In March 1988, the Deaf community was hit by a shockwave: The board of trustees at Washington’s Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts college for Deaf people, announced the selection of a hearing president over two qualified Deaf candidates. In its then-124 years, Gallaudet had never had a Deaf president ― that is, it had never been helmed by someone who came from the very community it served.
Students rebelled, staging a lockout and shutting down the entire campus. Their protest for a “Deaf President Now” (DPN) rallied the Deaf community and its allies and the university reversed its decision. Gallaudet also conceded to a key demand: From then on, the university board was to have at least a 51percent Deaf majority. Three decades later, DPN is still considered one of the most pivotal moments for America’s Deaf community, which is 30 million strong, and for Deaf people all over the world.
Since that week the world heard the Deaf community, Gallaudet has named a succession of Deaf presidents, an unlikely outcome if we hadn’t stacked the deck in our own favor. The forced implementation of a Deaf board majority was arguably the critical ingredient to ensure continuation of a Deaf presidency.
In retrospect, the rationale for supporting DPN is obvious: representation and owning our own spaces matter. In the face of rampant discrimination, they matter profoundly.
“What about a Deaf pilot? A Deaf chief executive at a Fortune 500 company? Would you unfailingly trust a Deaf doctor to deliver your baby?”
A Deaf president at a Deaf school is a completely reasonable idea, and one that enjoys support today. But what if you propose that a Deaf person manage a team at a fast-food restaurant? There likely would be a pause; after giving it some thought, one eventually might conclude that, with a few minor adjustments, it could work out.
What about a Deaf pilot? A Deaf chief executive at a Fortune 500 company? Would you unfailingly trust a Deaf doctor to deliver your baby?
While it seems obvious that Deaf people should be allowed to lead in certain situations, it isn’t so clear for others. You might argue for Deaf people excelling in supporting roles instead of taking the lead. Why is it more likely to expect a Deaf person to be a busboy than the maître d’? Why is it easier to imagine a Deaf orderly in the delivery room as opposed to a Deaf doctor? Outside the Deaf community, the belief persists that Deaf people are less capable than hearing people, that they aren’t able to take the lead, that they won’t succeed in any work environment.
These biases surface when Deaf job-seekers want to break into careers they desire and job counselors try to steer them into work that is “better suited” to their skills, or when Deaf people are told with a polite smile by prospective employers that they will be contacted if an opportunity arises and then are never granted an interview. It is so pervasive that many of us in the Deaf community have internalized these beliefs, and don’t even bother trying to seek work that challenges us and offers opportunities for self-sufficiency and growth. Deaf and disabled people have dismally low participation rates in the labor force, hovering around 20%, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
DPN wasn’t a destination, but rather a seminal entry point for us. The protest helped catalyze a long-standing disability rights movement, which won a major victory with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) two years later in 1990. The unintended consequence of this law, which is currently under attack through legislative reform efforts in bill H.R. 620, is that with newfound freedoms and greater access to society, Deaf people have also had to prove our worth and maintain a foothold, to show we deserved to be in all of the new rooms and in seats at decision-making tables.
Some will argue that this means Deaf people are competing in the same meritocracy as hearing people, but it’s tough to argue for a meritocracy when negative attitudes and biases stack the deck against you, making it difficult to gain employment and develop skills and knowledge.
We have made incredible progress over the past 30 years, quietly and steadily doing groundwork to create change from the bottom up. Imagine what we could do if we had more visible changemakers, more Deaf presidents producing change from the top down.
“Deaf people need to be allowed to move into the unexpected places, places that don’t yet have a culture that accepts and values leaders who do not fit preconceived ideas of what a leader looks like.”
Just take a look at two individuals who have vaulted to prominence and are enacting great changes: Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer at Microsoft, and Michael Ellis, global vice president of accessibility at Sprint. They lead disability-centered inclusion initiatives at their companies and have created a culture where Deaf and disabled people are valued. Others demand this attention and respect, like the ADAPT and #CripTheVote activists, who have put their bodies on the line to protest cruel cuts to health care coverage, which would hit people with disabilities especially hard.
Now, Deaf people need to be allowed to move into the unexpected places, places that don’t yet have a culture that accepts and values leaders who do not fit preconceived ideas of what a leader looks like. For that to be possible, everyone ― Deaf and hearing people alike ― must do the uncomfortable but necessary work of uncovering hidden biases about disability and the capabilities of Deaf and disabled people. We need to admit that we all are complicit in too often creating a culture that determines the value of people based on limited ideas about capability and leadership.
This is why we need Deaf and disabled people in the highest and most visible places in society. Stories about Deaf people’s successes beget more success stories — not stories about “overcoming,” but about excelling in roles of prominence, responsibility and import far beyond the walls of a Deaf school. Presidents, doctors and CEOs need to be there not in spite of being Deaf, but because they are Deaf. Already we have some fine examples, like Amanda Folendorf of Angels Camp, California, the first Deaf woman mayor in the United States, and Shoshannah Stern and Joshua Feldman, the Deaf showrunners behind the TV series “This Close” on Sundance Now.
Three decades after DPN, we need more Deaf presidents, more Deaf people running businesses, managing teams and recognized as the leaders ― the “faces” ― of products and services. We need more representation, more awareness and more authenticity. And we need Deaf people to take the lead. We know our worth; let us prove that inclusion and diversity pays dividends for everyone.
Chris Soukup is Chief Executive Officer of the Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), one of the largest organizations in the world dedicated to inspiring and cultivating greater opportunity for Deaf people. He is a graduate of Gallaudet University, where he served as student body president.