DPN memories • Deaf President Now! • 1988
We were there 25 years ago, when the campus erupted into rebellion and protest. I was working at Gallaudet at the time, for ENFI Project, a computer lab set up for teaching English on a networked computer system. As part of my job, I managed the student assistants we hired to work with the classes, teaching the students how to use the software and solving network problems. It was because of the respect and friendship of those students that I knew what was going on. Why? Because I was stuck at work.
The weather was gorgeous– clear, sunny, warm spring days. Spring felt like it’d come early that year. Betty and I had just had a commitment ceremony two weeks before and we were still riding high on the emotions from that.
I remember that we– all of us who studied or worked at the university, and probably the entire deaf community in the DC area– were vitally interested in the Board meeting. The former president of Gallaudet, Dr. Jerry C. Lee, was leaving for a new job and the Board was scheduled to chose a new president. The choice had come down to three people, two deaf men and one hearing woman who’d never had any experience with deaf people before. The discussions among our friends centered on what kind of leaders the two deaf men, Dr. Harvey Corson and Dr. I. King Jordan, would be. None of us gave Dr. Elizabeth Zinser a second thought. It was time. Gallaudet University and its precursors (Kendall School, Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and Blind and National College for the Deaf and Dumb and Blind) had been run by hearing men for over 125 years. It was time for deaf to lead deaf.
I remember the incredulity we felt when Dr. Zinser’s appointment was announced. I thought I was not understanding, that I was getting misinformation. Our hearing friends, those who weren’t connected to the college, had a similar feeling of incredulity– they had assumed that Gallaudet and deaf schools and institutions were run by deaf people. They thought that was a given. Black colleges had been run by African American educators for generations; women’s colleges were run by women. But by the late 1980s, paternalism towards deaf people was so deeply ingrained, the oppression so long institutionalized, that deaf education was still a field where power lay with those who could hear.
The protest started the week before Spring Break, and continued through it. When the students (and supportive alumni, faculty and staff who guided them) closed the campus I was worried that they wouldn’t let me in. But some of the students who worked at ENFI project with me were part of the core group and let me through. They knew that I was working on a funding proposal. Actually, my boss, Dr. Trent Batson, a hearing man, was writing the proposal while he was at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, where he was working on a similar project. We were sending proposal items to each other through email. My student assistants were coming to the lab to visit me at work and keep me informed, and I, in turn, was keeping him informed. I would have liked to ditch work, but the funders weren’t part of the deaf community, their work was not being disrupted, and the deadline was firm.
I was able to attend some of the events, though, and share in the emotional euphoria when the news was good, and corresponding torment when it wasn’t. Betty and I were there for the rally calling for a Deaf President Now, chanting in signs with the students; we were there in the field house when we all pounded the floorboards with our feet and drowned out the hearing board members and Dr. Zinser while they were trying to give a speech. After all, if they could sign, the noise wouldn’t have been a problem. We were there when the National Association of the Deaf executive director ended a speech saying “Let’s go!” and we all followed him to the Mayflower Hotel where the Board members had moved their meeting because they couldn’t get onto the campus. But I wasn’t there for the famous march to the Capitol– I was on a bus going across town to deliver the proposal I’d spent most of the week proofreading, printing and collating.
It’s one of the few regrets I have, missing that march, and it led to one of the biggest arguments Betty and I ever had. She was there on the march, at least for part of it, and was missing me.
I remember being so torn between my duty to my job, and my desire to be part of the crowd. The crowd was so exciting and we knew it was history-making. But the crowd didn’t need me, and my job did. I was the only one who could have delivered those papers because Trent was in Pittsburgh, and the students were heavily involved in the protest. Yes, ENFI Project did get the funding, which means that Gallaudet got the funding, in part because I chose to work that day.
I’ve been watching the videos posted by Joey Baer (http://www.joeybaer.com/), seeing all the familiar faces, remembering the feelings. I’m struck by how much of the news footage isn’t captioned. In 1988, closed captioning had been around for a decade, but it still wasn’t implemented 100% and so much of the news about us excluded us. Yes, some of it was captioned, and some had interpreters in the corner of the screen. But so much more of the footage didn’t.
Seeing Harvey Goodstein, a faculty member at Gallaudet at the time, on the videos reminded me of something he said. Betty and I were in the ENFI computer lab at Hall Memorial Building and we ran into Harvey in the hall. He told Betty that when she stood up years before at faculty senate meetings and protested a new phrase developed by the audiology department, the phrase “hearing-impaired,” and when she showed people how oppression felt through her artwork, she was way ahead of the times. It touched my heart when Harvey then said, “Betty, we’ve finally caught up with you!”