1989 was my year of awakening. In that year I commenced work at the then Royal South Australian Deaf Society. I became life long friends with Dr Don Cresdee and in one of many long chats that I had with Don he told me about the Deaf President Now rally that had happened at Gallaudet University the previous year. Of course Gallaudet is the famous University for the deaf in Washington DC. One must remember that this was before the Internet, Facebook and Twitter. News generally filtered in very slowly. Dr Don was a past student at Gallaudet and he was in the know. I remember that he had somehow obtained videos of the Deaf President Now rallies. They fascinated me.

Here was a group of Deaf people fighting for what they believed in.  The rally had been about electing a Deaf President at Gallaudet. In its wisdom the Board of Management at Gallaudet had elected a hearing person to the post of President. This was despite the fact that there were two Deaf candidates for the post that were imminently qualified. The Deaf students at the University erupted. They wanted a Deaf President and they wanted one NOW. They took control of the University and sent the University into lockdown.

The videos that Dr Don had obtained were eye openers. They showed Deaf people campaigning. Angry Deaf people protesting passionately for their rights and taking control. They locked the gates and prevented any one getting in. Earlier this year Julia Gillard was physically accosted by angry Aboriginal protesters, well these protesters were small fry compared to the protesters at Gallaudet.

The Gallaudet Deaf President Now protest received mass media coverage in America. Famous people, both Deaf and hearing, lent their support. What fascinated me, among other things, was that the videos were captioned. THE NEWS CAPTIONED??? In 1989, in Australia, we were still a decade away from such access. What’s more there was actually a news program especially for the Deaf … Deaf Mosiac.

I remember as the rally unfolded the choice of the students, I King Jordan, lost his nerve. He had apparently met with the Board of Gallaudet who had convinced him that the protest was futile. He tried to get the students to back down. Apparently he was worried that people would get hurt, property damaged and that the reputation of Gallaudet would be tarnished. The students refused to back down despite his pleas. I remember at the time thinking he was letting the troops down but the reality is that it could not have been easy for him.

There is a fascinating account of the Deaf President Now rally on the Internet. It tells of the meeting that the students had with the hearing president elect. The president elect, Zinser, apparently apologised for not knowing sign language. She was just beginning to learn and ambitiously said that she would learn quickly and soon would not need an interpreter to communicate with them. She was described as a nice woman, who seemed sensitive but really did not listen.  Her pleas for “shared agendas” and “compromise” were shouted down. The students were having none of it. It was a Deaf President Now or it was nothing!

What is most fascinating is that the President elect, Zinser, actually went on record as saying she thought it entirely feasible for a deaf person to “one day” become President and that she would be encouraging deaf people into policy and management positions. (Where have Deaf Australians heard this before???) Apparently Marlee Matlin was brought into help with negotiations and she was furious when Zinser said this. “ I’m tired of the same old news that a deaf person will ‘someday’ become this or that”,  she is reported as saying or words to that effect. (And where have we heard that before too.)

The students were determined. They were going to win and they did.  Apparently the students went as far as hot-wiring Gallaudet buses and driving them to the gates of Gallaudet to act as barriers.  Eventually the students and their determination led to Zinser resigning and the position being offered to I King Jordan.  I King Jordan was already a dean of the College of Arts and Science within Gallaudet. He was obviously very skilled. It is baffling then that later in the piece one of the Gallaudet Board of management trying to explain their decision said, “We felt the Presidency of Gallaudet is a very complex and demanding job that requires experience, skills and knowledge related to administration. Knowledge and experience of deafness started to become less important.” Someone was later to ask Zinser if she would consider heading a furniture manufacturing company to which she answered that, “… she had no experience in furniture.”, thus implying that to administer a furniture company you needed knowledge about furniture. BUT … when it comes to deafness, a knowledge of deafness doesn’t matter! !!?? Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Incidentally in not appointing I King Jordan initially the excuse was, “. …we felt he needed more time.” I wonder where we have heard that one too.

What the 1988 protest did for me was show me, perhaps for the first time, what human rights were all about. For the first time I saw a group of deaf people mobilising for what they believed as right and just.  They wanted the world to see what deaf people were capable of. They knew that a deaf person at the head of their University would demonstrate faith in the abilities of deaf people and would inspire deaf people for many years to come. They certainly inspired me. In fact I have spent a whole career advocating for change using the principles and arguments they put forward all those years ago.

There are paradoxes in this. The first paradox is that I King Jordan, in my view, is not Deaf, well not culturally any way. Arguably he is a hearing person who cannot hear. He lost his hearing when he was 21 in a motorcycle accident. He certainly embraced and emphasised with the Deaf community but he, like most members of the Deaf community and its leaders, learnt sign language and about the Deaf community very much later in life. He, like many others, after he had developed a mastery of sign language became accepted among the Deaf community. But is he really Deaf in the real sense of a word as say Colin Allen, President of the World Federation of the Deaf. Allen, of course, was born Deaf into a Deaf family and used sign language (Auslan) from birth. He is one of the natives, so to speak.

The second paradox is that later I King Jordan became the subject of a student protest himself. He resigned as President in 2006 having overseen the change in Gallaudet from a College to a University and dramatically increasing its capital. Shortly before he resigned he was involved in selecting the new President. He was accused as selecting the person who he had “groomed” for the role and of having a selection process that was not open and accountable. Ironically the President they chose was deaf but this time the students believed that she was “not deaf enough”.  Is it a case of the Deaf community becoming too militant perhaps? Or perhaps a case of people like I King Jordan being a big fish in a small sea and them wanting to see a “Real Deaf person” in the role. That is another debate for another time.

But the fact is that the 1988 protest by Gallaudet students made the world sit up and take notice. It inspired a generation of deaf people to aim high and fight for their rights, and I was one of them. I King Jordan was later asked what the original protest and his appointment as President had achieved for deaf people. He had this to say, How did I improve the lives of deaf people? What happened is, the lives of deaf people improved because people who are not deaf saw that I was a successful President. When I succeeded as President, they saw, oh, deaf people can do this high-level job. So if deaf people could do that, then they can probably do other jobs as well. And I think the most important success I had, the most important thing I’ve accomplished in 19 years as President of Gallaudet is to have succeeded as President because by doing so I become a model for success and other people, young and old alike. They know they can succeed as well.”  And to me this is the lesson that the Deaf sector in Australia need to heed. As for deaf people they need to heed the fact that remaining silent achieves nothing, speak up or miss out!

  • Congratulations to Deafness Forum Australia on a magnificent Deafness Summit in Melbourne from April 28th to 29th. You should be very proud.
  • Information in this article has been sourced from:

Deaf President Now