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Understanding the Gallaudet University Protest of 1988

Feb 24, 2023 | 0 comments

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Feb 24, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments


Not many people understand that there is an entire community and culture that surrounds people who are hearing disabled. The culture centers on providing support for a people who often find themselves marginalized and segregated. Even in areas which are built to ensure their success, to provide excellent support for the deaf, they often find themselves segregated and set up. In our modern culture, the deaf are often looked down upon, not because they lack skills, talent or character but mainly because they cannot hear. Whereas they can communicate adequately, the hearing often ignore this capability and look down upon it as if it were some form of inferior communication. Whenever a deaf person achieves something or is able to reach a particular skill, they are applauded. However, they are not applauded for the achievement or the skill they have acquired but rather for overcoming what the hearing consider to be a “handicap” and a difficult one at that. It is this kind of thinking and segregation that has led to numerous protests and appeals from the deaf community and its supporters. Requests for changes in laws and policies of organizations are a frequent occurrence. The most popular and widely analyzed of this is the Deaf President Now protest of March 1988. This paper highlights and analyses the causes of this protest, the issues that escalated from small matters and fuelled protesters at Gallaudet University for days and finally concludes with determining the level of success achieved by the protest. The DPN protest gained so much support from politicians and even influential persons so that it is now equated to civil rights movements.

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A lot has been said about the DPN protest in 1988 held at Gallaudet. The protest is often touted for laying the foundation for disabled students in various universities. Ladd indicates that understanding the deaf culture, and the behavior of those with hearing impairment or loss requires a complete analysis of the DPN protest (13). The protest is said to have begun with an announcement by the university that a hearing faculty member had been elected president. For decades, the deaf and hearing impaired within the university had been on the campaign to get a deaf president elected. At the time Gallaudet was considered a unique university boasting of more than 100 faculty members with doctorates and who were also deaf. It stands to reason therefore that the deaf community would take up the mantle of demanding a representative who faced their challenges and had overcome the odds stacked against those with hearing impairment.
It is to be noted that indeed during the selection process, there were only three candidates in the finalists. Of the three two were completely deaf while one was of hearing capacity. Despite the qualifications of the deaf faculty members and the call by deaf students and faculty to make a difference by selecting a deaf president; the university board chose to select the hearing candidate. The selection was based on nothing else other than the fact that she could hear. For this reason, deaf students backed by several former students and some members of faculty began a protest that ended with the shutting down of the university. The protest provides a great insight into the culture of the deaf community.


The deaf community is often considered a minority not just in learning institutions such as Gallaudet University but also in social circles. Their challenges and status of minority stems from linguistic barriers. Because of the challenges that they often face, it is not surprising that they often come together and band together in their own support. This was the case in the university in the years before the protest. The university strongly believed in the ability of the deaf to achieve even more than those with hearing capacity. Gallaudet was the only university investing in the educational needs of those with hearing impairment. But even with this strong belief, there existed signs of discrimination and segregation. The deaf culture is one that is based on ensuring self sufficiency for this simple reason. Looking at history also, one can see how the education of the deaf has come with challenges which may have laid the foundation for this protest. For example as Padden and Humpries with the banning of the use of sign language in teaching deaf children, people of hearing capacity made the assumption that they know best the needs of those who have hearing impairment (56). This was one of the reasons why a deaf president, one who faced the challenges of the students and faculty as well was needed.
One of the core values of the deaf community is that the deaf can do everything that those with hearing ability can do. It is on this core value that the deaf community challenged the university decision. the outgoing president Dr. Merrill himself felt that the time has come for the university board to put action where many words had been spoken; by confirming a deaf president. However it would be decades before his advice was even considered. Following the confirmation of Dr. Lee jerry as president without a formal process of interviews, applications and other formalities; the first association for the deaf that is, University’s President’s Council on Deafness (PCD) was founded. This is the association that eventually organized and led the protest of 1988. In accordance with the culture of the deaf, the association brought together those with hearing impairment to address issues and situations where it was felt the needs of the deaf were being ignored or segregated.

The Demand or Issues Addressed In the Protest

Several demands were put in place during the protest which paralyzed the university. Organizers of the protest printed flyers with their demands and posters that showed the issues to be addressed. Majority of the deaf students became aware of the protest on March 1st when the first rally organized to get a deaf [resident took place. the rally and protest itself took the form of a civil rights movement. The rally was attended by thousands of people including the local community of deaf individuals. As the issues were discussed and highlighted more and more people came to participate and play their part in making the demands. The issues highlighted for the protest included:
Resignation of Elizabeth Zinsser and immediate appointment of a deaf president:
According to the culture of the deaf every deaf person is normal. Holcomb states that for the deaf individual, deafness is nature; it is an everyday part of their lives (26). Their community culture does not express regret at losing their hearing ability but rather encourages individuals to gain everything they can to support their own goals and achieve all that they can. The two candidates in the race for university president had lived by this mantra. They pursued doctorates and got all the qualifications required for them to become president. However, they were disqualified on the basis of their hearing ability only.
This was in complete opposite of the university mantra, supporting the deaf students and faculty to achieve all they can. Furthermore, deaf students and faculty were often facing special challenges which were either considered insignificant or completely ignorant. With the university being dedicated to serving the needs of the deaf community, who better to lead the charge than a deaf president. For the students and faculty, the two finalists had presented a ray of hope to the challenges they faced. It should be nice to have the person making decisions and running the institution; to have undergone the challenges and odds of being deaf. However, this hope was ultimately cut short by the confirmation of a hearing president.
Resignation of Jane Spilman: Jane Spilman held the position of the board of trustees that confirmed Zinsser as president of the university. The deaf community felt that in her own way, she has segregated and maligned the rights of the deaf community. By refusing to appoint a deaf president, she had essentially put forth together with her board that despite the university belief that all deaf people could achieve and do anything, the board of trustees did not actually believe so. The deaf could have qualifications and skills to do anything, but then fall short in the final appointment simply because of their hearing impairment.
During the protest several def individuals age moving and motivational speeches to the deaf. The main theme was that despite their hearing impairment, the deaf child, student and even adult could achieve just as much as the hearing child. Spillman’s resignation was supposed to send a message to the university board. The board had based their decision on simple tradition, where all other boards had elected and confirmed a hearing president. However, in doing so they had shown the worst possible form of segregation not just to the deaf student but also to the deaf faculty members.
Deaf people should constitute a 51% of the board: Christiansen and Barnatt states that it is often imagined that the few deaf members on the board at the time were outvoted by their hearing partners in the selection of the president (67). Some were probably intimidated because they represented the minority vote on the board. In order to ensure that the rights of the deaf community and the challenges faced by the same community are addressed, the representation needed to have the deciding vote on all decisions in the university. It is to be remembered that the university was set up in favor of the deaf students, and therefore this demand to be fully represented and to hold the deciding vote in all matters was not strange.
In fact this issue received complete support from even people in the legislature such as Vice President George Bush. They felt that the university in refusing full and more representation in the board was essentially denying the rights of the deaf in the university. Several organizations and even the main stream media latched onto this issue. Majority felt that the decisions made in the university would be totally reversed with proper representation of the deaf.
No repercussions for protestors: at the beginning on the protest, the university board had issued warnings that all who participated would face one form of repercussions or another. However, as the protest gained momentum, the participators demanded that the university not carry out its threats. The protests were attended and organized by university students and faculty members. It was felt that punishing the participants would indeed be another form of segregation of the deaf community within the campus.
DPN provided a unique ground where for the first time deaf students and faculty members came together with clearly defined goals. Being the only university for deaf and hard hearing students, protestors believed that the time had come for the university to be run by those it was established to serve. DPN presented a cohesive and quite speedy force which the university was not ready to deal with. The protest aimed to remove any barriers that often segregated those that were deaf and hard of hearing from the hearing who were often considered better for their ability to hear only. With the mainstream media picking up on the protest, it became symbol for the rights of the deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

The Impact of DPN Protest

Coleman suggests that the biggest impact of DPN was to those who could hear, the protest reminded them that the deaf people would not accept limitations placed on them (78). Just because an individual is considered deaf does not mean that they cannot do what the hearing person can. Whereas majority spoke and reaffirmed this statement, few actually believed this to be true until the repercussions of the protest were announced. The protest also reminded the deaf individuals that they could achieve as much as they wanted to achieve. Since 1988, the university has graduated many who are deaf and who have chosen what many would have thought to be difficult career paths for the hard of hearing.
The most lauded of all effects was the setting up of various legislations in the weeks following the protest. Senators such as Tom Larkin came out in support of Gallaudet University supporting bills and passing laws that favored the rights of the deaf. Notable among them was the telecommunications accessibility bill, which demanded that all forms of communication be made user friendly for the deaf. The repercussions of the protest therefore went beyond Gallaudet University. The nation itself was made aware of the neglect that had been forced onto the deaf citizens of the country. For more than two centuries nobody had considered the rights of the deaf, until the DPN protest they were considered an insignificant minority.
Finally the protest itself was a success within the university grounds. The board rescinded the confirmation of a hearing president, and in the place of Zinsser appointed Jordan King who was one of the hard of hearing finalists. King was appointed by an act of congress. He served for twenty years as president leading the university to being one of the best and greatest institutions in the nation serving the rights of the deaf. The protest was called off a week after it had begun, with the organizers declaring it a complete success as all their demands were met.

Work Cited

Christiansen, John B, and Sharon N. Barnartt. Deaf President Now!: The 1988 Revolution at Gallaudet University. Washington, D.C: Gallaudet University Press, 1995.
Coleman, Paul J. Asymmetric Bargaining Power: Case Studies of a University Protest and Prison Hunger Strike. , 1995.
Holcomb, Thomas K. Introduction to American Deaf Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Ladd, Paddy. Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters, 2003.
Padden, Carol, and Tom Humphries. Inside Deaf Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005.

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