March 6th, 2020 is the 32nd anniversary of Gallaudet’s historical Deaf President Now movement. On that day in 1988, Deaf students, faculty, and alumni of Gallaudet University quite literally shut down the entire college campus, in protest of the announcement of Gallaudet’s seventh president being appointed to a hearing person. This decision by the Board of Trustees sent shockwaves through the campus as the other two of the three candidates were both Deaf. As a result, many people believed that the newly appointed president would finally be Gallaudet's first-ever Deaf President after 124 years. However, that, unfortunately, wasn’t the case.
History of Gallaudet
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was a hearing man that was inspired by a young deaf girl, Alice Cogswell, whom he realized wasn’t receiving proper education that accommodated her. Soon after, Gallaudet sought out other Deaf programs in different countries in order to educate himself more on the most effective as well as efficient methods of teaching Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf-Blind individuals. After deeming many of England’s Deaf schools unfit due to their largely oral push on their students, (many were expected not only to speak but to ‘master’ lipreading as well) Thomas Gallaudet made a trip to France with financial help from young Alice’s father. He, as well as Gallaudet, were hopeful in finding a proper Deaf education system due to the lack of any Deaf schools in the United States at that time.
When in France, Gallaudet was inspired by Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu and their high education received from Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets, the world’s first free school for the Deaf. Gallaudet convinced Laurent Clerc to travel back with him to the United States and together they established the American School for the Deaf in 1817. As a result, Laurent Clerc became the first-ever Deaf teacher of Deaf students in the United States. Years later, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet would marry Sophia Fowler, a Deaf woman that became one of the school’s first graduates. Together the pair had eight children, the youngest of whom moved to Washington, D.C. at the age of 20, with the intention of running another school for Deaf children. Only 7 years later in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln approved the charter that allowed the establishment of a national college for Deaf students - this school was Gallaudet University, named after Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet by his youngest son, Edward Miner Gallaudet.
The Issues Leading to DPN
Gallaudet University was already 124 years old at the time of the Deaf President Now movement, yet still had not seen a Deaf president. This may seem relatively strange, considering it was America’s first college for the Deaf and one of the first wins for the rights of Deaf individuals. While there was a large amount of activism and progress made in the Deaf community, large amounts of prejudice and discrimination still remained and ensued thereafter.
As a result, two conflicting views on Deaf education developed forcing many educators of the Deaf to choose: were they a manualist or oralist? Edward Miner Gallaudet, inspired by his father's activism in the Deaf Community, as well as by his Deaf mother, continued to use sign language throughout his life and greatly believed in its large importance in the classroom. Contrarily, Alexander Graham Bell - inventor of the telephone - believed in an entirely oral method through the use of speech and lip-reading. One huge set back during this time of opposition was the ruling to ban the use of sign language in Deaf classrooms, at an international meeting of Deaf educators held in Milan, Italy in 1880. This resulted in a near wipeout of sign language use in schools as well as a large increase of hearing teachers of Deaf children.
The Deaf President Now movement was a turning point for the Deaf community. While there had been countless obstacles and many prejudices against Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, DPN changed the pace towards equal rights for the Deaf community. During the protest, over 1,000 individuals within the local Deaf community, students from elementary through college, faculty, alumni, and etc. gathered to protest Gallaudet’s decision to hire another hearing president. After the long, uphill battle that continued for the Deaf community, this action against the school that had paved so much of the way for them, was the final straw. Because, how could a school that meant so much to them continually choose against them - especially when they had two perfectly good Deaf candidates? Their only choice was to take action.
The group began their march at the school’s football field and ended at its statue of the first president - Edward Miner Gallaudet. The protesters demanded only four things from the Board of Trustees: Elizabeth Zinser resign and a deaf president be chosen, Jane Spilman must step down as chairman of the Board, Deaf people should be the majority vote (51%) on the Board, and students as well as employees active in the protest we not to be punished. The rally was so motivated that many opted to camp out and eventually became accompanied by television and news crews. By the end of the week, the group was victorious in their efforts and not only was a new, Deaf president, Dr. I. King Jordan, hired, but all requests were also met as a result.