chooses to resume his hunger strike, that is his personal choice, made as an autonomous adult; he, and he alone, must accept the consequences of his behavior. He should not be allowed to hold the taxpayers of Michigan hostage to his demands and threats.

        Thank you for your time and attention.


        Celeste D. Johnson, M.A.

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