In 1988, students at Gallaudet University, a private university for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, erupted into protest over the appointment of a new president, Elizabeth Zinser. Zinser wasn’t deaf and did not know sign language.
Every president in the country’s only university for deaf people has been hearing for over one hundred years of history. When the majority hearing board of trustees appointed yet another hearing president, the students protested and demanded an end to paternalism; they won.
A brief history of deaf education in the United States
When Thomas Gallaudet met Alice Cogswell, it changed the course of his life and deaf education in the United States. Cogswell was Gallaudet’s neighbor. As a deaf child in the U.S., she was not receiving an education. Gallaudet soon set sail for England, paid for by Alice’s father, to learn methods of teaching the deaf. However, Gallaudet ended up modeling his teaching on the French method due to a chance encounter with an instructor from the French deaf school, Sicard, and his deaf student. Gallaudet eventually convinced one of the deaf pupils at the royal institution, Laurent Clerc, to return with him to the United States and found a school for the deaf.
Gallaudet and Clerc established the first deaf school in the United States in Connecticut, and many states followed suit. Gallaudet brought back the French method instead of the British one, which had long-lasting effects on the school. The British emphasized teaching deaf students to lip-read and speak, whereas the French emphasized the use of sign language. Schools primarily used sign language for the first few decades of deaf education in the U.S. Due to the influence of Clerc, American Sign Language (ASL) is closely related to French Sign Language.
However, the focus on sign language did not last. Hearing educators of the deaf worried about them being culturally and linguistically distinct from others and began favoring the “oralist” method: teaching speech and lipreading and forbidding the use of ASL. By 1920, 80 percent of deaf institutions in the U.S. were using oralist methods. While many early educators of the deaf were themselves deaf, oralist schools employed hearing teachers. Oralism took away the self-determination of deaf people in the U.S. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that educators of the deaf began to question the effectiveness of oralism.
Given the history, it is easy to see why deaf students at Gallaudet University were frustrated by the appointment of yet another hearing president. To add insult to injury, she did not know ASL. The board of trustees included only one deaf member, a major issue for many students. There are conflicting reports that the board president, Jane Spillmen, stated, “Deaf people are not ready to function in a hearing world,” the night of Zinser’s nomination. Spillmen denies saying that; some argue it might have been an interpretation issue. Even if she did not say it, the rumor demonstrates how the deaf students felt the hearing board viewed them.
Students at Gallaudet University completely shut down the campus for an entire week. They had three demands:
- Zinser resign, and the board appoint a deaf president
- Going forward, a 51 percent deaf majority on the board of trustees
- No punishment for students who participated in the protest.
The protest gained national attention and widespread support. The students succeeded, and I.K. Jordan became the first deaf president of Gallaudet University. He remained in that position until 2006.
The legacy of ‘Deaf President Now’
The Deaf President Now protest is an example of deaf people demanding and receiving self-determination.
According to Gallaudet University’s online museum, Deaf President Now was the catalyst for:
- Legislation establishing a national relay system for telephone use
- Legislation requiring TVs to have closed captioning technology
- More high schools and colleges offering ASL and accepting it for foreign language requirements
- Deaf actors in movies and TV play more deaf characters.
For many deaf people, the Deaf President Now protest carries a similar meaning to the Selma Marches or the Stonewall Riots. It was not the beginning or the end of the deaf rights movement, but it accelerated the pace, and many deaf people look back on it with pride. Deaf people continue to advocate for their rights and needs. In addition to equal opportunity, many deaf people in the U.S. strongly support ASL and its use with deaf children.
The Deaf President Now protest was a watershed moment in the history of deaf rights in the U.S. The events of the protest occurred about one hundred years after the shift in American deaf education away from sign language to speech and lip reading. The appointment of a hearing president by a mostly hearing board of trustees was representative of the paternalism that deaf people were sick of enduring. Deaf students demanded the right to self-determination, and they won.