Gallaudet University – ‘Deaf President Now’

Gallaudet University is the only one in the world where all seminars and lectures are in Sign. It is in Washington DC and was founded in 1864. Astonishingly, it wasn’t until 1988 that it would have a Deaf president. And for this to happen, the students had to go on strike.

Also astonishing is that since 1982, all signing had to be in signed English rather than ASL (American Sign Language), the students’ native language.

The movement began in 1987 when president Jerry Lee retired. Students started demanding a Deaf president. March 5, 1988, was the day before the election. There were six candidates, half of them Deaf. 3,000 people attended a candlelight vigil demanding a Deaf president.

Jane Bassett Spilman

The next day, the 21 trustees (only four of whom were Deaf) chose the hearing Elisabeth Ann Zinser. To make matters worse, the head of the board, Jane Bassett Spilman (who still hadn’t learned Sign in seven years) said:

“The Deaf are not yet ready to function in the hearing world.”

This led to 1,000 students marching on the White House on March 7. On March 8, all 2,000 students closed the university, putting up barricades. One banner read:

“Dr Zinsner is not ready to function in the Deaf world.”

On March 9, Zinsner appeared on Nightline, saying:

“A deaf individual, one day, will… be president of Gallaudet.”

The students response was a new banner:

“Why not March 10, 1988, Dr Zinsner?”

They had four demands: a Deaf president, the resignation of Spilman, a Deaf majority on the board and no repercussions for the strikers.

Deaf students protesting at Gallaudet University - courtesy Gallaudet archives.
Deaf students protesting at Gallaudet University – courtesy Gallaudet archives.

Zinsner totally misread the students, alternately asking for compromise then threatening to take back control of the campus. The students burned her in effigy. They felt this was their version of the Civil Rights marches.

They appointed four leaders: Greg Hlibok, Tim Rarus, Bridgetta Bourne, and Jerry Covell – who has led the Deaf President Now (DPN) campaign.

Deaf President Now (DPN) leaders - courtesy Gallaudet archives.
Deaf President Now (DPN) leaders – courtesy Gallaudet archives.

Deaf leaders from across the world gave them support.

One banner paid tribute to the founder of the first American Deaf school:

“Laurent Clerc wants Deaf Prez. He is not here, but his spirit is here. Support us.”

The students set up an office full of teletypewriters where they contacted politicians, trade unions and the media. This was also where they raised much-needed cash for their campaign.

Dr Elisabeth A. Zinser

On March 10, Dr Zinsner finally resigned saying she had:

“Responded to this extraordinary social movement of deaf people.”

By noon on March 11, 500 extra Deaf students had arrived, the mood of the protesters had improved as they marched on Congress. All American Deaf schools were on strike now.

On March 13, Spilman finally resigned, and Dr King Jordan became the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University. He said to the throngs of students that:

Irving King Jordan
Irving King Jordan

“This is a historic moment for deaf people around the world. This week we can truly say that we together, united, have overcome our reluctance to stand for our rights. The world has watched the deaf community come of age. We will no longer accept limits on what we can achieve.”


For history and background information about Deaf President Now (DPN)please visit Gallaudet University’s history archive – click here.

Edmund West is an autistic freelance journalist who has been writing articles since 2007. He also works with Autistic adults and has an MA in history. He has written for several magazines: Press Gazette, Wired, Military History Monthly, History Today, etc.