American Sign Language and Gallaudet
Gallaudet University is a college designed for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing. All of the programs are designed for the advancement of the deaf community. The majority of students and faculty are themselves deaf or hard of hearing, although a limited number of students without these disabilities are allowed into the school each year.
The university began in 1857 when the 34th Congress approved the institution of what was then called the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind. The year before, a wealthy philanthropist and former United States Postmaster General Amos Kendall became aware that there was a large group of young people in the Washington D.C. area who were not receiving proper care because they were disabled. He had the court declare the children his legal wards and donated two acres of his property to have a house and special school built for them. This land would become the institution we now know as Gallaudet University.
The intent of the university was never to segregate the deaf community from the outside world. Instead the purpose was to create a place where deaf and hard of hearing individuals could receive the higher education that they had heretofore been denied. In his Presentation Day Address to the students, then University President C. Alphonso Smith stated:
America does mean opportunity. But it was not until 1864 that great principle found illustration in a college for the training of the deafâ€¦It stands for justice, not charity. This college, and this college alone, stands for the principle that a limitation upon one faculty shall not be a limitation upon all faculties, but rather a challenge to all faculties. It stands for the principle that the men and women who enter here shall see before them the same shining goal that beckons to the men and women who enter other colleges (Address).
For more than a century, those in the deaf community could enter the halls of Gallaudet University and become trained for participation in the world at large. The school’s directive was to give people born with certain limitations to live in a world where most people will not make those kinds of exceptions.
That is not to say the school’s history was without controversy. In 1988, the students of the school led what has been called a revolution. The students demanded that the school have a deaf President, something that had yet to be achieved in the school’s history. It took only six days for the Deaf President Now! campaign to succeed. Many of the DPN activists were enraged when it seemed that the university was unconcerned with the sensitivities of the student body (Christiansen 1995,-page 7). Not only was the hiring committee not looking for a deaf president, many of the potential candidates did not even know how to use sign language. This would not be the last occasion for upheaval in the university’s history. There would be additional protest when the University hired a hearing football coach in 2007 that had no knowledge of sign language (Foster). The difference is that Coach Hottle had already begun taking lessons to learn the language and had genuine respect for the deaf community, understanding that he was the outsider in this particular community. His efforts to learn and communicate with his players in American Sign Language and the fact that he would look, not at the interpreter, but directly at the student which whom he was having a conversation quickly ingratiated the new coach. He has now led the Gallaudet football team to heights of success that they had never encountered before.
Besides the politics of the school’s hiring processes, there has also been increasing discord in the deaf community about how to exist in a hearing world. According to former school president I. King Jordan, a struggle between factions in the deaf community is taking its toll on the university. The specific problem is a faction of the deaf community which Jordan calls “absolutists.” “They believe you are either deaf or you are not. You are either a supporter of ASL or you are not deaf. You either refuse to consider cochlear implants or you are not deaf. Many of our students, faculty and alumni who consider themselves deaf (including some born deaf to deaf families) would not be considered deaf by the absolutists” (Jordan). This discrepancy, Jordan feared, would cause even more friction in the university, which would then lead to a potential break-down of the college itself.
The mission statement of Gallaudet University has always been to instill students with the purpose of achieving higher education. Gallaudet “is a bilingual, diverse, multicultural institution of higher education that ensures the intellectual and professional advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals through American Sign Language and English. Gallaudet maintains a proud tradition of research and scholarly activity and prepares its graduates for career opportunities in a highly competitive, technological, and rapidly changing world” (Gallaudet). The school’s creation was intended to create a place where people who were born with physical limitations could become educated and trained for life in an unsympathetic world. Though the last few decades have shown certain difficulties in the politics of the school, the university still stands for its original purpose and will continue to do so for many years into the future.
Christiansen, John & Sharon N. Barnartt. (1995). Deaf President Now!: the 1988 Revolution at Gallaudet University. Gallaudet: NY.
Foster, Brooke. (2007). “Sound and the Fury.” The Washington Post. Aug. 19.
“Gallaudet.” (2010). http://www.gallaudet.edu/x20520.xml
Jordan, I. King. (2007). “Deaf Culture and Gallaudet.” The Washington Post. Jan. 22.
Smith, C. Alphonso (1914). “Address Given on Presentation Day at Gallaudet.”
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