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Deaf President Now:


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 years.

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."

Works Cited

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, 2003.  <>

Date Submitted: April 29, 2003

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