You might hear a lot about the word REPRESENTATION these days and not be sure what is meant by it. If you search the word online, some key definitions that may pop up are “1. the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone or the state of being so represented. 2. the depiction of someone or something in a picture or other work of art.” The first definition is often thought of in terms of government representatives speaking on behalf of citizens. The second definition is simultaneously simple and complicated. Do you see yourself represented in the media around you? In other words, do you notice people on book covers, movie posters, in video games, etc. that look like you or share other attributes that you connect with? If your answer is “of course” and you are wondering why this is even a question, chances are you are being well-represented in the society and culture around you. Yet, for other individuals this is often not the case, and a good example of both definitions can be found in the historic event referred to as DEAF PRESIDENT NOW (DPN).

A week of rallies. A week of protests. Marches, meetings, bus barricades, locks, chants, signs, banners… students, staff, faculty, alumni, the media and more. Gallaudet University, the only university specifically designed to accommodate the Deaf and Hard-Of-Hearing, was the center of the nation’s attention in March 1988. Why? A new president was being chosen. Wait… what? Who really notices their school president? What difference does it make? You already know the answer to those questions… REPRESENTATION.

For the 124 years it had been in existence, Gallaudet University had always had white, male, hearing presidents. When the latest in that long line announced his exit in the late 1980s, a search was put into place that resulted in three final candidates, a hearing woman and two Deaf men. The Board of Trustees was poised to announce the person selected on March 6, 1988. Prior to this date, many individuals expressed in many ways that it was time for a Deaf university to have a Deaf leader. This pressure for the Board to select a Deaf president included student rallies leading up to the announcement.

Despite everything, that is not what happened. The Board of Trustees failed to announce the selection publicly and in person, simply distributing flyers indicating that Elizabeth Zinser, the only hearing candidate, had been chosen as Gallaudet’s seventh president. Zinser had university experience but did not know sign language or have any understanding of Deaf culture. As the outgoing Student Body Government (SBG) president at the time, Tim Rarus, said in an interview, “It was like we had been punched right in the face… our spirits sank, obviously they didn’t understand how we felt, but then we started really getting angry.” One participant in video footage of the protests to follow shouted, “When Deaf people prepare to succeed, hearing people bring them down” and yet another lamented, “They’re still afraid that Deaf people can’t do it.” Gary Olson, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) director at the time of the announcement, expressed that “This is the greatest insult to the Deaf people of America, twenty-six million of them, and they are disgusted” going on to say, “This shows that we are not the ones who are Deaf, but it is they, the Board, who are Deaf.” It was Gary who suggested that the students march to the Mayflower Hotel where the Board was staying to seek answers regarding their decision.

The walk to the Mayflower was the first mass Deaf march in history. Unfortunately, after arguing for three hours, the students were making no progress with the Trustees and returned to campus to draft their demands, which were as follows:

1. The selected president, Elizabeth Zinser, should resign and a Deaf president should be installed.

2. The chairman of the Board of Trustees, Jane Spilman, should step down.

3. The Board of Trustees should have a majority 51% Deaf members.

4. There should be no reprisals for (i.e., retaliation against) anyone involved with the protests.

When presented, the Board of Trustees ignored all of the student’s requests. This sparked a response of several marches to Capitol Hill in the following days. In the meantime, the protestors took actions on campus to shut down the dorms and the school, blocking administration from entering by locking gates and moving buses to act as barriers. Although this may sound haphazard, DPN was an incredibly well-organized protest. Four student leaders, known as the “BIG 4,” emerged as key figures in the event and mobilized their fellow students. Listed here (seen L to R in the below photo):

1. Tim Rarus (Class of 1988): Outgoing SBG president who served on the search committee for the new university president.

2. Brigetta Bourne-Firl (Class of 1989): Government major. Running mate to Jerry Covell. Joined forces with the other SBG individuals when the protest began.

3. Greg Hlibok (Class of 1989): Elected president of the SBG ONE DAY before the first rally leading up to the selection of the new university president.

4. Gerald “Jerry” Covell (Class of 1989): The candidate who ran against the newly elected SBG president (Greg Hlibok) known for his rousing speaking style.

The BIG 4 and their fellow students were not alone. They met daily with the faculty, staff and broader community through a council group that was formed. Outside organizations like the postal worker’s union showed support. The local Black community recognized their efforts by loaning students the same banner used in Civil Rights marches, reading “WE STILL HAVE A DREAM” as a powerful show of solidarity. Well-known Deaf celebrity Marlee Matlin stepped in as well, being interviewed on national news alongside Greg Hlibok (new SBG President), and Elizabeth Zinser, the newly appointed president.

A key turning point during the week of protests was the moment when one of the Deaf candidates for the position, I. King Jordan (pictured below), announced that he stood on the side of the students and supported their demands. Within days, President Zinser resigned, and I. King Jordan was selected to be the eighth president of Gallaudet University. The first condition was met! The rest soon followed. All four of the demands outlined by students were ultimately agreed to. I. King. Jordan captured what had transpired well in a speech following his installation, “I must give the highest praise to the students of Gallaudet for showing us exactly, even now, how one can seize an idea with such force that it becomes a reality.”

This empowering statement mirrors the change in many students during the events of Deaf President Now, which has a lasting impact to this day. All of Gallaudet’s presidents have been Deaf since, with I. King. Jordan serving in that role for close to 20 years. In an interview many years later, Bridgetta Bourne-Firl of the BIG 4 expressed that when the students had decided to act, many of them “had absorbed in their mind that they could not, that Deaf people are not able to do that… they didn’t have the tools to succeed, that somebody would always have to ‘be in charge of me,’ and it was really a shock. People felt so released from that oppression at that moment. It was very emotional.” Another student in the BIG 4, Jerry Covell, shared similar in an interview. Jerry relayed that he observed a “Deaf cannot” attitude among his peers at the time and stated, “They assumed such things because of what Deaf people did for work.” Following DPN, there was a marked shift in thinking and action in the Deaf community, with young people not needing to be convinced of their potential, and Deaf individuals of all ages pursuing professions they may have previously felt were beyond their reach. To quote Brigetta Bourne-Firi once more, “Deaf President Now is an American story. It’s not my story, or only the Deaf community’s story, or Gallaudet’s story, but an American Civil Rights story.”

Somewhat ironically, one of the biggest impacts of DPN was on the hearing population. The national media exposure drew attention to the Deaf community in a way that had not been seen before. The events of DPN opened the minds of the public and legislators to issues surrounding Deaf rights. This led to social change and new laws in the months and years to follow, most notably the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) only two years after the protest. It should also be noted that the reach of these events was not just national, but international. Collegiate programs for the Deaf started to be established overseas in Japan, Sweden, South Africa and beyond.

If the Deaf President Now protest had not occurred, you might not be reading this article right now. Instead, the new awareness raised about Deaf culture inspired many hearing people to learn American Sign Language, inevitably leading to ASL being recognized by many schools as a viable foreign language option. Sure, there is always room for more to be done, and the fight for the rights of traditionally underrepresented groups is a constant struggle, but as an ASL learner you are doing your part to move things in the right direction. By building connections through better communication, you are part of the solution. As the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson said, “The problem is not that the students do not hear. The problem is that the hearing world does not listen.” Thank you for listening.

Written by the ASLdeafined Director of Communications, Holly Smith, on May 20, 2021

Information for this article comes from…

All Things Considered podcast: At Gallaudet, a Turn Inward Opens New Worlds, posted April 30, 2006

Deaf History Month: Memories of DPN by Sorenson, posted March 20, 2014

Deaf History Month: Remembering DPN by Sorenson, posted March 10, 2014

DPN (Deaf President Now): Deaf History Series by ASL Stew, posted February 3, 2017

Gallaudet University website: About Deaf President Now

Gallaudet University website: Deaf Mosaic 402: Deaf President Now

Gallaudet University website: Deaf President Now (museum video footage)

Gallaudet University website: History Behind DPN

Pacific Standard article, “How Deaf President Now Changed America” byDavid M. Perry, April 11, 2018

StoryCorps Archives transcript: Jeff Rosen and Bridgetta Bourne-Firl, recorded July 25, 2015

USA Today article, “Gallaudet eyes more progress for deaf community 30 years after ‘Deaf President Now’ protest” by Ryan W. Miller, April 23, 2018