This month, 29 years ago, a group of students on the campus of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., expectantly awaited the announcement that Dr. Irving King Jordan had been appointed as the first deaf president of Gallaudet.
This revolutionary event was due to the hard work of a handful of students who came to be known as the Gallaudet Four; they’d spent the week prior to this event leading fellow students in “Deaf President Now” protests against the hiring of the seventh president of the school, Elisabeth Zinser, who was not deaf.
The deaf community in Washington, D.C. rallied behind the students as news of the protest spread around the world. Eventually the new president, Zinser, was forced to resign, and the administration of the school replaced her with Jordan, to the celebration of many.
One of the Gallaudet Four students was Bridgetta Bourne, a charismatic yet soft-spoken government major from the class of 1989. She and another member, Jerry Covell, had just lost a race for Gallaudet student body government, but they joined outgoing president Tim Rarus and newly elected president Greg Hlibok in leading their peers in the short-lived but impactful protest.
The “Deaf President Now” protest paved the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. In the words of a Bush administration representative, Jeff Dart, who presented Gallaudet students and staff with the President’s Distinguished Service Award in 1992, “The long successful struggle by the students and faculty to replace paternalism with empowerment sent a vital message to the nation and (“Deaf President Now”) was a major contribution to the passage of the ADA.”
Dart’s words were included in the book “Deaf President Now! The 1988 Revolution at Gallaudet University,” by John B. Christiansen and Sharon N. Barnartt.
The Gallaudet Four are still hailed as heroes among the deaf community, and Bourne is celebrated as a unique woman who inspired those around her to fight for representation and the right to control their own lives.
• Clara Layton is a senior at Davis High School and a member of the Yakima Herald-Republic’s Unleashed program for teen journalists.