Before the ADA, there was Deaf President Now

Danica Rice is an archives technician at the National Archives at Seattle, is partially Deaf, and considers herself a member of the Deaf culture and community.

During our celebration of the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it’s worth reflecting on an event two years earlier that served as a catalyst for the Deaf community and may well have pushed passage of the legislation forward. The eight-day event I refer to is called Deaf President Now, and it happened in Washington, DC, on the Gallaudet University campus and involved marches in nearby areas as well.

The charter for Galluadet University: April 8, 1864, Public Law 43: An Act to authorize the Columbia Institution for the Deaf & Dumb and the Blind to confer degrees.
The charter for Gallaudet University, signed by Abraham Lincoln, April 8, 1864, Public Law 43: An Act to authorize the Columbia Institution for the Deaf & Dumb and the Blind to confer degrees. (National Archives)

In March of 1988, Gallaudet’s Board of Trustees was responsible for choosing between three deaf and one hearing candidate for the presidency of the only fully Deaf university in the country. After hasty deliberation, they chose the hearing candidate.

The resulting uproar among the students and faculty led to marches protesting the decision, which were nationally recognized by the media. Protesters associated themselves with the civil rights movement by stating “we still have a dream,” making it easier for people to understand where the Deaf as a culture and identity were coming from in their desire for someone who spoke their language to lead their university.

On the second day of the protest, four students organized those around them to devise and present four demands to the Board of Trustees that morning. They demanded that:

  • Elisabeth Zinser (the hearing president-elect chosen by the Board of Trustees) must resign, and a deaf president be selected.
  • Jane Spilman must resign from the Board of Trustees (This was the result of a rather uncouth comment she made, which she later denied, defending her decision to elect Zinser: “Deaf people are not able to function in a hearing world.” Needless to say, this angered many.)
  • The percentage of deaf members on the Board of Trustees must be increased to at least 51 percent. (At the time, there were few or no Deaf members on the board.)
  • There must not be reprisals against any of the protesters for exercising their rights under the First Amendment.

Eventually, after eight days of ongoing protests, marches, boycotts by students of their classes, and much more (even deflating tires of school buses in front of the University gates!), the board finally gave in—a huge civil rights movement victory for the Deaf.

At long last, the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University became Dr. I. King Jordan, and during his acceptance speech, he said, “A Deaf person can do anything a hearing person can, except hear.” This became the mantra for Deaf people worldwide.

The media focus that this week-long event elicited made the world sit up and take notice. Due to the focus from the media and the widespread support in the form of letters or interviews from many public figures as well as members of Congress, this movement became, in Deaf history, a culmination of who they were as a culture, giving profound strength to the Deaf community as a whole.

How does this relate to the ADA, you may ask? When I consider the freedoms we have today, the two most important events I consider crucial in our history are the signing of the ADA and Deaf President Now.

There are still many ways in which the world can improve on working with the Deaf and other disabilities, but the signing of the ADA made enormous strides for all disabilities. Without these two remarkable events, the Deaf would have considerably fewer rights—but through their existence, our culture solidified and unified as a culture with a history.

For further information on Deaf President Now, go to:

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