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BBC Radio commemorates Deaf President Now

BBC Radio commemorates Deaf President Now

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Radio made a broadcast to mark the 30th anniversary of Deaf President Now (DPN). A transcript of the broadcast was provided to Gallaudet's Office of University Communications and Public relations.

The following is a transcript as provided by Clare Bowes, BBC Word Service.

CLAIRE: Hello and welcome to Witness on the BBC World Service with me, Claire Bowes.  On March the sixth nineteen eighty eight a protest began at the world's only University for the deaf. Two thousand students took over the campus at Gallaudet University in Washington DC. 

They were protesting against the selection of a hearing person as the new President of the University. The challenge helped change the world's attitudes toward deaf people. I've been speaking to King Jordan, who became the first deaf President of Gallaudet.

(We Want DPN) (chanting ‘we want a deaf President now)

ARCHIVE: 'We want a deaf president now'...the slogan filled the air for days in March nineteen eighty eight as two thousand students barricaded Gallaudet University in Washington DC, holding placards and stopping anyone from entering the campus.

(more We Want DPN) chanting ‘we want a deaf President now)

KING: There were TV trucks 24 hours a day, parked along the road at Gallaudet the story was on the front page of the Washington post for 7 straight days and on the front page of the New York Times for 4 of the 7 days.

CLAIRE: At the time Dr I King Jordan was Dean of arts and sciences at Gallaudet University, where the majority of students are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Most communicate using American sign language. King Jordan had spent decades there – first as a student and then a  teacher- after losing his hearing in a motorbike accident.

KING: Right now I hear absolutely nothing, my biggest challenge in communication is modulating my speech because I don’t hear any background, so I depend on interpreters not only to interpret for me what others are saying but to tell me ‘sshhh, quiet quiet’ or ‘Speak up’.

CLAIRE: When a vacancy arose for President King thought this might be a good opportunity for the University to appoint its first deaf leader in the institution's one hundred and twenty four year history, so he applied. Students came out in support of the idea.

KING: The students all had banners and signs up in their windows on campus and you would see bedsheets hanging out of windows saying ‘We want a deaf President’ so it was really clear the message was for the board.

CLAIRE: Pressure was also mounting from outside the university, all the way up to America's Vice President, George Bush senior, who wrote to the board.


In the last two decades our society has undergone a quiet revolution. The Congress, the Courts and the Administration have strongly supported the right of people with disabilities to hold positions of trust and leadership.

Accordingly, as an entity funded by the Federal government, Gallaudet has a responsibility to set an example and thus to appoint a President who is not only highly qualified, but who is also deaf. Sincrerely, George Bush.

CLAIRE: For many, it seemed, this was a moment to make history, but instead of being encouraged the board of trustees were anxious.

KING: The final interview was at a hotel in downtown Washington DC that was kept very very secret, I mean really secret, it was kept secret from me!

When I was scheduled to be interviewed they sent a driver to my house to pick me, I asked if I could tell my wife where I was going so that she could pick me up when I was done and they said ‘No’. I came to figure out that they were so secretive and keeping things confidential because they were afraid that all these students who were marching and having vigils would show up at the interview sites because everyone knew then the final three, two of us were deaf and one was hearing.

CLAIRE QUESTION: And how was that interview? It’s sounding like a Hollywood film, it’s so secretive.

KING: It was not deaf-friendly, I like to use that term, deaf-friendly. The reason I say that it is the interview room was a conference room and it was a

Long rectangular room in which there were supporting pillars. So there was one sign language interpreter and about twenty board members and the sign language interpreter was trying really hard to help me understand where the questions were coming from, who was asking the questions, the hearing people on the board would talk over people, it was really really a tough interview.

CLAIRE: And on March sixth the board of trustees of Gallaudet University announced their decision to appoint Elizabeth Zinser, the only hearing candidate of the final three.

KING: They had this one page press release that had a big bold headline at the top saying ‘Gallaudet University names first female President’ and the two deaf candidates were both men, so staff people walked around campus mingling with students waiting for the announcement and just handed them this document, so that light was a match that started what began as a real protest, students just came together and said this is unacceptable.

(more DPN chant)

KING If you’ve seen any of the videos you would see people signing in unison ‘we want a deaf president now’, ‘we want a deaf president now’ and in sign language that’s really powerful. They hot-wired some buses, took the buses and drove them to the gates of the campus, locked the gates and said ‘aint nobody coming on campus till you name a deaf president’.

The following day the chair of the board, Jane Spillman, tried to speak to the students.

SPILLMAN: Last night around 11.30 or something I promised you I’d be here…and I promised you I’d be here to listen to the students…(crowd howls and jeers)

CLAIRE: Standing behind a podium with a sign language interpreter at her side, Jane Spillman looked awkward, uncomfortable and bemused as the crowd jeered, whistled, shouted, let off a fire alarm and even invaded the stage.

SPILLMAN ARCHIVE: Yesterday the board of trustees..selected a new president…the process that led up to that…(JEERS) (ALARMS)

A lawful, proper and final decision was made…

CLAIRE Q: I’ve watched footage of some of the students taking the stage as the board of trustees was trying to address the students. They wouldn’t allow it, there’s a fire alarm going off, it’s chaos but there’s such a strength of feeling and it’s almost like it’s really shocking to the board that deaf people would act in this way, you know ‘that’s not how we regard deaf people’

KING: Yeh that’s right, good point, and one of the things she did was tell them they needed to quiet down, it was too noisy.

SPILLMAN ARCHIVE : The board will listen to you but we will not sit here if you are going to scream so loudly that we cannot hear you…

KING: And of course that was exactly the wrong thing for her to say…and all the students walked out so she didn’t have anyone to speak to.

CLAIRE: And the protests continued.

KING: They had signs out front of campus that said ‘honk if you support a deaf Prez’ and everybody honked.

(horns honking)

CLAIRE: Three days after she was appointed, with the University still under siege, Elizabeth Zinser, resigned.

ZINSER ARCHIVE: I concluded that the best way to restore order and return University to its business of education was to pave the way for the board of trustees to consider the selection of a President who is hearing impaired.

I tendered my resignation last night.

CLAIRE: The chair of the board of trustees, Jane Spilman, also resigned and exactly one week after the protest began King Jordan was appointed President.

KING: 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. (CLAPPING/CHEERING)

CLAIRE: And he was inaugurated six months later.

KING: For a long time deaf people were suffering from a feeling of motivation lost but last March in our unity in our belief and in our amazement at our own strength, we enjoyed a true renaissance, motivation found.

CLAIRE Q: You talked about motivation lost and found in that speech, I wonder is there a sign that you could describe for our listeners that they could learn? The sign for motivation found?

KING: The sign for motivation is as if you make the sign for praying, where you hold your two hands together, fingertips and thumbs together then move it down so the fingertips are pointed away from you and then rub your hands back and forth.

Can you hear me rubbing my hands? And that’s the sign for motivation, the sign for found is you hold your finger and thumb together, like the ok sign…making a little ring with your finger and your thumb then you pull that out of your other hand.

CLAIRE:  Dr I King Jordan was President of Gallaudet for eighteen years, he currently works as a freelance advocate for deaf rights.

KING: Don’t put limits on us, don’t say we can’t do this and we can’t do that, we can do anything, the only thing we simply can’t do is hear and we have ways to develop workarounds, so what we’re doing right now, you and I are having a conversation, I can’t hear a thing you’re saying, I’m watching a sign language interpreter, so I can do an interview as well as a hearing person can, so that’s the legacy.

(...that's it for this edition, but if you've enjoyed this podcast, do check out our sister programme 'the History Hour'. You'll find it wherever you get your podcasts)

Posted by B Mutisya Nzyuko | Posted March 23, 2018 at 4:35 PM


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