Community Self-Determination and Civil Rights
“Some people said, how could a deaf president be a good recruiter for students? How could they do fundraising if they were deaf? How would a deaf person be able to communicate well? And so, in a way they were asking questions about our own value and our ability to get along in the world.”
In the years following World War II, the United States experienced rapid social and economic change. Returning soldiers, an increased work force and the baby boom brought the need for new housing and jobs. Those same returning soldiers would displace many Deaf workers in factories, just as women and others who had served the war effort from home lost their jobs.
Newspapers, magazines, and television brought news and with it awareness of the disparity of income and rights. The civil rights movement of the 1960s used marches, sit-ins, and protests as tools for change, and it inspired many minority groups, including the Deaf community, to press for greater self-determination and economic opportunity. As many Americans came to accept greater cultural diversity, deaf people began to explore more openly their cultural-linguistic identity and assert their right to access information. They stressed the need for interpreting services, film and television captioning, and telephone access.
“There were very, very few people who could envision having a Deaf president of Gallaudet. During the summer of 1987, when we knew the president was leaving, we felt it would be a good idea to start talking about a Deaf president, to get the word out.”
One pivotal moment in Deaf history came in 1988 when Gallaudet University appointed a hearing person as president. Hundreds of protesters successfully challenged the decision by the university’s board of trustees to appoint a hearing president to lead the institution. At the time, Gallaudet had been in existence for 124 years, and, of the six presidents who had served since 1864, none were deaf. Not surprisingly, many people felt that it was long past time for a deaf person to be the chief administrator of the world’s only liberal arts university for deaf students. The protest, called Deaf President Now (DPN), was nothing less than a revolution. After a week of activities that garnered unprecedented media attention and captured the imagination of millions of people in the United States and around the world, the hearing president-designate resigned, as did the hearing chair of the board of trustees. The board then chose a deaf person to be Gallaudet’s president and, also for the first time, selected another deaf person to lead the university’s board of trustees.
Within weeks of the DPN revolution at Gallaudet University, hearings began for the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Deaf people joined forces with the disability rights movement to push for passage 1990 civil rights law that would impact access to telecommunications, public events and interpreting services.