The personal journal of author and photographer Jason Pettus

Deaf culture primer: The “Deaf President Now!” student protests of 1988.

Today, an extended look at the most crucial event to define the modern Deaf community, and the reasons it's considered so important

#Deaf #community #culture #history #gallaudet #university #1988 #student #protests #DeafPresidentNow #oralism #AlexanderGrahamBell #eugenics #PlantationMentality #DeafAndDumb #DeafPrideMovement #JaneSpilman

Deaf President Now! student protests

[Need to get caught up on the entire saga of me learning American Sign Language (ASL) and getting involved in the Chicago Deaf community this year? The complete set of links is at the bottom of the page.]

One of the things I'm most grateful for with this Deaf studies journal I've been maintaining this year is how many hearing people I've now heard from, thanking me for illuminating them to the complex, often infuriating events that have happened over the last two centuries of the Deaf in America, most of which have come as complete surprises to them. I agree, I too had no idea most of these things had happened until starting to study Deaf history; and if you want to understand the one most crucial event that has come to define the modern Deaf community in 2019, then you need to understand the “Deaf President Now!” (DPN) student protests that happened on the campus of the all-deaf Gallaudet University in Washington DC in March, 1988.

I actually just read a book devoted entirely to the subject, written back in the mid-1990s by John Christiansen and Sharon Barnartt; but my review of it over at Goodreads was getting so long, I decided to just repackage the entire thing as an essay for the general public and post it here. And the reason it's so long is that we have to go back and look at an entire century of Deaf history before we can understand why this particular week in 1988 was so important; so strap in and get ready for a fascinating ride...

The first crucial thing to understand about all this is that for an entire hundred years, literally from the 1870s to 1970s, American Sign Language (ASL) was actually banned from most deaf schools, in favor of the “oralist” school of thought which argued that it's actually much better for deaf people to learn how to speak and read lips, because this way they can integrate back into “normal” society after they've done so, much more than learning a special language that only they and their friends can understand. There are various arguments that were used over those decades for why “manualism” (sign language) is inferior and shouldn't be taught — it's not a real language but only pantomime, the deaf ghettoize themselves by using it, it's an insult against God because the Bible says that the difference between humans and animals is our ability to speak, etc etc — but what it really boiled down to is that the oralism proponents had more money and more famous people on their side, led by the unceasing efforts of Victorian Era superstars Alexander Graham Bell and Horace Mann, which is how they came to dominate the conversation all the way up to the countercultural revolutions of the 1960s and '70s.

But there's one huge problem with this, which is that oralism simply doesn't work; decades of studies have proven over and over that even the most adept lip-reader (almost always someone who still has a little hearing) only comprehends 30 percent of a spoken conversation, while most Deaf people never learn how to lip-read at all, because it's such a tricky endeavor that's almost destined to fail from the start. (For one famous example, the letters “m,” “b” and “p” are made with the exact same lip movement, making it impossible to know if a person is saying “mat,” “bat” or “pat” just by looking at their face.) But this being the Victorian Age, instead of seeing these results and concluding that their theories were wrong, oralist proponents instead concluded that most deaf people must be failing at lip-reading because they're mentally retarded, that in fact mental retardation is a natural and related side effect of hearing loss, which is how we get the now shameful and grossly outdated term “deaf and dumb” from those years. (Oralists also believed in several other quack-like medical theories that have since been disproven, such as eugenics — Alexander Graham Bell in particular tried to get Congress to pass a law banning deaf people from “breeding” with other deaf people, in that he believed that in 100 percent of all cases, this would lead to a deaf baby, a theory already being disproven even in his lifetime.)

So armed with all this, what developed within the world of hearing people overseeing deaf institutions was a culture that they considered benignly benevolent, but that we have since come to refer to by the term “plantation mentality,” named after the attitude that white plantation owners used to have towards their black slaves in the years before the Civil War; they sincerely believed they loved them, but in reality they “loved” them like one would love a pack of animals, considering them too stupid and feral to ever be able to make good decisions on their own, and thus it being the plantation owner's “burden” to make these decisions on their behalf, even if the sweet dumb creatures in question couldn't understand this and reacted badly to the decisions they made. (In fact, you can still see this attitude in the dean of the deaf high school in the movie Children of a Lesser God, released only two years before the DPN protests.) And thus was it that all the way until the 1960s, most deaf schools were run by an entirely hearing executive board, staffed almost entirely by hearing teachers, and with dorms maintained by almost entirely hearing house-parents, many of whom were notoriously cruel in the style of prison guards, precisely because they had been taught that the deaf children under their care were little more than wild animals and needed to be treated as such.

This all started changing during the countercultural era, as an underground but growing “Deaf pride movement” was established in the same years as the similar “gay pride,” “black power,” and “women's lib” movements; and by the 1980s small but steady strides had been made in hiring more Deaf teachers, getting more Deaf students into PhD programs, getting ASL better acknowledged as a legitimate language, and in general establishing the “Deaf community” with a capital “D” to begin with. (For those who don't know, a “deaf” person is simply someone with hearing loss, while a “Deaf” person is someone who defines themselves through their hearing loss, doesn't consider it a disability, is fluent in ASL, and is actively involved in the community.) And so when Gallaudet's sixth president abruptly resigned in January 1988 to enter the private sector, many in the Deaf community thought this was a perfect opportunity for the school to finally hire its first Deaf president, and to send a powerful message to the nation that Deaf people aren't retarded, that they don't need hearing “superiors” to take care of them, and in fact they can do anything a hearing person can do except hear (a phrase that was to become famous during the protests, and has since gone on to be a defining statement of the modern Deaf community).

One of the things I learned from reading this book is that this groundswell support for a Deaf president actually started long before the protests themselves; for example, a rally on the subject a few weeks before the decision drew over 2,000 wildly enthusiastic participants, and the movement managed to collect pre-decision letters urging for a Deaf president from an insanely bipartisan coalition of politicians, including no less a combination than George Bush and Jesse Jackson. So you can understand this group's despair and fury when, after the board of trustees made the unprecedented step of boiling the finalists down to two Deaf people and one hearing person, they indeed decided during a secret meeting to hire the one hearing finalist over the two Deaf ones, badly misreading the public mood on the subject and virtually ignoring the advice being given to them by nearly everyone involved; and how this community's fury simply grew when learning that every Deaf board member had voted unanimously for a Deaf candidate, but were overturned by the hearing board members because of being outnumbered 10 to 4, with all 10 of the hearing board members unanimously voting for the hearing candidate.

Did board chair Jane Spilman actually say during a closed meeting afterwards that “deaf people are not ready to function in a hearing world?” That's a matter for debate, as I learned from the book; but it's undeniable that she displayed such a naked plantation mentality in the years leading up to this week, she might as well have been standing on a veranda holding a whip. In two decades of being involved with an all-deaf university, not only did she never bother to learn sign language, she often wouldn't even provide an ASL interpreter when delivering speeches on campus; she had no deaf friends, had no deaf people on her staff, and refused to upgrade the president's house on campus to be deaf accessible (for example, by having the doorbell blink the lights as well as make a noise). So it should be no surprise that the campus erupted in indignant anger when the announcement of yet another hearing president was sneakily announced via paper press release at 9:00 at night, and by the next day the student population had barricaded the front gates of the school and was refusing to let anyone in. (The Gallaudet campus was established in the 1860s in a Washington neighborhood that has since gone on to be a dangerous one, which has necessitated the building of a high security fence around the entire school, which made it particularly easy to block access.)

You can read the Wikipedia page for a blow-by-blow look at the events that happened during the seven days of the protest; but the tldr version is that the protesters achieved all four of their demands (the resignation of Spilman; the hiring of a Deaf president; the restructuring of the board into 51 percent Deaf members; and no reprisals for anyone involved), virtually unheard of in the history of angry student protests. And the reason, as I think I've now demonstrated, is that this was way more than simply a student protest; it was a national rallying cry for all Deaf people in the entire United States, a moment when they could all stand as one and declare that it's time for the way they've traditionally been treated to finally end. To be frank, a lot of what made the protest successful (many of the board members admitted afterwards) was simply seeing how professional and accomplished the Deaf community was at organizing the protest in the first place — they managed to set up a bank of TTY phones and get hundreds of newspapers nationwide to do stories on the subject (most of whom then did related interviews with local deaf citizens, thus increasing the visibility of the community even more), managed to raise $30,000 in donations in a single week, managed to convince Ted Koppel to devote an entire episode of Nightline to the subject, managed to organize a rally on the steps of the Capitol that drew thousands of people. And all of this before the internet, mind you.

The very act of pulling off the protest was proof that the protesters had a valid point, many of the board members said after the fact; and it was at this point that other dominoes started quickly falling, including the Supreme Court ruling one year later that ASL is a legitimate language that is required to be recognized by American schools, courts and police, then one year after that the Americans With Disabilities Act being passed, which finally provided the same civil rights to the disabled that people of different races were afforded in the '60s. It was a 1-2-3 combo that forever changed not only the way the Deaf are treated in this country but the way the Deaf see themselves, to the point now in the late 2010s where ASL has become the second most popular foreign language for hearing people to learn in schools after Spanish, and Deaf characters now regularly populate mainstream movies, TV shows, and Broadway plays. We now take it for granted that Deaf people have the same range of low- to high-intelligence as the rest of the population, because now that ASL has become the default communication of the Deaf population, they can finally prove it; and this goes double for Deaf schools, nearly all of which now require their teachers and other staffers to pass an annual ASL competency exam, and are nearly all now led by Deaf C-level corporate professionals.

It's a humbling and inspirational story that makes me cry every time I read about it, and something so important to the Deaf community that all of us owe it to ourselves to at least understand its basics. For literally centuries, the Deaf in the United States were treated in such a shameful, criminally negligent way that it makes one's jaw drop to hear about it now. The more all of us can understand what has transpired in the past, the more we can ensure that it will never happen again.

The Complete ASL Saga of Jason Pettus
4/23: It's been harder than I thought it would be to find good sign language partners.
4/19: Book review: A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, by William Stokoe
4/15: ASL Adventures: “Game of Thrones” night at Deaf Planet Soul.
4/14: Book review: Inside Deaf Culture, by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries
4/8: ASL Adventures: The Chicago Inclusive Dance Festival, and my first “signing in the wild.”
4/4: Book review: The Mask of Benevolence, by Harlan Lane
4/4: Book review: Train Go Sorry, by Leah Hager Cohen
4/3: He speaks! He speaks! ...Er, he signs! He signs!
4/1: Book review: Seeing Voices, by Oliver Sacks

3/31: Book review: The Other Side of Silence, by Arden Neisser
3/28: Those sexy deaf teens sure are courageous!
3/27: Book review: Shouting Won't Help, by Katherine Bouton
3/25: Book review: Deaf in America: Voices From a Culture, by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries
3/22: Book review: A Deaf Adult Speaks Out, by Leo Jacobs
3/22: Book review: Don't Just Sign...Communicate!, by Michelle Jay