April 3, 2018; USA Today
The marginalization of a community often includes a measure of enforced subjugation, and this can happen in the “serving” of people as easily as it can in employment or any other realm. Notions of doing “for” a group rather than “with” them can be attractive for the doer and devastating to the done-to. When marginalized groups decide the contract is too dear, they rise to refuse.
So it was with the young people at Gallaudet University, who in 1988 proved the power of resistance during a week-long protest to demand a Deaf president of the University. March 13th was the 30th anniversary of that action, which took place more than a hundred years after the institution was founded and led not just to its first Deaf president, but a Deaf board chair.
A story by USA Today reporter Ryan Miller highlights the anniversary of the protests at the prestigious school, which has served students who are deaf or hard of hearing since the 19th century. Gallaudet became a university in 1986. The issue of representation came to a head, Miller reports, two years later:
Gallaudet’s board of trustees named Elisabeth Zinser as the next president. Zinser was the only hearing candidate among the three finalists, and she did not know sign language. A majority of the board could hear.… The students expanded their protest over Zinser’s appointment beyond campus by marching to the U.S. Capitol three times and gaining national attention.
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After a week of protests, the university caved to the student demands. Zinser announced her resignation, and Gallaudet named its first deaf president—I. King Jordan.
Gallaudet’s official history also notes that the protests lead to the first deaf chair of the board, and that the “Deaf President Now” movement has “become synonymous with self-determination and empowerment for deaf and hard of hearing people everywhere.” But the history of deaf protest of lack of representation dates back to at least the 1880s. It is now pulled forward by such organizations as the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), which advocates for sign language and the rights of Deaf people and helped conduct the first census of the Deaf population.
But justice can take years to achieve, and the Deaf community still faces the stigma of economic and social marginalization, evidenced in part through a high unemployment rate. For that reason, Gallaudet has established an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute to create their own employment opportunities. This response fits well within the shape of the movement for Deaf culture, because for many, this community’s response to marginalization has been to value the culture built through what connects its members and to resist the very idea of disability. This stance may confound many outside the community in an age of technological aids to hearing, but the rejection of any notion of being lesser-than is an act of ability and choice—and that matters deeply.
There’s little new in the idea that those who seek to represent others rather than stand with them in support as they represent themselves can end up saboteurs of strength-based development. But the lesson does needs to be learned and remembered, so today, we remember the DPN movement and thank them for their inspiration.—Anna Berry and Ruth McCambridge