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In the late 1600’s, an extended family from Weald, England settled on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in New England. The family carried a strong hereditary deafness gene, and as they married and intermarried, the rate of deaf people born on the island rose steadily. By the 1700’s almost everyone on the island had a deaf family member or two. Because of the high rate of deafness, the society on the island was completely different from mainstream, mainland society.
Mainland New England at this time was generally a terrible place for deaf people to live. Many people believed that deafness was a punishment from God. While the families of deaf children may have developed home signs, mainstream society could not understand these rudimentary signs, usually only good for expressing basic needs and requests, and different from home to home. Scholars debated about whether a deaf person could reason and learn like a hearing person. There were almost no career opportunities for deaf adults. The best they could hope for was to be trained to do manual labor for someone else’s business.
The prospects for deaf people on Martha’s Vineyard were completely different. Many of the former residents of the island were interviewed, and they paint an idyllic picture of what it was like to live in Martha’s Vineyard during this time. Because everyone had a deaf family member, everyone in the community knew sign language. Deaf people were farmers, store clerks, anything they wanted to be. Hearing people would sign to each other over the large expanses the island farms created, a deaf person could walk into a store and the clerk would always know sign. Deaf people were even elected to high political office, becoming mayors and council members for the island, a thing unheard of in the rest of the country. When telling stories about the community, the people who were being interviewed could only remember after much prompting if the people they were talking about were hearing or deaf.
The rare deaf/hearing equality experienced in Martha’s Vineyard is still remarkable today. In a society where hearing people are ignorant about deaf issues and can be very rude, a place like Martha’s Vineyard seems particularly wonderful. The equality that was shared by everyone, and the prejudices about deaf people that didn’t exist, make the little island community seem like the perfect place. Many deaf people consider it the ultimate utopia.
Ironically, the opening of the first deaf school in Hartford, Connecticut was a big reason why the hereditary deafness on the island petered out. Many deaf people from the island attended the school, met and married other deaf people who’s deafness wasn’t hereditary, and lived and had children near the school on the mainland of New England. As more and more of the population moved away, less and less deaf children were born on the island. In 1952, hereditary deafness died on the island with the death of Katie West. Though the community is gone today, it’s signs live on. Children attending the Hartford school mixed their signs in with the French Sign Language Laurent Clerc brought with him from Paris, creating much of the uniquely beautiful American Sign Language that exists today.
OK, this is a little long and wordy. What can I say? I’m back in school and I’m feeling more schollarly-like. 🙂
he Deaf President Now protests of 1988 were a huge turning point in Deaf history. Until this point, Deaf people had not been responsible for their own leadership. Even Gallaudet University, a place many people believe to be the Mecca of Deaf Culture, was run by a hearing president and a hearing board of directors. Over a week of intense protest, all that changed. Deaf people snatched their destiny from the hands of the hearing and installed a Deaf president and a 51% Deaf board of directors at the college, reigning in a new era of Deaf Pride. While the Deaf President Now rallies were empowering, it raises a question in my eyes. The Civil Rights era kicked off in this country with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. All through the 1960s, groups raised up and demanded to be treated equally. Why did it take the Deaf community almost 30 years to insist upon their rights as well? I believe there were three root causes: the sad state of Deaf Education for many years, the fact that Gallaudet University had the same hearing president from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, and the uncertainty of the Deaf community that hearing people would let a Deaf president be successful.
What really happened during the Deaf President Now protest? Several campus leaders got wind of the fact that the current President, a hearing man, would be stepping down. They immediately started lobbying for a Deaf president to be appointed. Things looked to be going well when the Board of Trustees announced their final three candidates for the position. Two were Deaf, and only one was hearing. Unfortunately, the Board decided to pick the only hearing candidate as the next president. Worse still, the woman, named Elisabeth A. Zinser, didn’t even know sign language. The Board announced their decision rather cowardly, at a local hotel, and not on campus where they knew there would be extremely unpopular. Students awaiting the decision at the Gallaudet campus were upset that the decision had not been announced to the group it mattered the most to, and they also wanted answers. They all decided to march to the hotel and demand to know why a Deaf president wasn’t chosen, and they made it just in time to interrupt a national press conference. With a whole nation watching, the Board had to play nice. They offered to meet with the Student Body the next morning.
All night, student leaders met to decide what their demands would be. They finally settled on four concrete demands: 1) Zinser must resign and a Deaf president selected; 2) Spillman, the director of the Board who continually brushed aside student concerns, must resign; 3) The percentage of Deaf members on the Board of Trustees must be increased to at least 51%; 4) There must be no reprisals against any of the protesters. Just before the large student meeting, the student leaders presented the Board of Trustees with their demands. The board rejected all of them. As soon as the meeting started and Spillman started to speak, one of the student leaders jumped up on the podium. “They have rejected our demands” he signed, “there is no reason for us to stay. Let’s all leave.” As the director futilely tried to regain everyone’s attention, waves of people moved out the doors. They traveled off campus to the nation’s capital where the protest was kicked off in full force.
Protests continued constantly for several more days. Students refused to attend classes, and the whole campus completely ceased to function. When Zinser arrived in Washington DC to take over the presidency, students flattened the tires of several buses which blocked all access to the campus. Zinser could not even get onto the campus of the University she was supposed to be leading. She called a meeting with the student leaders and told them she would put a 51% deaf majority on the Board of Directors and would guarantee no reprisals, but that she wouldn’t step down, and wouldn’t let Spillman resign. Zinser was polite and understanding, and urged them to work with her. Though the student leaders felt that she was a good person, the knew they would never get what they wanted if they gave up now. Again they marched to the capital and resumed protesting in full force. Faced with a non-functioning University that no one could even enter or leave, the Board of Trustees had no choice. On March 13, 1988, the Board agreed to all student demands and I. King Jordan was elected the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University.
So why did it take Deaf people 30 years longer than hearing people to stand up for their rights? One of the most important reasons is that, until recently, the catastrophic state of Deaf Education in America kept Deaf people from entering many important careers. Early in the 20th century, Alexander Graham Bell and others advocated for a completely oral approach to teaching Deaf students. They refused to let them sign, took them out of the classroom so they could attend thousands of hours of speech therapy, and encouraged them to go to trade school as opposed to university. This method was completely uneffective and stressed the importance of sounding “normal” at the expense of education. At the mercy of their hearing parents, Deaf people had little to no say in the kind of education they recieved. Many Deaf people graduated from these programs barely literate, trapped in blue collar jobs, and unqualified to lead a major institution. In the 1970’s, when sign language came into it’s own as a true and valid language, Deaf education changed in this country; Oral only programs fell out of favor, higher education was stressed, and Deaf people began to hold white collar jobs and positions of leadership. Suddenly, they were qualified to be president.
In 1969, Edward C. Merrill, Jr. was elected the 4th hearing president of Gallaudet University, and he didn’t step down from that position until the 1980’s. While Deaf people may have wanted a Deaf person to be president of the University before the 1980’s, they didn’t have a chance to stand up for their rights until the president decided to step down. Another hearing president was elected after Merrill, but when they heard he was going to resign, students acted immediately. They started a grassroots movement to have a Deaf president installed, and they were passing out DPN buttons almost a year before the last hearing president resigned. Having a hearing president from the 1960s up to the 1980s didn’t allow Deaf people to assert their position any sooner, but when they saw their opening, they took it almost immediately.
Another small factor in electing a Deaf president was that Deaf people were not sure hearing people would let a Deaf president succeed. There were two main reasons for this concern: 1)Gallaudet University gets most of it’s funding from the United States Congress. 2) Deaf people tend to hear from hearing people all about what they can’t do, and deal with discrimination called “Audism” all their life. If the hearing people in Congress were prejudiced against Deaf people, or refused to work with the president, Gallaudet University could be in serious financial trouble. Everyone was certain that a Deaf person could handle any and all aspects of the job itself, but they didn’t know if the hearing community would pause long enough to put aside their Audism and give a Deaf president a chance. Though these concerns were ultimately proven to be unfounded (Congressional support actually increased by a bunch under I. King Jordan), at the time they were real concerns for many in the Deaf community. Not that a Deaf president could do the job, but that a Deaf president would be allowed to do the job. A superficiall worry, this would certainly not have held the community back from insisting on a Deaf president, but it may have stalled things temporarily.
Though the civil rights in this country happened for most minority groups in the 1960’s I believe that the Deaf community was not behind the times by waiting until the 1980’s to stand up for their rights. Deaf people, through catastrophic educational conditions, no opportunity to replace the president of Gallaudet, and worries that a Deaf president would not be allowed to succeed, were not ready in the 1960’s to take over their destiny as completely as they did later in the century. Because of the Deaf President Now protests, Deaf people are leading their own community as never before. There are Deaf roll-models for children to grow up revering. Oral only schools are almost non-existent now. Would this have been able to happen in the 1960’s? Yes, but it would have been a harder and longer fight.