Chapter 22. Deaf President Now!
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397 22 Deaf President Now! It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Gallaudet University to the American Deaf community. Established in Washington, DC, in 1864 (with a charter signed by Abraham Lincoln) it was and remains as of this writing the world’s only liberal arts college for people who are Deaf. Since its inception, virtually every Deaf political leader of note has received his or her college education at Gallaudet, and virtually every Deaf scholar has at one time or another studied or taught there. After the advent of oralism1 in the 1880s, Gallaudet remained the most visible and prestigious stronghold of Deaf culture, where Deaf people, using American Sign Language (ASL), could live and study in an environment with complete communications access. Its library contains the archives of American Deaf history, and it was at Gallaudet, in the early 1960s, that scholars such as Dr. William C. Stokoe conducted their groundbreaking studies of ASL, contributing to what would be by the latter part of that decade a renaissance in Deaf culture. And yet, for the first 124 years of its history, not one of Gallaudet’s presidents had ever been Deaf. So when, in September 1987, Dr. Jerry C. Lee, the sitting president of Gallaudet, announced that he would retire the following spring, Deaf community activists across the country began a campaign for a Deaf President Now (or DPN). Articles appeared in the Deaf press arguing that, with so many eminent Deaf educators to choose from, the appointment of a hearing president would be a setback to Deaf people everywhere, while the choice of a Deaf president would be both an affirmation of Deaf people and a rejection of the stereotypes that continued to plague them. Jack Levesque in California and Barbara Jean Wood in Massachusetts2 were among those making this case, while in the Washington area a loosely organized group of Deaf professionals and recent Gallaudet alums, who styled themselves “the Ducks,” began agitating on and off campus. Gary Olsen, president of the National Association of the Deaf, and his assistant Fred Weiner (who had just left a position with the Gallaudet Alumni Association), both played pivotal roles in 398 chapter 22 the campaign, appearing on campus numerous times to enlist students in the fight they saw coming. On March 1, 1988, all of these people came together for an on-campus rally that featured many of nation’s most prominent Deaf leaders. The estimated fifteen hundred people who attended—students, alums, activists, even some Gallaudet faculty and staff (who faced the possibility of retaliation from the administration )—looked around and saw a community united as never before. Then the announcement came that Dr. Elisabeth Ann Zinser, the only hearing finalist interviewed by the search committee and someone with no prior experience with the Deaf community, had been chosen to replace Dr. Lee. Adding insult to injury was the way the announcement was made: late on a Sunday night, communicated via a mimeographed press release distributed on campus. The student strike that resulted—lasting from that Sunday night, March 6, to Sunday, March 13—has been called “The Week the World Heard Gallaudet.”3 The board of trustees was presented with four non-negotiable demands: (1) Dr. Zinser’s resignation and the appointment of a Deaf president; (2) the resignation of the board’s (hearing) chairperson, Jane Bassett Spilman; (3) an increase in Deaf representation on the board to at least 51 percent and (4) no reprisals against anyone taking part in the protests. Dr. Zinser resigned on March 10. On March 13, the board of trustees placed a TTY call to the student leaders at their headquarters on campus, announcing that they had agreed to the other three demands. On that day, Dr. Irving King Jordan, dean of Gallaudet’s College of Arts and Sciences, became Gallaudet University’s first Deaf president. The repercussions of DPN were felt by Deaf people around the world, while in the United States the campaign and its attendant publicity brought disability discrimination and disability rights to the public’s attention at the time that Congress had begun to consider the first version of what would be the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Coming when and as it did, the victory at Gallaudet generated both a buzz and a momentum that would be enormous assets to the nascent ADA coalition. Jeff Rosen “We’d been conditioned to live in a mental ghetto.” On March 1, 1988, Jeff Rosen...



Subject Headings

  • United States. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
  • People with disabilities -- Civil rights -- United States -- History.
  • People with disabilities -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- History.
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