Progressive History: Deaf President Now

By Travis Bodell
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In Risen’s new series “Progressive History”, we focus on individuals, groups, events, and ideas that led to the progression and liberalization of the world in the governments and societies of various countries.  For the first installment, we focus on the “Deaf President Now” protest of 1988.  This peaceful protest, lasting a mere 8 days, set the stage for a multitude of reforms in the United States government, all of which aimed toward providing accessibility and equal rights for the Deaf and other people with disabilities.  Before we go into more depth, let’s look at some history and what led to the protest in the first place.

Gallaudent University, a Deaf University located in Washington DC and the setting of the DPN, was founded by Edward Gallaudet.  Edward’s father, Thomas Gallaudet, effectively introduced French Sign Language to the United States, where it was altered to become ASL, so the Gallaudet family had been an ally to the Deaf community for quite a while.  The University was founded in 1864 and has since then served as the only higher education program where classes are specifically designed to accommodate deaf students.  However, there was just one thing wrong: since its founding, every president of Gallaudet was hearing.  For hearing people, this may not seem to be much of a dilemma, but in reality, it was in the best interest of the students to have a Deaf president, someone who related to them and thus knew what was best for them.  A hearing president had no idea what it was like to be deaf, and thus didn’t have that insight.  

The students of Gallaudet decided that it was time for a change when Jerry Lee, president of the university from 1984 to 1987, retired.  Students began campaigning for a Deaf president, although the decision was entirely up to the Board of Trustees.  The odds were looking in the student’s favor when the three finalists for the position were announced.  Two of the three finalists were Deaf; one of which, Dr. I King Jordan, was already a staff member at the University and therefore had the best odds.  Harvey Corson was also Deaf, while Elizabeth Zinser was the only hearing candidate.  Zinser did not know any American Sign Language, so students believed Jordan and Corson to be more qualified.  However, the decision of the primarily-hearing Board shocked and angered students, staff, and the entire Deaf community.  Zinser had been chosen to be the seventh president of Gallaudet.  The Board, who had initially planned on announcing the chosen candidate publicly, feared the backlash of the community so much that they moved the announcement up two hours in hopes that no one would attend.  Regardless, the news spread quickly and no one was pleased.  When confronted about the decision, Jane Spilman, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said that Deaf people could not function in a hearing world and therefore needed a hearing president.  Such a remark only led to more outrage throughout the community.

The day after the horrible announcement from the Board, the majority of the students, with the help of local civilians, both Deaf and hearing, bus drivers, and even teachers, blocked off all the entrances to Gallaudet so that no one could enter the building.  Buses were parked in front of each entrances and their tires were popped.  For 8 days, thousands gathered around the University and expressed their disdain for the Board’s decision.  The protest was led by student body president Greg Hlibok, along with Tim Rarus, Bridgetta Bourne, and Jerry Covell, all Deaf and students of Gallaudet during the protest.  The leaders had four requests for the Board of Trustees: no punishment for the protesters, a 51% majority of Deaf Board of Trustees members, the resignation of Jane Spilman, and the resignation of the Elizabeth Zinser, who would be replaced by a Deaf president.  With the support of the surrounding community, as well as country-wide media coverage and impeccable organization on the student leaders’ parts, all of the goals were obliged in only 8 days.  Dr. Jordan replace Dr. Zinser as president, and Zinser stepped down.

The success of the Deaf President Now protest brought ableism to the attention of the entire nation.  Consequently, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed two years later in 1990.  This Act was huge step for accepting people with disabilities into society.  Discriminating in the workplace became illegal, for no longer could an employer turn down an applicant solely because of their disability.  All TV manufacturers were required by law to include a decoder chip in every TV they produce prior to the DPN protest, and still are today.  The Deaf President Now protest was a huge and vital step for the acceptance of people with disabilities in society and abolished the idea that Deaf people can’t achieve something because of their lack of hearing.