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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.
rving King Jordan was born in 1943. He grew up in Glen Riddle Pennsylvania, a rural townnear Philadelphia, with his 3 brothers and sisters. They had an idyllic childhood playing in the beautiful outdoors, and even sang in the church choir at the local Episcopal church. In High School, King described himself as a “very… average student.” He refused to study and graduated in 5 years instead of the usual four. After High School, King joined the Navy, working on the Aircraft Carrier Enterprise. He was eventually promoted to Administrative Assistant to the ship’s Legal Officer when the hearing part of his life came to an end.
21 year old King was in a serious motorcycle accident that left him profoundly deaf. When he woke up in the hospital, doctors originally told him that his hearing loss would be temporary. He clung to this notion for several months before deciding to move on with his new life as a deaf person.
In the Navy, King had seen how important Education was in establishing a career. Many people had been promoted almost instantly to officer positions with no other experience than a college degree. King decided to go back to school, and entered Gallaudet University in 1966 knowing no Sign Language and nothing about Deaf Culture. “I was a Hearing person who couldn’t hear” King said of himself. King graduated with a BA in Psychology from Gallaudet University in 1970. He received his MA in Psychology in 1971 and his PhD in Psychology in 1973, both from the University of Tennessee. King then returned to Gallaudet to teach, eventually becoming Dean of the Psychology Department.
When King learned that the current President of Gallaudet University had plans to retire, he sat down with his wife and two children and decided to actively seek the position. He was one of 3 final candidates for the position, and one of 2 deaf candidates for the position. In March of 1988, the Gallaudet Board of Directors fatefully announced that they had appointed the only hearing candidate as President. The student’s at Gallaudet were outraged and demanded to know why the Board of Directors felt that none of the Deaf candidates were qualified to lead the University. When the Board couldn’t give them an answer, the students shut down the Gallaudet campus for a week. Busses were parked at the gates of Gallaudet, their tires flattened, so vehicles could neither get in nor out. Thousands of groups, Deaf and Hearing alike, rallied to the cause. They gathered in droves on the campus chanting “Deaf President Now.” When the Board saw how many people were against them, they caved in to all the student demands. On March 13, 1988 I. King Jordan was elected as the first deaf President of Gallaudet University.
At first, many people had doubts about how well King could do the job. They thought that his need to use an interpreter would interfere with his ability to communicate, especially with the members of Congress who determine Gallaudet’s funding. It quickly became apparent that this was not the case. Under King’s leadership, Gallaudet saw a huge jump in funding. He provided many services to the campus such as adding raised platforms to classrooms so students can see their professor lecture, and using technology to help students communicate better. “Learning Calculus should be hard.” King once told a reporter, “Understanding what your professor is saying shouldn’t be hard.”
King retired as President from Gallaudet in 2006. Ironically, the Board of Director’s choice of his successor garnered controversy similar to that of 1988. King gained much criticism from the Deaf Community when he put his full support behind the Board’s choice and arrested students protesting on campus.
Currently, King and his wife Linda live in West River Maryland, where King likes to go running every morning. He celebrates the day of his motorcycle accident as his “Deaf Birthday”, and lectures all over the world about his experiences as Gallaudet’s first Deaf President. His most famous quote is probably: “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do, except hear.”