Citizenship and the Deaf in America: Part 2

Welcome back! Thanks for all the positive feedback of the first part of my look into the deaf culture of America. In this second part, let’s focus on the protests  that occurred in 1988 at Gallaudet (The college for the deaf in Washington DC, for those who didn’t have a chance to read Part 1) in response to another hearing president being appointed, rather than a deaf one. Gallaudet was officially chartered in 1864, and had never had a deaf president until 1988, a direct result of this protest. The students began the movement, then faculty quickly jumped on, and by the end of the week deaf people from all around the world came to DC to march to the Capitol in a showing of deaf rights and culture. What happened in 1988 at Gallaudet was nothing short of a worldwide social revolution for the deaf.

The football huddle was invented at Gallaudet, as a way to secretly sign play calls.


In order to begin to understand deaf culture, one must first look at their language. Despite having deaf grandparents, my use Sign is very limited. Yet, even if I did know Sign, I wouldn’t ever really be a complete member of the culture since I am hearing. The only hearing people that can fully integrate into deaf culture are those who are children of deaf parents. So with this mentality being the dominate view held by the deaf of their own culture, how does it look when a worldwide icon of dead culture like Gallaudet has had a hearing president for 124 years, and never had a deaf president until 1988? It appeared that there was some paternalism that needed to occur in order for a deaf community to develop, but now that the deaf culture had come to full maturity, here they were at the Capital making  stand for their rights as independent citizens.

I thought a lot about Douglass when reading about the protests at Gallaudet, mainly with how wrong he was with his ideas relating to leaving the black man alone once freed from the bondage of slavery. In the past, the deaf in America and worldwide were seen as mentally retarded, and Sign was seen as an inferior language, one of gestures and pantomime. This changed in 1960 (can’t believe it was this late!) with the publishing of An Outline of the Visual Communication System of the American Deaf, by William Stokoe, a hearing man, who came to Gallaudet in the 50’s. This book established Sign as a legitimate form of communication and  lead to the acceptance of several Sign art forms, like Sign theatre and “Art Sign”. The deaf had known about their own culture all along, but the hearing world had no idea until this book was published. There must be a moment when someone within the mainstream accepts and helps those who are trying to better themselves and gain true citizenship. I think of the abolitionists during Douglass’ time, those who were trying to enable and better those who have been cast away by society for generations. There is a clearly distinct culture that has formed within the deaf community, one that was developed through the work of several hearing people.

“DPN” stands for “Deaf President Now”, and was the name of the student-lead protest at Gallaudet.

The protests lasted for a full week. Shutting down Gallaudet’s campus were students, faculty, and deaf from around the world. The student strike at Gallaudet ended with several victories. The first deaf president was named, and several hearing members of the board resigned. The deaf were no longer silent. By combining over a century’s work involving the creation of deaf culture and language, followed by the legitimization of both, the deaf had their own community where together they didn’t have to feel like outliers within American society. Pretty incredible stuff if you ask me!

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