Flashback to March, 1988 Deaf President NOW

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By: Jasun Hicks

On March 7, 1988 the Deaf community found its voice. There is a photograph of a sign that was used during the Civil Rights Movement being used for the Deaf President Now (DPN) protest. This was a very well organized and peaceful protest planned out by four students. Tim Rarus, Greg Hilbok, Jerry Covell, and Brenda Born-Firl joined forces to plan out one of the biggest movements to promote awareness and equality for the Deaf community.

While some people classify DPN as a student-led protest, it was much more than just a protest; it was a cry out for common goals among a large community. People from all over America came together to support the community as a whole. Even faculty and staff members were involved and everybody was bound by a clear defined goal - a Deaf President for Gallaudet University. DPN was not only about getting a deaf president, there were three other demands. The four demands specifically were: Elisabeth Zinser must resign and a Deaf person selected president, Jane Spilman must step down as Chairperson of the Board of Trustees, Deaf people must constitute a 51% majority on the board and there would be no reprisals against any student or employee involved in the protest.

On March 6, 1988, a hearing president was selected and the uproar began. Gallaudet University is a world renowned university for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students and the organizers felt like it was time to call out to the world and let them know that it is time for a Deaf president to run this university. Because two of the three finalists were Deaf, so many people had been confident that the next president would be Deaf.

The success of this protest/movement wasn't just the fact that they were able to peacefully protest and bring the world together to pay attention to what they needed but their clear sense of purpose. DPN was a very emotional time and is known for its ability to bring the hearing community in and helping them see where the Deaf community is coming from.

"The night Zinser resigned, we had been told that the police were now going to take control of the campus. We still had 3 1/2 demands left to go, so we were no where near finished. To prevent the police from breaking through the Gallaudet gates, we needed to put a Gallaudet bus next to them because we knew the police wouldn't damage the school vehicles which were federal property. We didn't have the key to the bus I was working on. We were in a hurry. One Gallaudet student approached me... I'd never met him before... he was "oral" and hadn't mastered ASL. He had on a black leather jacket and long hair and was from New York City. He told me he could "hot wire" the Gallaudet bus and that he did." (Tim Rarus)

Deaf people with various backgrounds and knowledge usually have different goals and don't mingle but during this protest, they came together to accomplish a group of common goals. Deaf people at the time didn't care whether their president was oral, deaf with a big D, or communicated with a different method other than ASL; they just wanted a Deaf President Now. With national awareness of what rights and abilities Deaf people have, many things were able to be accomplished for years afterwards. It's very possible that it also paved the way for ADA to be passed in 1990.

It has been over thirty-one years since this movement ended as of March 13, 1988, however, it is still one of the most memorable and honored times within the Deaf community mainly because so many of our eyes were opened.