Gallaudet University: Empowering the Next Generation of Deaf Leaders

Deaf education is a highly specialized field that utilizes diverse modes of communication to ensure Deaf and hard-of-hearing students equal access to education and opportunity. The sector thrives when attention focuses on improving the academic experience for Deaf students in order for them to reach their full potential.

When oblivion and stigma overshadow awareness and advocacy for Deafness, individuals who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing face profound challenges that obstruct their right to equal opportunity. While most academic institutions are asleep at the wheel when it comes to Deaf education — and systemic issues persist within education at-large — one university exemplifies the power of accessibility.

Gallaudet University is a world-renowned liberal arts college located in Washington, D.C. that has been at the forefront of educating Deaf students and empowering the community for over a century.

The Emergence of Gallaudet University: A Significant Moment in the History of Deaf Education

Founded in 1864, Gallaudet University was the first school of its kind, designed for Deaf students to receive a barrier-free education with a dignified and equitable collegiate experience. Gallaudet University is recognized as the world's first and still only institution of higher education uniquely devoted to Deaf people — a legacy that began with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.

A fortuitous encounter Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet had with his Deaf neighbor, nine-year-old Alice Cogswell, sparked a vision for Deaf studies. When he realized she was Deaf, he was determined to find a way to communicate with her. With Alice's father, physician Mason Cogswell, excited about the prospect of educating his daughter — and potentially other Deaf children facing similar challenges — he hired Gallaudet to study Deaf education techniques in England.

Image of a statue of Thomas Gallaudet and Alice Cogswell.

Image Source: Britannica

Dissatisfied with the oral method program, Gallaudet decided to join a trio of French educators (Abbe Sicard, Laurent Clerc, and Jean Massieu) from the Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets in Paris to learn sign language and different teaching methods.

After completing his Deaf studies, Gallaudet invited Deaf instructor Laurent Clerc to join him in the U.S. and open the first permanent school for Deaf children in America. In 1817, the two founded the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Fast forward 40 years, and in 1857, Edward Miner Gallaudet, Gallaudet’s son, arrived in Washington, D.C. and founded a school for Deaf children. After flourishing for several years, the school added a collegiate division in 1864, giving rise to what's become a world renowned school for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, Gallaudet University. The rest is history.

How Higher Education Institutions Fail Deaf & Disabled Students

While Gallaudet University has a stellar history for representing the way in which Deaf education can help Deaf students thrive, many college and university programs fall short. Despite the existence of laws, regulations and human services aimed at protecting the rights of Deaf individuals, a chronic shortage of vital support still exists in many educational institutions.

More often than not, schools and universities are not providing adequate support for faculty, programs and the students who need it most. Many institutions are not familiar with the unique challenges faced by Deaf students, including communication barriers with other students, and the need for specialized accommodations such as assistive technology.

Many schools are unaware that financial aid, tax incentives and grant programs are available to provide adequate accommodations for any student with a disability. As a result, academic institutions lack the funds to provide department resources such as sign language interpreters, faculty who know sign language, specialized programs, and assistive technology like captioning services.

A faculty department that exhibits pervasive attitudes of ableism within colleges and institutions will certainly make it difficult for students who are Deaf to fully engage. Faculty unfamiliar with how to create an inclusive and fully accessible school environment can attend programs that teach methods for class modification.

Image with aqua and orange text that reads Inclusion is based on the belief that students of all abilities have the right to an education that is meaningful, appropriate, and equivalent to that of their peers.

Image Source: The Inclusive Class

Rebound Effects of a Deaf Inaccessible Education

The impacts of an inaccessible Deaf education can be far-reaching and have long-lasting effects on the lives of Deaf individuals that may include:

  • Increased chance of not completing a college degree
  • Impeded sense of confidence
  • Feelings of social isolation and insecurity
  • Lower rates of employment
  • Perpetuated negative stereotypes and misunderstandings about Deaf culture and language
  • Heightened discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion of Deaf individuals from mainstream society

ADA Compliance: A Collective Responsibility & Obligation of All Universities

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that universities and most educational institutions provide necessary resources and accommodations to ensure equitable access to education. Despite the robust protection afforded by ADA legislation, a rise in lawsuits indicates that higher education institutions are not doing their part to ensure Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals have access to an education like their hearing peers.

Universities often do not realize that failure to comply with the ADA can result in significant legal and financial consequences, such as lawsuits, penalties, and loss of funding. Non-compliance with the law can also negatively impact a university’s reputation and its ability to attract and retain students.

How Gallaudet University Paves the Path for Next Generation Deaf Leaders

By providing Deaf and hard-of-hearing students with an exceptional academics program and a supportive community, Gallaudet University sets an example for other educational institutions.

With its bilingual and bicultural approach to academics, the university provides an immersive environment where students can learn and communicate using American Sign Language (ASL) and English. This approach allows students who are Deaf or have hearing loss to fully participate in classroom discussions and extracurricular activities.

A program where everyone can engage creates a community where Deaf culture is celebrated and embraced. By promoting bilingualism and biculturalism, Gallaudet University is preparing its students to become leaders and changemakers, who can bridge the gap between the Deaf and hearing community.

Image with Gallaudet University statistics. 99% of graduate alumni are either employed or furthering education. 78% of graduate school alumni work in fields that support and advance deaf community.

Image Source: Gallaudet

Gallaudet University allocates resources to research and innovation of Deaf education. The university has established several centers, including the Artificial Intelligence, Accessibility and Sign Language Center (AIASL), the Center for Deaf Health Equity, which are dedicated to advancing research and creating new opportunities for Deaf individuals.

With these centers, Gallaudet University supports the greater mission to break down barriers and create a more inclusive society for Deaf people. By empowering Deaf leaders to develop and implement new ideas, Gallaudet helps shape the future of the Deaf community and their impact on the world.

Video Source: Youtube

Gallaudet University Spotlight: Alumni Making Impact

Melissa Yingst, '00

Melissa Yingst, exhibits immense passion for uncovering hidden narratives within communities, particularly those who are marginalized. She celebrates women and muxeristas, and brings stories and initiatives to light.

Growing up in Southern California, she craved deep connections with others and eventually pursued her Bachelor's in Psychology from Gallaudet University and her Master's in Social Work from Arizona State University. Melissa has held various positions as a social worker and school counselor in New York City and Phoenix, and currently works as an Outreach Strategist for Convo while teaching at CSUN.

Melissa has also served as a board member for Council de Manos and Deaf Women United, where she has actively worked to combat unjust practices. Additionally, she co-founded Alma de Muxeristas, an organization for Deaf, DeafBlind, Deaf Disabled, Late-Deafened, and Hard-of-Hearing muxeristas. Melissa proudly embraces her Chicana identity with her current show, Melmira.

Video Source: YouTube

TraciAnn Hoglind ‘16

TraciAnn Hoglind, an alum of both Gallaudet University and BU School of Public Health, founded and leads Health Signs Virtual Care, a non-profit organization that advocates for equality. The organization helps provide accessible healthcare to the diverse Deaf community with linguistics and culture in mind.

Health Signs Virtual Care utilizes social media to share accessible public health information on a range of topics. They have also collaborated with other organizations on initiatives such as the Safer Sex Stories project. In partnership with the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing and the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Science at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the project featured a 12-part video series in ASL, providing information on HIV and sexually transmitted infection prevention and treatment with a social justice perspective.

With the aid of a micro-grant from Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD) - Unites Foundation, Hoglind and her team have also conducted a COVID-19 survey study to develop Deaf-inclusive policy initiatives during national emergencies and inform policymakers on the needs of the Deaf community in America.

Image of Traciann Hoglind with a quote from her that says ""Inaccessible healthcare communication, such as using unqualified interpreters or paper and pen writing to communicate with deaf patients, is considered malpractice. Healthcare will not be equal and accessible until we see diversity and representation of deaf professionals and professionals with disabilities at the table everywhere in the healthcare system. Give us a seat, we've always been ready. "

Quote Source: de Beaumont

Nyle DiMarco ‘13

Many might recognize Nyle DiMarco as the first Deaf contestant to participate in “America’s Next Top Model” or “Dancing With the Stars”. After finding himself in the national spotlight, the 33-year-old model and activist decided to use his celebrity status to raise awareness of Deaf culture among his followers.

Having grown up fourth generation Deaf in his large Italian American family, DiMarco has always expressed his sense of pride in being a Deaf person. Following his acquired fame on two of the most popular reality tv shows, he founded the Nyle DiMarco Foundation in 2016 to increase access to language skills for Deaf children. His motivation stemmed from having experienced the consequences of language barriers himself when he was a young child.

“Being Deaf did not give me any hesitation
to be a part of the show,” he told People magazine
during his “America’s Next Top Model” season.
“In fact, I was thrilled. I saw it as an opportunity to
not only become a supermodel, but to change
the world’s perspective on Deafness.”

- Nyle DiMarco

In 2020, DiMarco produced and released "Deaf U," a reality show on Netflix that chronicles the lives of a group of friends navigating life at his alma mater, Gallaudet University. In 2021, DiMarco's other Netflix documentary "Audible" (which follows a Deaf football player as he prepares for his final high school homecoming game) was nominated for Best Documentary Short at the Academy Awards.

His diverse production work inspired him to establish Clerc Studio, a production house dedicated to amplifying the stories of disabled individuals, who represent the world's most significant minority.

DiMarco and fellow alumnus Bobby Siebert published a memoir entitled "Deaf Utopia: A Memoir - and a Love Letter to a Way of Life," in which he shares stories from his childhood in New York City and chronicles his rise to fame.

Image of Nyle DiMarco smiling at the camera.

Image Source: Deadline

DiMarco's upcoming endeavors demonstrate his ongoing commitment to showcasing and celebrating the Deaf community. He is set to lead and produce an upcoming drama series called "Deaf Punk," which depicts the story of The Deaf Club, a San Francisco music venue from the late 1970s. His most recent project delves into the historical 1988 Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University. The DPM protest began on March 6th when alumni, staff, and faculty shut down the campus, and ended on March 13th when demands - including the appointment of a deaf president, King Jordan - were met.

DiMarco attributes his successes in large part due to Gallaudet University and continues to embrace all that Gallaudet college has given to him: “Gallaudet teachers always believed in me. The University believed in me, and so I believe in myself. My journey with America's Next Top Model and Dancing with the Stars would not have happened without the Deaf community.”

Elsie Sue Stecker ’08 & G-’11

Elsie Sue Stecker is a Certified Deaf Interpreter who collaborates with the White House press office. In January 2021 she provided interpretation services for the Presidential inauguration and also for the State of the Union address. Following Queen Elizabeth II’s death, Stecker signed the White House press briefing and currently attends President Biden’s press briefings.

Screenshot from a CBS news broadcast show with Elsie Stecker being interviewed.

Image Source: Gallaudet

According to Stecker, “It’s a huge honor. There are some Deaf people who want to watch the interpreter,” she says. Others will simply read the captions, she said, and some prefer to read a transcript. Her work allows for all those options, she says, “without limitations.”

Thanks to Gallaudet graduates like Stecker, both Americans and people worldwide have been granted access to a more stable, secure, and equitable future.

Warren “Wawa” Snipe, ‘94

Dubbed as a “trailblazing Gallaudet University graduate”, Warren Snipe, most commonly referred to as “Wawa” has made history as one of the greatest Deaf rappers. When he enrolled in Gallaudet University, he did not know sign language, but was able to become fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) after joining their NSP: New Signers Program, now called JumpStart.

“Without that program [Gallaudet’s NSP],

I would not be the person I am today."

- Wawa

After he graduated, he founded Wild Zappers, an all-male Deaf dance company. Wawa, alongside Sean Forbes, also made history as the first ASL performer at Super Bowl LV in 2021. The artist is well known for the “Dip-hop” movement, a genre he created to demonstrate hip hop through Deaf eyes with the goal of educating the hearing world about Deaf musicians.

With his platform, Snipe has been able to showcase the incredible talent and creativity of the Deaf community and promote Deaf culture to a wider audience. He has also been a vocal advocate for Deaf rights and accessibility, working with organizations to promote inclusion and equality. Snipe's efforts to educate people about American Sign Language and his shared experiences as a Deaf person continue to break down barriers and challenge stereotypes. Through his art and activism, Wawa Snipe has made a meaningful difference in the lives of Deaf people and has inspired many to embrace their identity and pursue their dreams.

Video Source: YouTube

Advancing Accessibility & Inclusion with Higher Education

In the 150 years since its establishment, Gallaudet University, the Gallaudet campus, its faculty and programs have come a long way. Today, it remains a beacon for social justice, and equal rights for Deaf individuals in America and worldwide. Although relatively unknown to many, Gallaudet has equipped countless students with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the world.

Screenshot of 4 Deaf college students sitting in a classroom setting signing and learning.

Image Source: Gallaudet

Through its focus on visual communication and the Deaf experience, Gallaudet University has become a trailblazer in the field of Deaf education. By prioritizing the unique needs of students who are Deaf, they have created an environment that nurtures their skills and talents, allowing them to thrive both in and out of the classroom. The university has shown society the value of embracing the diverse perspectives and abilities of all individuals.

A Call for All Universities to Do Better

In a society where Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals are marginalized and often overlooked, Gallaudet University has demonstrated that academic success, progress, and new opportunity is not far from reach. The Gallaudet University Press is a nonprofit publisher that shares content by and about Deaf and hard-of-hearing people. To further the mission of academic equity, other universities must level up to create a more inclusive and equitable world for all students today — as they are, indeed, the leaders, innovators and changemakers of tomorrow.