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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 have bet a million dollars this couldn’t happen in my lifetime. You’ve got to come down and see this for yourself.”

When I visited Gallaudet in 1986 and 1987, I found it an astonishing, and moving, experience. I had never before seen an entire community of the deaf, nor had I quite realized (even though I knew this theoretically) that sign language might indeed be a complete language—a language equally suitable for making love or speeches, for flirtation or mathematics. I had to see philosophy and chemistry classes in Sign; to see the absolutely silent mathematics department at work; I had to see deaf bards, Sign poetry, on the campus, and the range and depth of the Gallaudet theater; I had to see the wonderful social scene in the student bar, with hands flying in all directions as a hundred separate conversations proceeded—I had to see all this, see it for myself, before I could be moved from my previous “medical” view of deafness (as a “condition,” a deficit, which had to be treated) to a “cultural” view of the deaf as forming a community with a complete language and culture of its own. I had felt there was something very joyful, even Arcadian. about Gallaudet—and I was not surprised to hear that some of the students were sometimes reluctant to leave its warmth and seclusion and protectiveness, the coziness of a small but complete and self-sufficient world, for the unkind and uncomprehending big world outside.

But there were also tensions and resentments under the surface, which seemed to be simmering, with no possibility of resolution. There was an unspoken tension between faculty and administration—a faculty in which all the teachers sign, and many are deaf. The faculty could communicate with the students, enter their worlds, their minds; but the administration (so I was told) formed a remote governing body, running the school like a corporation, with a certain “benevolent” caretaker attitude to the “handicapped” deaf, but little real feeling for them as a community or as a culture. It was feared by the students and teachers I talked to that the administration, if it could, would reduce still further the percentage of deaf teachers at Gallaudet, and further restrict the teachers’ use of Sign there.

The students I met seemed animated, a joyous group when together, but often fearful and diffident toward the outside world. I had the feeling of some cruel undermining of self-image, even in those who professed “Deaf Pride.” I had the feeling that some of them thought of themselves as children—an echo of the parental attitude of the board (and perhaps of some of the faculty). I had the feeling of a certain passivity among them, a sense that though life might be improved in small ways here and there, it was their lot to be overlooked, to be second-class citizens.

Thursday morning, March 10: A taxi deposits me on Fifth Street opposite the college. The gates have been blocked off for forty-eight hours; my first sight is of a huge, excited, but cheerful and friendly crowd of hundreds barring the entrance to the campus, carrying banners and placards, and signing to one another with great animation. One or two police cars sit parked outside, watching, their engines purring, but they seem a benign presence. There is a good deal of honking from the traffic passing by—I am puzzled by this, but then spot a sign reading HONK FOR A DEAF PRESIDENT. The crowd itself is at once strangely silent and noisy: the signing, the Sign speeches, are utterly silent; but they are punctuated by curious (to my ears and eyes) applause—an excited shaking of the hands above the head, accompanied by high-pitched vocalizations and screams. As I watch, one of the students leaps up on a pillar, and starts signing with much expressiveness and beauty. I can understand nothing of what he says, but I feel the signing is pure and impassioned—his whole body, all his feelings, seem to flow into the signing. I hear a murmured name—Tim Rarus—and realize that this is one of the student leaders, one of the Four. His audience visibly hangs on every sign, rapt, bursting at intervals into tumultuous applause.

As I watch Rarus and his audience, and then let my gaze wander past the barricades to the great campus filled with passionate Sign, with passionate soundless conversation, I get an overwhelming feeling not only of another mode of communication, but of another mode of sensibility, another mode of being—unique, precious, complete in itself. One has only to see these people—even casually, from the outside (and I felt quite as much an outsider as those who walked or drove casually by)—to feel that in their language, their mode of being, they deserve one of their own, that no one not deaf, not signing, could possibly understand them. One feels, intuitively, that interpretation can never be sufficient—that the students would be cut off from any president who was not one of them.

Innumerable banners and signs catch the brilliant March sun: DEAF PREZ NOW is clearly the basic one. There is a certain amount of anger—it could hardly be otherwise—but the anger, on the whole, is clothed in wit: thus a common sign is DR. ZINSER IS NOT READY TO FUNCTION IN THE DEAF WORLD, a retort to Spilman’s malapropos statement about the deaf. Dr. Zinser’s own comment on Nightline the night before (“A deaf individual, one day, will…be president of Gallaudet”) provoked many signs saying WHY NOT MARCH 10, 1988, DR. ZINSER? The papers spoke of “battle” or “confrontation,” which gives a sense of a negotiation, an inching to-and-fro. But the students said: ” ‘Negotiation’? We have forgotten the word. ‘Negotiation’ no longer appears in our dictionaries.” Dr. Zinser kept asking for a “meaningful dialogue,” but this in itself seemed a meaningless request, for there was no longer, there had never been, any intermediate ground on which “dialogue” could take place. The students were concerned with their identity, their survival, an all-or-none: they had four demands, and there was no place for “sometime” or “maybe.”

Indeed Dr. Zinser is anything but popular. It is felt by many not only that she is peculiarly insensitive to the mood of the students—the glaring fact that they do not want her, that the university has been literally barricaded against her—but that she actively stands for and prosecutes an official “hard line.” At first there was a certain sympathy for her: she had been duly chosen and she had no idea what she had been thrown into. But with the passing of each day this view grew less and less tenable, and the whole business began to resemble a contest of wills. Dr. Zinser’s tough, “no-nonsense” stance reached a peak yesterday, when she loudly asserted that she was going to “take charge” of the unruly campus. “If it gets any further out of control,” she said, “I’m going to have to take action to bring it under control.” This incensed the students, who promptly burned her in effigy.

Some of the placards are nakedly furious: one says ZINSER—PUPPET OF SPILMAN, another WE DON’T NEED A WET NURSE, MOMMY SPILMAN. I begin to realize that this is the deaf’s coming of age, saying at last, in a very loud voice: “We’re no longer your children. We no longer want your ‘care.’ “2

I edge past the barricades, the speeches, the signs, and stroll onto the large and beautifully green campus, with its elegant Victorian buildings setting off a most un-Victorian scene. The campus is buzzing, silently, with conversation—everywhere there are pairs or small groups speaking. There is conversing everywhere, and I can understand none of it; I feel like the deaf, the voiceless one today—the handicapped one, the minority, in this great signing community. I see lots of faculty as well as students on the campus: one professor is making and selling lapel buttons (FRAU ZINSER, GO HOME!), which are bought and pinned on as quickly as he makes them. “Isn’t this great?” he says, catching sight of me. “I haven’t had such a good time since Selma. It feels a little like Selma—and the Sixties.”

  1. 1

    One can be very close to if not actually a member of the deaf community without being deaf. Perhaps the most important prerequisite besides the knowledge of and sympathy for deaf people is being a fluent user of American Sign Language: the only hearing people who are ever considered full members of the deaf community are the hearing children of deaf parents for whom Sign is a native language. This is the case with Dr. Henry Klopping, the much-loved superintendent of the California School for the Deaf. One of his former students, talking to me at Gallaudet, signed, “He is deaf, even though he is hearing.”

  2. 2

    This resentment of “paternalism” (or “mommyism”) is very evident in the special edition of the students’ newspaper (The Buff and Blue) published on March 9, in which there is a poem entitled “Dear Mom.” This starts:

    Poor mommy Bassett-Spilman

    How her children do rebel,

    If only they would listen

    To the story she would tell

    and continues in this vein for thirteen verses. (Spilman had appeared on television, pleading for Zinser, saying, “Trust us—she will not disappoint you.”) Copies of this poem had been Xeroxed by the thousand—one could see them fluttering all over the campus.

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