WASHINGTON – After a sleepless night protesting at Gallaudet University, America's only university for the deaf, student government leader Christopher Corrigan felt the familiar buzz on his Sidekick wireless handheld computer.
The message: "Emergency."
Within minutes, Corrigan and others had joined their friends at spot where protesters say campus security officers were removing their belongings with construction equipment.
"As soon as it happened, people were paging, 'Hey, we need help,"' Corrigan signed through an interpreter, describing last month's incidents.
Many protests that begin heatedly lose momentum and fizzle out. But student activists surprised school administrators with their tenacity and organization. Their demonstrations led to the ouster of incoming President Jane K. Fernandes — who students and faculty said was autocratic and unable to tackle the school's long-term problems during her years as provost.
The successful mobilization can be partly credited to a technology that did not exist a decade ago: the wireless handheld computer. For a month, protesters used the mobile devices to wage a wireless war via messages to each other, the media and the international deaf community.
Almost every Gallaudet student has a BlackBerry, Sidekick or other handheld. The students say the technology has brought them more equality and has opened up the world.
Before the mobile devices came along, deaf people relied mainly on Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf, which work through phones. Another service, Telecommunications Relay Service, uses an operator who repeats the words to a hearing person and then translates them back in text.
T. Alan Hurwitz, dean of the Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf, said wireless handhelds, as well as services like AOL Instant Messenger and real-time captioning, have made communication instantaneous for deaf people.
"The advances in technology have truly leveled the playing field, allowing deaf people to work in jobs never before possible," Hurwitz, who is deaf, wrote from his BlackBerry.
Corrigan, a 20-year-old junior, used his Sidekick II for weeks to send out mass e-mails about the protests and alert friends to his whereabouts. "Without the pagers, we would have to have people running to the [residential] dorms to get people," he said.
Even Corrigan's parents showed up to support their son. After his mother felt a buzz on her own Sidekick at home in Frederick, Maryland, she found an e-mail from a campus activist about the scuffle at Gallaudet.
Within a few hours, Diane Corrigan had the "blow-by-blow" of the Oct. 25 events that had awakened her son that same morning, she said. She left work and drove with her husband to Gallaudet's campus, where students, faculty, staff and alumni were demanding Fernandes' resignation.
Fernandes, the university's former provost, was selected in May by the board of trustees to replace I. King Jordan as president when he retires in January. But following the persistent protests, the board gave in to students' and faculty's demands and on Oct. 29 revoked the appointment.
Howard Rheingold, an expert in the culture of personal communication technology, says the phenomenon has taken hold across the spectrum in his book "Smart Mobs."
He writes that frequently updated Web sites helped street demonstrators with their activism at the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in the late '90s. And in 2001, a popular movement believed to be largely organized through text messages brought out an estimated 100,000 Filipinos for protests against then-President Joseph Estrada.
Cheryl Small, a Gallaudet graduate student from Canada, said that without handhelds, the protest probably would not have been as successful.
"I get messages all day, every day," she said while on a hunger strike during the demonstrations last month.