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The Revolution of the Deaf

1.

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.”

A great many dogs are on the campus—there must be fifty or sixty on the great greensward out front. Regulations on owning and keeping dogs here are loose; some are “hearing” dogs, but some are just—dogs. I am struck by the unusual intimacy of the deaf in their relationship with their dogs: perhaps because dogs aren’t verbal, and don’t discriminate. I see one girl signing to her dog; the dog, obediently, turns over, begs, gives a paw. This dog itself bears a white cloth sign on each side: I UNDERSTAND SIGN BETTER THAN SPILMAN. (The chairman of Gallaudet’s board of trustees has occupied her position for seven years while learning hardly any Sign.)

Where there was a hint of something angry, tense, at the barricades, there is an atmosphere of calm and peacefulness inside the campus; more, a sense of joy, and something like festivity. There are dogs everywhere, and babies and children too, friends and little families everywhere, conversing silently in Sign. There are little colored tents on the grass, and hotdog stands selling frankfurters and soda—dogs and hotdogs: it is rather like Woodstock, much more like Woodstock than a grim revolution.

Earlier in the week, the initial reactions to Elisabeth Ann Zinser’s appointment were furious—and uncoordinated; there were a thousand people on the campus, milling around, tearing up toilet paper, destructive in mood. But all at once, as Bob Johnson said, “the whole consciousness changed.” Within hours there seemed to emerge a new, calm, clear consciousness and resolution; a political body, two thousand strong, with a single, focused will of its own. It is the astonishing swiftness with which this organization emerged, the sudden precipitation, from chaos, of a unanimous, communal mind, that astonished everyone who saw it. And yet, of course, this was partly an illusion, for there were all sorts of preparations—and people—behind it.

Central to this sudden “transformation”—and central, thereafter, in organizing and articulating the entire “uprising” (which was far too dignified, too beautifully modulated, to be called an “uproar”)—were the four remarkable young student leaders: Greg Hlibok, the leader of the student body, and his cohorts Tim Rarus, Bridgetta Bourne, and Jerry Covell. Greg Hlibok is a young engineering student, described (by Bob Johnson) as “very engaging, laconic, direct, but in his words a great deal of thought and judgment.” Hlibok’s father, also deaf, runs an engineering firm, and he has two deaf brothers, one an actor, one a financial consultant. Tim Rarus, also born deaf, and from a deaf family, is a perfect foil for Greg: he has an eager spontaneity, a passion, an intensity, that nicely complement Greg’s quietness. I saw, we all saw, more of these two than of the others, but all four worked closely, in absolute harmony, as beautifully coordinated as a string quartet.

The four had already been elected before the uprising—indeed while Jerry Lee was still president—but took on a very special, unprecedented role during the months that followed President Lee’s resignation.

Hlibok and his fellow leaders never incited or inflamed students—on the contrary, they were always calming, restraining, and moderating in their influence, but were highly sensitive to the “feel” of the campus and, beyond this, of the deaf community at large, and felt with them that a crucial time had arrived. They started to organize the students to press for a deaf president, and to seek support from deaf leaders and communities all around the country. Thus, much calculation, much preparation, preceded the “transformation,” the emergence of a communal mind. It was not an order appearing from total chaos (even though it might have seemed so). Rather, it was the sudden manifestation of a latent order, like the sudden crystallization of a super-saturated solution—a crystallization precipitated by the naming of Zinser as president on Sunday night. This was a qualitative transformation, from passivity to activity, and in the moral no less than in the political sense, it was a revolution. Suddenly the deaf were no longer passive, scattered, and powerless; suddenly they have discovered the calm strength of union.

I talk in the afternoon with a couple of deaf students. A young woman of about twenty tells me:

I’m from a hearing family…. My whole life I’ve felt pressures, hearing pressures on me—“You can’t do it in the hearing world, you can’t make it in the hearing world”—and right now all that pressure is lifted from me. I feel free, all of a sudden, full of energy now. You keep hearing “you can’t, you can’t,” but I can now. The words “deaf and dumb” will be destroyed forever; instead there’ll be “deaf and able.”

These were very much the terms Bob Johnson had used, when we first talked, when he spoke of the deaf as laboring under “an illusion of powerlessness,” and of how, all of a sudden, this illusion had been shattered.

2.

Many revolutions, transformations, awakenings happen as a response to immediate (and intolerable) circumstances. What is so remarkable about the Gallaudet strike of 1988 is its historical consciousness, the sense of deep historical perspective that informed it. This was evident on campus; as soon as I arrived I spotted a picket saying LAURENT CLERC WANTS DEAF PREZ. HE IS NOT HERE BUT HIS SPIRIT IS HERE. SUPPORT US. I overheard a journalist say, “Who the hell’s Laurent Clerc?” But his name, and his persona, unknown to the hearing world, are known to virtually everyone in the deaf world. Clerc is a founding father, a heroic figure, in deaf history and culture. The first emancipation of the deaf—their achievement of education and literacy, of self-respect and the respect of their fellows—was largely inspired by the achievement and person of Laurent Clerc, a French writer and teacher who was himself born deaf.3

Clerc not only founded the American Asylum in Hartford in 1817, with Thomas Gallaudet, whose wife was deaf, but he introduced a sign language (“French” sign language). Clerc was, in effect, the spiritual leader of the world community of the deaf until his death fifty-two years later. It was immensely moving, then, to see the placard bearing his name, and one could not help feeling that Clerc was here, on the campus, and that he was, albeit posthumously, the authentic spirit and voice of the revolt. (Clerc did indeed visit Gallaudet College in 1867, and in a stirring speech to the students encouraged them to aspire boldly, and to feel that no academic or professional position was “above” them.)

The French sign system imported by Clerc rapidly amalgamated with the indigenous sign languages here—the deaf generate sign languages wherever they are; it is for them the easiest and most natural mode of communication—to form a uniquely expressive and powerful hybrid, American Sign Language (ASL).

Given this strong sign language, the previously despised and illiterate deaf of America now found that a full school education was open to them, as well as a new and more generous understanding by the general public; and with this, the deaf became literate, self-respecting, articulate. By 1830 a generation of deaf had arisen that could hold its own in society, in a way that could not have been imagined a dozen years earlier. (This was a recapitulation of events in France, in the previous century, when the introduction and use of Sign in education, by the Abbé de l’Epée in the 1750s, had within a generation transformed the lives, the status, of the deaf in France.)

Other residential schools for the deaf soon opened throughout the United States, all using the Sign that had evolved at Hartford. Virtually all the teachers in these schools were educated at Hartford and most had met the charismatic Clerc. They contributed their own indigenous signs and later spread an increasingly polished and generalized ASL in many parts of the country, and the standards and aspirations of the deaf continually rose. By the 1850s it had become clear that higher education was needed—the deaf, previously illiterate, now needed a college. In 1857, Thomas Gallaudet’s son, Edward, only twenty-four but uniquely equipped through his background (his mother was deaf, and he learned Sign as a primary language), his sensibilities, and his gifts, was appointed principal of the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and the Dumb and the Blind,4 conceiving and hoping from the start that it could be transformed into a college, with federal support. In 1864 this was achieved, and what was later to become Gallaudet College received its charter from Congress.

Edward Gallaudet’s own full and extraordinary life5 lasted well into the present century, and spanned great (though not always admirable) changes in attitudes to the deaf and their education. In particular, gathering force from the 1860s, and promoted to a large extent in the US by Alexander Graham Bell, was an attitude that opposed the use of signing, and sought to forbid its use in schools and institutions. Gallaudet himself fought against this, but was overborne by the climate of the times, and by a certain ferocity and intransigence of mind that he was too reasonable to understand.6

By the time of Gallaudet’s death, his college was world-famous and had shown once and for all that the deaf, given the opportunity and the means, could match the hearing in every sphere of academic activity—and for that matter, in athletic activity, too (the spectacular gym at Gallaudet, opened in 1880, was one of the finest in the country; and the football huddle was actually invented at Gallaudet, for players to pass secret tactics among themselves). But Gallaudet himself was one of the last defenders of Sign in an educational world that had turned its back on signing, and with his death the college lost—and because the college had become the symbol and aspiration of the deaf all over the world, the deaf world also lost—its greatest and last proponent of Sign in education.

With this, Sign, which had been the dominant language at the college before, went underground, and became confined to a colloquial use. The students continued to use it among themselves, but it was no longer considered a legitimate language for formal discourse or teaching.7 Thus the century between Thomas Gallaudet’s founding of the American Asylum and Edward Gallaudet’s death in 1917 saw the rise and fall, the legitimation and delegitimation, of Sign in America.

The suppression of Sign in the 1880s had a deleterious effect on the deaf for seventy-five years, not only on their education and academic achievements but on their image of themselves and on their entire community and culture. Such community and culture as did exist remained in isolated pockets—there was no longer the sense there had once been, at least the sense that was intimated in the “golden age” of the 1840s, of a nation-wide (even worldwide) community and culture.

But the last thirty years have again seen a reversal, and indeed a relegitimation and resurrection of Sign as never before; and with this, and much else, a discovery or rediscovery of the cultural aspects of deafness—a strong sense of community and communication and culture, of self-definition as a unique mode of being.

The scientific relegitimation of Sign began in the 1950s, when a young professor of English and Chaucer scholar, William Stokoe, came to Gallaudet. Stokoe thought he had come to teach Chaucer to the deaf; but he very soon perceived that he had been thrown, by good fortune or chance, into one of the world’s most extraordinary linguistic environments. Sign language, at this time, was not seen as a “proper” language, sometimes not even by the demoralized deaf themselves, but as a sort of pantomime or gestural code, or perhaps a sort of broken English on the hands. It was Stokoe’s genius to see, and prove, that it was nothing of the sort; that it satisfied every linguistic criterion of a genuine language, in its syntax and plenitude of operators, its (Chomskian) capacity to generate an infinite number of propositions. In 1960 Stokoe published Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication System of the American Deaf, and in 1965 (with Casterline and Croneborg) A Dictionary of American Sign.

Stokoe’s work led to the most refined linguistic analyses of Sign, including some of the special forms, such as Art Sign, that are an essential part of deaf culture. And this in turn has led to the immensely important studies of Ursula Bellugi and her colleagues at the Salk Institute (as well as of others at Gallaudet and elsewhere), which look at the neural basis of Sign, the powers of specially enhanced visual perception and organization that have long been recognized, if only anecdotally, in the deaf. It has been established that the “language areas” of the left cerebral hemisphere, which are associated with speech, are also crucial for Sign, and that destruction of these areas of the brain can cause an inability to understand Sign—a Sign aphasia. It has also been found in those who are born deaf, and most especially those who are exposed to Sign from the start, that what would normally be auditory areas of the brain associated with hearing can be “reallocated” for purposes of visual analysis; that with constant exposure to and use of a visual language, the entire brain of the deaf person can adapt itself for a special, supervisual sensibility and organization,8 a special enhancement of visual powers that may not occur in any other situation.9

What neuroscientists have insufficiently regarded or respected, and have scarcely yet begun to explore, is the unusual quality of imagination and imagery in the deaf, particularities that the brain and mind have been taught through being exposed from the start to an exclusively visual sensibility.10 The language and culture and rich differentness of the deaf (unlike those, say, of the Welsh) have a neurological basis. It is not just culture (the culturally transmitted) that is different in the deaf, but nature, the nature of their experiences, dispositions, and thoughts. Deaf culture is reared upon deaf nature, though at this point one almost has an impulse to drop the word “deaf,” and replace it with “visual,” and to speak rather of an intensely visual culture emerging from a physiological enhancement of visuality.

Cognitive and behavioral studies at Gallaudet and elsewhere have indicated that this unique form of visuality may in turn predispose the deaf to specifically “visual” (or logical/spatial) forms of memory and thinking; that, given complex problems with many stages, the deaf tend to arrange these, and their hypotheses, in logical space, whereas the hearing arrange them in a temporal (or “auditory”) order.11 Thus it is not only the form of language, but the form of perception and of thinking itself, that may be different in the deaf, especially those given full freedom to exploit their own way of being. This is fully recognized by the students and the staff at Gallaudet, and methods of teaching emphasizing visual and spatial forms are clearly respected. This seems to be the case, for example, in the very strong mathematics department at Gallaudet, where a majority of the faculty is deaf.

The validation of Sign as a complete gestural language, with specific physiological correlates in the brain, over the past thirty years, cannot be wholly separated from its cultural aspects, for the phenomenon of Sign is at once biological and cultural. The last few decades have seen the development and rise of many art forms and cultural forms unique to the deaf—most notably those of deaf theater and Sign poetry—Sign arts that have no correlate in other languages, and cannot be translated satisfactorily into speech. Indeed, this is true of the entire deaf experience: it cannot be conveyed or comprehended properly without Sign. There has been a proliferation of research, some by the deaf themselves, on the cultural aspects of Sign, on all that goes into the making of a deaf culture and community.12

This leads to the political aspects of deafness: the need for full recognition of the unique deaf community and culture; for full autonomy, for the power to decide and to legislate for themselves; the need for the deaf to be considered the equals of the hearing in every way, and given identical rights.13 As the linguistic and cultural run together, so both of these run into the political. Along with the rising status of sign language and deaf culture has come an increasing awareness of the deaf in our midst, and an increasing awareness on their part of their autonomy and power. But all of this has been gathering under the surface; it did not become clear (at least to the outside world, and even to many within the deaf community) until it exploded, in March of this year.

To understand the spirit of that explosion one has, I believe, to go back to Clerc. His teachings, until his death, had the effect of widening the nineteenth-century view of “human nature,” of introducing a relativistic and egalitarian sense of great natural range, not just a dichotomy of “normal” and “abnormal.”14 We speak of our nineteenth-century forebears as rigid, moralistic, repressive, censorious, but the tone of Clerc’s voice, and of those who listened to him, conveyed quite the opposite impression: that this was an age very hospitable to “the natural”—to the whole variety and range of natural proclivities—and not disposed (or at least less disposed than our own) to make moralizing or clinical judgments on what is “normal” and what is “abnormal.”15 A sense of this openness is suggested in the title of Harlan Lane’s book on the deaf, When the Mind Hears; and its relative absence today, at least among the administrators of Gallaudet, was given the same form in reverse when (on Nightline) the deaf actress Marlee Matlin said (of the hearing administration), “You people are deaf in the mind.” Lane’s title, consciously, and Matlin’s outburst, consciously or not, both echo the words of Victor Hugo to a deaf friend, Ferdinand Berthier: “What matters deafness of the ear, when the mind hears? The one true deafness, the incurable deafness, is that of the mind.”

The accusation that the Gallaudet authorities were “deaf in the mind” implies no malevolence, but rather a misdirected paternalism, which, the deaf feel, is anything but benign—based as it is on pity and condescension, and on an implicit view of them as “incompetent,” if not diseased. Special objection has been made to some of the doctors involved in Gallaudet’s affairs, who, it is felt, tend to see the deaf merely as having diseased ears, and not as whole people adapted to another sensory mode.16 In general, it is felt that this offensive paternalism hinges on a value judgment by the hearing: their saying, “We know what is best for you. Let us handle things”—whether this is in response to the choice of language (allowing, or not allowing, Sign) or in judging capacities for education or jobs. It is still sometimes felt, or again felt—after the more spacious opportunities offered in the mid-nineteenth century—that the deaf should be printers, or work in the post office, do “humble” jobs, and not aspire to higher education. The deaf, in other words, felt they were being dictated to, that they were being treated as children. Bob Johnson told me a typical story:

It’s been my impression, after having been here for several years, that the Gallaudet faculty and staff treat students as pets. One student, for example, went to the Outreach office; they had announced there would be an opportunity to practice interviewing for jobs. The idea was to sign up for a genuine interview and learn how to do it. So he went and put his name on a list. The next day a woman from the Outreach office called and told him she had set up the interview, had found an interpreter, had set up the time, had arranged for a car to take him, and she couldn’t understand why he got mad at her. He told her, “The reason I was doing this was so that I could learn how to call the person, and learn how to get the car, and learn how to get the interpreter, and you’re doing it for me. That’s not what I want here.” That’s the meat of the issue.

Far from being childlike or incompetent, as they were “supposed” to be (and as so often they supposed themselves to be), the students at Gallaudet showed high competence in managing the March revolt. This impressed me especially when I wandered into the communications room, the nerve center of Gallaudet during the strike, with its central office filled with TTY-equipped telephones. Here the deaf students contacted the press and television—invited them in, gave interviews, compiled news, issued press releases, around the clock—masterfully; here they raised funds for a “Deaf Prez Now” campaign; here they solicited, successfully, support from Congress, presidential candidates, union leaders. They gained the world’s ear, at this extraordinary time, when they needed it.

Even the administration listened—so that after four days of seeing the students as foolish and rebellious children who needed to be brought into line, after years of seeing things in hard, inflexible, authoritarian terms, Dr. Zinser was forced to pause, to listen, to reexamine her own long-held assumptions, to see things in a new light—and, finally, to resign. She did so in terms that were moving and seemed genuine, saying that neither she nor the board had anticipated the fervor and commitment of the protesters, or had seen that their protest was the leading edge of a burgeoning national movement for deaf rights. “I have responded to this extraordinary social movement of deaf people,” she said as she tendered her resignation on the night of March 10, and spoke of coming to see this as “a very special moment in time,” one that was “unique, a civil rights moment in history for deaf people.”

3.

Friday, March 11: The mood on campus is completely transformed. A battle has been won. There is elation. More battles have to be fought. Placards with the students’ four demands have been replaced with placards saying “31/2,” because the resignation of Dr. Zinser only goes halfway toward meeting the first demand, that there be a deaf president immediately. But there is also a gentleness that is new, the tension and anger of Thursday have gone, along with the possibility of a drawn-out, humiliating defeat. A largeness of spirit is everywhere apparent—released now, I partly feel, by the grace and the words with which Zinser resigned, words in which she aligned herself with, and wished the best for, what she called an “extraordinary social movement.”

Support is coming in from every quarter: three hundred deaf students from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf arrive, elated and exhausted, after a fifteen-hour bus ride from Rochester, New York. Deaf schools throughout the country are closed in total support. The deaf flood in from every state—I see signs from Iowa and Alabama, from Canada, from South America, as well as from Europe, even from New Zealand. Events at Gallaudet have dominated the national press for forty-eight hours. Virtually every car going past Gallaudet honks now, and the streets are filled with supporters as the time for the march on the Capitol comes near. And yet, for all the honking, the speeches, the banners, the pickets, an extraordinary atmosphere of quietness and dignity prevails.

Noon: There are now about 2,500 people, a thousand students from Gallaudet and the rest supporters, as we start on a slow, joyful walk to the Capitol. As we walk a strange and wonderful sense of quietness grows, which puzzles me. It is not wholly physical (indeed, there is rather a lot of noise in a way—the earsplitting, but to them inaudible, yells of the deaf, as a start), and I decide it is, rather, the quietness of a moral drama. The sense of history in the air gives it this strange quietness.

Slowly, for there are children, babies, and some physically disabled among us (some deaf-blind, some ataxic, and some on crutches), slowly, and with a mixed sense of resolve and festivity, we walk to the Capitol, and there, in the clear March sun that has shone the entire week, we unfurl banners and raise pickets. One great banner says WE STILL HAVE A DREAM, and another, with the individual letters carried by fourteen people, simply says HELP US CONGRESS.

We are packed together, but there is no sense of a crowd, rather of an extraordinary camaraderie. Just before the speeches start, I find myself hugged—I think it must be someone I know, but it is a student bearing a sign ALABAMA, who hugs me, punches my shoulder, smiles, as a comrade. We are strangers, but yet, at this special moment, we are comrades.

There are many speeches—from Greg Hlibok, the student body president, from some of the faculty, from congressmen and senators. I listen for a while:

It is an irony [says one, a professor at Gallaudet] that Gallaudet has never had a deaf chief executive officer. Virtually every black college has a black president, testimony that black people are leading themselves. Virtually every women’s college has a woman as president, as testimony that women are capable of leading themselves. It’s long past time that Gallaudet had a deaf president as testimony that deaf people are leading themselves.

I let my attention wander, taking in the scene as a whole: thousands of people, each intensely individual but bound and united with a single sentiment. After the speeches, there is a break of an hour, during which a number of people go in to see congressmen. But most of the group, who have brought packed lunches in on their backs, now sit and eat and talk, or rather sign, in the great plaza before the Capitol—and this, for me, as for all those who have come or chanced to see it, is one of the most wonderful scenes of all. For here are a thousand or more people signing freely, in a public place—not privately, at home, or in the enclosure of Gallaudet, but openly and unself-consciously, and beautifully, before the Capitol.

The press has reported all the speeches, but missed what is surely equally significant. They failed to give the watching world an actual vision of the fullness and vividness, the unmedical life, of the deaf. And once more, as I wander among the huge throng of signers, as they chat over sandwiches and sodas before the Capitol, I feel the utter naturalness and sufficiency of their lives, and the sense of them as necessarily, but passionately and beautifully, other, unique, separate from yet integral to us. I find myself remembering the words of a deaf student at the California School for the Deaf, who had signed on television:

We are a unique people, with our own culture, our own language [American Sign Language, which has just recently been recognized as a language in itself], and that sets us apart from hearing people.

I walk back from the Capitol with Bob Johnson. I myself tend to be apolitical, and have difficulty even comprehending the vocabulary of politics. Bob, a pioneer Sign linguist, who has taught and researched at Gallaudet for years, says as we walk back:

It’s really remarkable, because in all my experience I’ve seen deaf people be passive and accept the kind of treatment that hearing people give them. I’ve seen them willing, or seem to be willing, to be “clients,” when in fact they should be controlling things…. Now all at once there’s been a transformation in the consciousness of what it means to be a deaf person in the world, to take responsibility for things. The illusion that deaf people are powerless—all at once, now, that illusion has gone, and that means the whole nature of things can change for them now. I’m extremely enthusiastic about what I’m going to see over the next few years.

I don’t quite understand what you mean by ‘clients,’ ” I say.

You know Tim Rarus [Bob explains]—the one you saw at the barricades this morning, whose signing you so admired as pure and passionate—well, he summed up in two words what this transformation is all about. He said, “It’s very simple. No deaf president, no university,” and then he shrugged his shoulders, looked at the TV camera, and that was his whole statement. That was the first time deaf people ever realized that a colonial client-industry like this can’t exist without the client. It’s a billion-dollar industry for hearing people. If deaf people don’t participate, the industry is gone.

Saturday has a delightful, holiday air about it. It is a day off (some of the students have been working virtually nonstop from the first demonstration on Sunday evening), and a day for cookouts on the campus. But even here the issues are not forgotten. The very names of the food have a satirical edge: the choice lies between “Spilman dogs” and “Board-burgers.” The campus is festive, now that students and schoolchildren from a score of other states have come in (a little deaf black girl from Arkansas, seeing all the signers around her, says in Sign, “It’s like a family to me today”). There has also been an influx of deaf artists from all over, some coming to document this unique event in the history of the deaf, and some to celebrate it (in lyrical paintings and poems).

Greg Hlibok is relaxed, but still very vigilant: “We feel that we are in control. We are taking things easy. We don’t want to go too far.” Two days earlier, Dr. Zinser was threatening to “take control.” That would have been an imposed, foreign control. What one sees today is self-control, that quiet consciousness and confidence that come from inner strength and certainty.

Sunday evening, March 13: The board met today, for nine hours. There were nine hours of tension, waiting,…no one knowing what was to come. Then the door opened, and Philip Bravin, one of the four deaf board members and known to all the deaf students, came out. His appearance—and not Spilman’s—already told the story, before he made his revelations in Sign. He was speaking now, he signed, as chairman of the board, for Spilman had resigned. And his first task now, with the board behind him, was the happy one of announcing that King Jordan had been elected the new president.

King Jordan, deafened at the age of twenty-one, had been at Gallaudet for fifteen years; he was dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, a popular, modest, and unusually sane man, who had at first supported Zinser when she was selected. Greatly moved, Jordan, in simultaneous sign and speech, said:

I am thrilled to accept the invitation of the board of trustees to become the president of Gallaudet University. This is a historic moment for deaf people around the world. This week we can truly say that we together, united, have overcome our reluctance to stand for our rights. The world has watched the deaf community come of age. We will no longer accept limits on what we can achieve. The highest praise goes to the students of Gallaudet for showing us exactly even now how one can seize an idea with such force that it becomes a reality.

With this, the dam burst, and jubilation burst out everywhere. When everyone then returned to Gallaudet for a final, triumphal meeting, Jordan said, “They know now that the cap on what they can achieve has been lifted. We know that deaf people can do anything hearing people can except hear.” And Greg Hlibok, hugging Jordan, added, “We have climbed to the top of the mountain, and we have climbed together.”

Monday, March 14: Gallaudet looks normal on the surface. The barricades have been taken down, the campus is open. The “uprising” has lasted exactly one week—from last Sunday evening, March 6, when Dr. Zinser was forced on an unwilling university, to the happy resolution last night, that utterly different Sunday evening, when all was changed.

But has all been changed? Will there be a lasting “transformation of consciousness”? Will the deaf at Gallaudet, and the deaf community at large, emboldened by the events of this week, indeed find the opportunities they seek? Will we, the hearing, allow them these opportunities? Allow them to be themselves, a unique culture in our midst, yet admit them as coequals to every sphere of activity? One hopes the events at Gallaudet will be a beginning.

Postscript

It took seven days to create the world, it took us seven days to change it”—this was the joke of the students, flashed in Sign from one end of the campus to another. And with this feeling they took their spring break, going back to their families throughout the country, carrying the euphoric news and mood with them.

But objective change, historical change, does not happen in a week, even though its first prerequisite, “the transformation of consciousness,” may happen, as it did, in a day. “Many of the students,” Bob Johnson told me, “don’t realize the extent and the time that are going to be involved in changing, though they do have a sense now of their strength and power…. The structure of oppression is so deeply engrained.”

And yet there are beginnings. There is a new “image” and a new movement, not merely at Gallaudet but throughout the deaf world. News reports, especially on television, have made the silent deaf articulate and visible across the entire nation. But the profoundest effect, of course, has been on the deaf themselves. It has welded them into a community, a worldwide community, as never before. There has already been a deep impact upon deaf children. One of King Jordan’s first acts, when the college reconvened after the spring break, was to visit the grade school at Gallaudet, and talk to the children there, something no president had ever done before. Such concern has to affect their perception of what they can become. (Deaf children sometimes think they will “turn into” hearing adults, or else be feeble, put-upon creatures if they do not.)

All sorts of changes, administrative, educational, social, psychological, are already beginning at Gallaudet. But what is clearest at this point is the much-altered bearing of its students, a bearing that conveys a new, wholly unself-conscious sense of pleasure and vindication, of confidence and dignity. This new sense of themselves respresents a decisive break from the past, which could not have been imagined just a few months ago.17

  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.

  3. 3

    Indeed, Harlan Lane uses the life and voice of Laurent Clerc as the vehicle for his history of the deaf, When the Mind Hears (Random House, 1984). A visiting professor at Gallaudet this year, Lane took an active part in helping the student movement in March.

  4. 4

    There was soon a division of the ways, with blind pupils being educated separately from the “deaf and dumb” (as the congenitally deaf, with little or no speech, used to be called). Among the two thousand deaf students at Gallaudet now, there are about twenty students who are both deaf and blind. These students, of course, must develop astonishing tactile sensibility and intelligence, as Helen Keller did.

  5. 5

    See Edward Miner Gallaudet, History of the College for the Deaf, 1857–1907 (Gallaudet University Press, 1983).

  6. 6

    The contestants in this struggle, Bell and Gallaudet—both the sons of deaf mothers (but mothers with completely different attitudes to their own deafness), each passionately devoted to the deaf in his own way—were about as different as two human beings can be. See Richard Winefield, Never the Twain Shall Meet: Bell, Gallaudet, and the Communications Debate (Gallaudet University Press, 1987).

  7. 7

    There exists a condition of diglossia at Gallaudet, and in other deaf communities, where the deaf use ASL among themselves, but instantly switch to a signed form of English if they have to speak in the presence of the nondeaf.

  8. 8

    This fundamental work—part physiological, part behavioral—on “visual enhancement” in the congenitally deaf is now readily accessible in two fascinating recent studies: Howard Poizner, Edward S. Klima, and Ursula Bellugi, What the Hands Reveal about the Brain (MIT Press, 1987), and Helen Neville, “Cerebral Organization for Spatial Attention,” in J. Stiles-Davis, M. Kritchevsky, and U. Bellugi, eds., Spatial Cognition: Brain Bases and Development (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1988).

  9. 9

    This applies also, though to a smaller extent, to the “hearing deaf,” i.e., the hearing children of deaf parents who have learned Sign as a primary language.

  10. 10

    This early adaptation of the brain to the visual in general and visual signs in particular may be the reason why the congenitally or “prelingually” deaf who learn Sign in infancy, as their first language, achieve an inimitably fluent and graceful signing, which the “postlingually” deafened (who grew up in an aural-oral mode, dominated by auditory sensibilities and speech) find it difficult or impossible to achieve. It is as if the brain has to be molded from the start to the “super” visuality needed for perfect signing. Highly gifted polyglots, who may speak a dozen languages, may not find it nearly as easy to learn Sign, because their nervous systems are already “set” in such an auditory mode. Deaf signers, in contrast, can usually acquire other sign languages with relative ease; this may in part be due to the sharing or similarity of various linguistic conventions, but it suggests, also, the peculiar visual giftedness that all native signers have.

  11. 11

    There is a considerable and somewhat controversial literature on the character of cognitive functions among the deaf. See, for example, John Belmont, Michael A. Karchmer, and James W. Bourg, “Structural Influences on Deaf and Hearing Children’s Recall of Temporal/ Spatial Incongruent Letter Strings,” Educational Psychology, Vol. 3, Nos. 3 and 4 (1983), pp. 259–274.

  12. 12

    Much of this work has been published by the Linstok Press, set up by William Stokoe, as well as by Gallaudet University Press and the National Association of the Deaf. See especially Sign Language and the Deaf Community: Essays in Honor of William Stokoe (AND Press, 1981).

  13. 13

    For example, few of the deaf sought or obtained higher degrees twenty years ago—there were fewer than half-a-dozen deaf Ph.D.’s in the world. But the number of deaf scholars and administrators has steadily risen; now there are hundreds with much experience and Ph.D.’s—such as Harvey Corson, superintendent of the Louisiana School for the Deaf, and I. King Jordan, dean of the Gallaudet School of Arts and Sciences, the two deaf finalists considered—but rejected—for the position of president of Gallaudet by the board.

  14. 14

    This sense of the range of nature, and our respect (even if uncomprehending) for this range, is apparent again and again in Clerc’s brief Autobiography. “Every creature, every work of God, is admirably made. What we find faulty in its kind turns to our advantage without our knowing it.” Or, again, “We can only thank God for the rich diversity of his creation, and hope that in the future world the reason for it will be explained.”

    Clerc’s concept of “God,” “creation,” “nature”—humble, appreciative, mild, unresentful—is perhaps rooted in his sense of himself, and other deaf, as different but nonetheless complete beings. It is in great contrast to the half-terrible, half-Promethean fury of Alexander Graham Bell, who constantly sees deafness as a swindle and a privation and a tragedy, and is constantly concerned with “normalizing” the deaf, “correcting” God’s blunders, and, in general, “improving on” nature. Clerc argues for cultural richness, tolerance, diversity. Bell argues for technology, for genetic engineering, hearing aids, telephones. The two types are wholly opposite but both, clearly, have their parts to play in the world.

  15. 15

    This hospitality to a wide range of proclivities and dispositions, this lack of labeling and stigmatizing, persists as a continuing tolerance and civility among the deaf. I had occasion to see one expression of this on my visit—for I went to Gallaudet with a friend of mine who has Tourette’s Syndrome of some severity, a condition which, with its convulsive movements and tics, nearly always attracts negative attention in New York. At Gallaudet there was no staring, no “diagnosing,” no “reaction” at all—simply an immediate accepting of him as another human being.

  16. 16

    See How You Gonna Get to Heaven If You Can’t Talk with Jesus: On Depathologizing Deafness by James Woodward (T.J. Publishers, 1982).

  17. 17

    I am deeply grateful to Robert Johnson and Harlan Lane for their great help to me during my visit to Gallaudet and thereafter. I could not have written this piece without them.

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