By Shawn Mills
The twentieth century saw the birth of the civil
rights and the women’s liberation movements. Although their efforts for the
equality of their respective groups are not complete, the strides that were
made in the previous century were astounding. In 1988, the Deaf community
used Gallaudet University as a backdrop for their struggle for equality.
Deaf President Now was the name of the weeklong rally that brought great
attention to the rights of the Deaf. The purpose was to petition the board
of trustees of Gallaudet University to appoint a Deaf person president of
the university. Within one week, the rally forced the resignation of Jane
Basset Spilman, a controversial member of the board; the resignation of
Elizabeth Zinser, the newly appointed president; and led to the selection of
Gallaudet’s first Deaf president. Fortunately, this is not were the story
ends. The Deaf President Now (DPN) campaign has since become a rallying cry
for the advocate of Deaf rights.
To understand the magnitude of this event, one
must appreciate the history of Deaf culture. Like their female and black
counterparts, Deaf people had fought against ignorance and discrimination
for their place in society for more than a 150 years (Barnartt xiii). By the
late twentieth century, many in the Deaf community had become complacent and
resigned to the idea that their plight would never change. They were
convinced that it was pointless to fight the system because the system would
win and your life would be wasted (Gannon 17).
DPN was a break from the traditional means Deaf
people had used to achieve their agenda. Previously, Deaf activist were
content to work behind the scenes trying to get their grievances addressed.
The events leading to DPN rally served to unite and galvanize the Deaf
community toward a single objective, the appointment of a Deaf president to
the world’s only Deaf university (Barnartt xiv). After Jerry C. Lee resigned
to join the Basset Furniture Company, a president needed to be selected for
the third time in five years after having only four in the previous 119
According to the Deaf community, it was time the appointee was from the Deaf
community. When one was not, the students shut down the school (Gannon 168).
There were four main points that the protesters were demanding. These are
shown in the protester’s poster (above). After an amazing show of strength
and solidarity, the protesters were granted all of their demands after just
one week. Dr. Irving King Jordan was elected the first Deaf president of
Gallaudet. Ms. [Elizabeth Zinzer, who had been appointed by the board to be
the next president of the university] resigned. A committee was appointed to determine the
best way to include a 51% majority on the board of trustees. Finally, no
reprisals were taken against any of the protesters (History).
The effect of this amazing accomplishment still resonates through the Deaf
community today. It showed that through a unified effort a fight against the
system could be won. In addition to the impact on the Deaf community, DPN
changed the hearing community perceived the Deaf. It showed that Deaf people
were not just handicapped citizen competent in only certain capacities, but
active, concerned citizens able to flex their political and social muscle.
As with many of the other civil rights struggles
of the twentieth century, the Deaf community has not found the place in
society they deserve. Many stereotypes must be defeated before the Deaf
community can rest. But those who protest the week of March 6, 1988 have
empowered their Deaf successors a chance to make a difference in their
world. In a statement affirming Gallaudet University’s importance to the
Deaf community, Dr. Hugh T. Prickett of the Center on Deafness, Western
Maryland College articulates, “[Dr. Jordan] and the students of
Gallaudet University have irrevocably changed the course of history for the
Deaf in this country and indeed, the world.”
Barnartt, Sharon N., John B. Cristiansen.
Deaf President Now: the 1988 revolution at Gallaudet University.
Washington D. C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1995.
Gannon, Jack R. The Week the World Heard
Gallaudet. Washington D. C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1989.
“Day 8: Sunday March 13.” The Week of DPN.
March 24, 1998. Gallaudet University Public Relations Office. April 10,
April 29, 2003