Deaf President Now

Deaf President Now, or DPN, was a student led protest at Gallaudet University that took place between the 6th and 13th of March, 1988. The protests can be seen as part of the tail end of the struggle against oralism (the belief that deaf individuals should be taught vocal speech not signing) and the lingering belief that deaf individuals are inferior to hearing individuals. The protests culminated in the first deaf president of the university, which had been established in 1864 to serve the deaf community of America and offer them the chance to higher education; it had, until this point, never yet had a deaf president.

Gallaudet was originally a school for “deaf, dumb and blind” children, and was opened in 1857. When it opened the school housed 12 deaf, and 6 blind children. In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln authorised the institution to confer college degrees. Throughout the entire history of the school and university however the university had always had a hearing president, as the belief throughout history had been that deaf people were not as mentally capable as hearing people. By 1988 however students and faculty members had decided that it was time for change.

The winter of 1987-1988 presented an opportunity that the deaf community was excited about. The former president of the university had stepped down and so the hunt was on for the replacement. The months leading up to DPN were ones of hope for the deaf populous of the student body and the faculty also. There were over 100 qualified deaf faculty members and by mid-January of 1988 they had six potential candidates, 3 deaf and 3 hearing. By February 28th that had been narrowed down to 3. Dr Harvey Carson was a deaf man serving as the superintendent of Louisiana School for the Deaf; Dr I. King Jordan was a deaf academic, currently serving as the Dean of Gallaudet’s College of Arts and Sciences; Elizabeth Zinser was a hearing woman who was the assistant chancellor of the University of North Carolina.

Many high-profile individuals and deaf advocacy groups had publicly stated their support for a deaf president, including prominent politicians such as Vice President of the United States George Bush, and Senators Bob Dole, Bob Graham, Tom Hankin and Lowell Weicher. Despite this however, it was announced that the new president would be Elizabeth Zinser, the sole hearing candidate.

What followed was a series of rallies and protests that lasted an entire week. Students and faculty members shut down the campus, held multiple marches to the White House and Capitol Hill, and drew the attention of the national news and media. Protesters presented the Board of Trustees with four demands;

  • Elizabeth Zinser must step down as president and a deaf president would be elected
  • Jane Spilman, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, must resign
  • Deaf people must make up 51% of the board
  • There would be no reparations for the protesters

The demands were initially dismissed by Spilman, who initially refused to even negotiate with the representatives sent to the Board by the protesters. Support grew for the protesters, faculty members and staff of the university as well as swathes of the deaf community from across America joining the protests. On the Thursday Dr I. King Jordan officially and publicly withdrew his support for Zinser and instead declared his support for the four demands that had been presented by the protesters. That night Zinser resigned and on Sunday 13th March, all the demands made by the protesters were met or pledged to by the board of trustees.

Dr King Jordan implemented some much needed changes at the university and more than that, he set the precedent that, in his words, “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can except hear”, helping to solidify the old fashioned beliefs that had accompanied oralism as a thing of the past.