The Revolution of the Deaf


Wednesday morning, March 9: “Strike at Gallaudet,” “Deaf Strike for the Deaf,” “Students Demand Deaf President”—the newspapers are full of these happenings today; they started three days ago, have been steadily building, and now are on the front page of The New York Times. It looks like an amazing story. I have been to Gallaudet College in Washington a couple of times in the past year, and have been steadily getting to know the place. Gallaudet is the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the world, and, moreover, it is the core of the world’s deaf community—but, in all its 124 years, it has never had a deaf president.

I flatten out the paper and read the whole story: the students have been actively campaigning for a deaf president ever since the resignation last year of Jerry Lee, a hearing person who was president since 1984. Unrest, uncertainty, and hope have been brewing. By mid-February, the presidential search committee narrowed the search to six candidates—three hearing, three deaf. On March 1, three thousand people attended a rally at Gallaudet, to make it clear to the board of trustees that the Gallaudet community was strongly insisting on the selection of a deaf president. On March 5, the night before the election, a candlelight vigil was held outside the board’s quarters. On Sunday, March 6, choosing between three finalists, one hearing, two deaf, the board chose a former dean of students at the University of South Carolina, Elisabeth Ann Zinser, the hearing candidate.

The tone, as well as the content, of its announcement caused outrage: it was here that the chairman of the board, Jane Bassett Spilman, made her comment that “the deaf are not yet ready to function in the hearing world.” The next day, a thousand students marched to the hotel where the board was cloistered, then the six blocks to the White House, and on to the Capitol. The following day, March 8, the students closed the university and barricaded the campus.

Wednesday afternoon: The faculty and staff have come out in support of the students and their four demands: 1) that a new, deaf, president be named immediately; 2) that the chairman of the board, Jane Bassett Spilman, resign immediately; 3) that the board have a 51 percent majority of deaf members (at present it has seventeen hearing members and only four deaf); and 4) that there be no reprisals. At this point, I phone my friend Bob Johnson. Bob is head of the linguistics department at Gallaudet, where he has taught and done research for seven years. He has a deep knowledge of the deaf and their culture, is an excellent signer, and is married to a deaf woman. He is as close to the deaf community as a hearing person can be.1 I want to know how he feels about the events at Gallaudet. “It’s the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen,” he says. “If you’d asked me a month ago, I’d…

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