Deaf: Cultures and Communication, 1600 to the Present

Gallaudet University

Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. is the world’s only liberal arts college specifically for the Deaf and hard of hearing. Founded in 1864, it remains a center of both Deaf culture and Deaf rights activism. The campus ignited in protest in 1988 and again in 2006 over demands for leadership representative of and responsive to the Deaf community. Widespread coverage of these protests inspired activism by Deaf communities abroad, as well as other disability rights groups.

I. King Jordan, the university’s first Deaf president, famously declared in 1988 that “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do except hear.” Gallaudet University counts among its alumni poets, politicians, actors, scholars, architects, doctors, musicians, scientists, and lawyers.

Aerial Image of Gallaudet College, 1905

In 1856, Amos Kendall, former postmaster general of the United States, became guardian to several deaf children. Concerned by their limited educational prospects, he donated two acres of his estate in the capital to establish the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind, to be run by Edward Miner Gallaudet. The blind students were soon moved to a separate school in Baltimore. Not satisfied with just secondary education, Kendall convinced Congress to grant the school the authority to award college degrees. In 1864, President Lincoln signed the college’s charter and President Grant signed the diplomas of its first graduates, establishing a tradition of presidential signatures that continues on its diplomas today. The college was renamed Gallaudet College in 1894, in honor of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, and became Gallaudet University in 1986.

 Gallaudet diploma signed by President Ulysses S. Grant

This iconic statue at Gallaudet University depicts Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet teaching Alice Cogswell the manual letter “A”, the first letter in her name. 

The sculptor, Daniel Chester French, who also designed the Lincoln Memorial, knew the manual alphabet and had a deaf son. Some believe that he carved Lincoln’s hands into his manual initials “A” and “L,” although the National Park Service disputes this.

The Gallaudet Dictionary of American Sign Language

Gallaudet University Press, established in 1980, publishes works relating to deafness and sign languages and produces its own American Sign Language dictionary in print and electronic formats. Deaf people were historically employed at high rates at printing presses because it was assumed that the loud environment did not affect them. Many schools for the deaf trained students in the art of printing.

Deaf President Now Protest, 1988

Courtesy of Gallaudet University Archives

In 1988 the president of Gallaudet University resigned, and several qualified Deaf candidates emerged as finalists for the position. The mostly hearing Board of Trustees, however, appointed Elisabeth Zinser, a non-signing, hearing woman with little experience with Deaf culture. Students, faculty, staff, and community members united to close down the school for a week in protest. The Deaf President Now (DPN) Movement resulted in the appointment of I. King Jordan as the university’s first Deaf president. The protesters also demanded the resignation of Jane Bassett Spilman, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, who declared during the protest that “the deaf are not yet ready to function in the hearing world.” This statement reflects audism—discrimination based on audiological status.

This image shows Deaf protesters demonstrating in front of the US Capitol, less than two miles from the Gallaudet campus. They carried the iconic “We still have a dream” banner from the civil rights movement. The NAACP supported the Gallaudet students and saw the protest as a Deaf civil rights movement. In his letter of support, Reverend Jesse Jackson declared, “The problem is that not that the students do not hear. The problem is that the hearing world does not listen.”

Jane Fernandes, "Many Ways of Being Deaf"

In May of 2006, the Gallaudet Board of Trustees appointed provost Jane Fernandes as president after I. King Jordan announced his plans to retire. Though deaf from birth, Fernandes did not learn ASL until adulthood and had a controversial leadership style. Gallaudet students launched another massive protest, erecting a tent city by the university’s entrance. Hundreds of alumni and supporters traveled to Gallaudet to support the student and faculty demonstrators, and a small group mobilized a hunger strike.

On Friday, October 13, 2006, now remembered as “Black Friday,” Jordan ordered campus police to arrest over one hundred protesters in order to reopen Gallaudet. He thought the protest reflected a belief that Fernandes was “not deaf enough” for the position. Some students objected, citing mismanagement, poor communication, and a host of academic grievances in their rejection of Fernandes. To many, Jordan’s condemnation of the protest compromised his status as heroic leader of the Deaf community. Ultimately, the “Unity for Gallaudet” movement resulted in the appointment of Robert Davila, who served as president until his retirement in December 2009.