DPN...was individuals standing up and saying, "I do not, we do not, accept degraded status—yes, we require—that others accept this in us as well."
Roger Wilkins, Pulitizer-prize-winning journalist and long time advocate for the rights of black people in the United States and South Africa, in his 1993 commencement address at Gallaudet University.
How Has DPN Affected Our Lives?
Perhaps DPN's most profound impact was felt by hearing people. Deaf people have always known that they could do whatever hearing people could do, but, until DPN, most hearing people did not agree. DPN opened their minds to this reality. At the same time, the movement was a strong reminder to deaf and hard of hearing people that they did not have to accept limitations put on them by others. Indeed, DPN instilled a deep sense of pride and accomplishment in deaf and hard of hearing people of all ages and from all walks of life. Since 1988, more and more deaf students graduating from Gallaudet and other colleges are entering professions that were previously considered off-limits to deaf and hard of hearing people.
DPN also brought about legislative and social change in the United States. In the months and years immediately following DPN, the nation saw a flurry of new bills passed and laws enacted that promoted the rights of deaf and other disabled people. In 1993, Senator Tom Harkin, a long supporter of Gallaudet University and whose brother is deaf, said that Congress passed more bills in the five years between DPN and 1993, that promoted the rights of and provided access for deaf people, than in the 216 years of the nation's existence.
For example, in 1988—just months after DPN—the Telecommunications Accessibility Enhancement Act was passed, followed shortly by the Television Decoder Circuitry Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, both in 1990. The Telecommunications Enhancement Act assured that our national telecommunications system be fully accessible to deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired individuals. Specifically, this supported a nationwide Federal relay system for people who use TTYs/TDDs (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf). The Television Circuitry Act of 1990 required that, as of July 1, 1993, all televisions with a screens 13 inches or greater in size be equipped with a built-in decoder chip that can display the closed-captions on television programs. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects deaf people and other disabled individuals from discrimination on the basis of their disability.
Many credit DPN for these changes and the speed at which they were accomplished. It has been said that DPN's high visibility and the protesters' knack for appealing to the nation's law makers convinced Congress that these laws were needed. At the time, Senator Cranston of California was quoted as saying, "Seldom have I ever seen a civil rights movement so absolutely complete."
In the Deaf Community...
The effects of DPN still reverberate throughout the Deaf Community. Since DPN, there have been a number of "mini DPNs" at schools for deaf students around the country in which students demanded that their schools also have superintendents and senior administrators who are deaf. As a result, the ranks of educational administrators who are deaf has grown significantly.
Prior to DPN, it was easy to name all deaf people holding doctorates. This isn't true today because of the steady increase in advanced degrees awarded to deaf and hard of hearing people. Each year, almost 50% of Gallaudet's graduating class continues on to graduate school in pursuit of advanced degrees.
Deaf young people no longer have to be convinced that they can do anything, they know it; record numbers of deaf people are entering professions previously closed to them, such as owning their own businesses, law, and medicine.
DPN's impact was also international. In the last few years, several other countries have established collegiate programs for deaf students, including Japan, Sweden, and South Africa. The year following DPN, Gallaudet hosted "DEAF WAY," the largest celebration ever of the world's deaf community. DEAF WAY brought together deaf and hard of hearing people from all corners of the globe and gave them the opportunity to enjoy the riches of Deaf Culture. President Jordan recently announced that the University will host "Deaf Way Two" soon, an event that, as Dr. Jordan said, "again celebrate deaf culture and heritage and diversity...and will show how the world has changed since DPN, and since the widespread use of new technologies."
[UPDATE: Deaf Way II was held in the summer of 2002. More than 10,000 people attended from around the world. In 2006 Dr. Jordan stepped down after close to 20 years as president.]
The Community At Large...
What about hearing people? Did DPN affect them? You bet! In putting the national spotlight on Gallaudet University and deaf people, DPN taught the hearing world that it is better to look at what deaf people can do than what they cannot do, because what they can do far outweighs their inability to hear. Indeed, as one reporter said, "if all hearing people knew how to sign, deaf people's so-call disability wouldn't exist." And since DPN, increasing numbers of hearing people are taking classes in American Sign Language, which is now recognized by many high schools and colleges as a foreign language option.
The world of entertainment was also touched by DPN. Deaf characters—for the most part, played by deaf actors—are now commonplace in television and film. Prior to DPN, there were few parts for deaf characters, and those that existed often portrayed the deaf person in a very passive manner. That's not the way it is today. Deaf characters show up regularly on television and film. By far the most famous deaf actress, Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar in 1986 for Children of a Lesser God, has appeared as a regular in Picket Fences, Reasonable Doubts, and several feature-length films.
In addition, DPN put Gallaudet "on the map" for many hearing people. Even today, the mention of "Gallaudet" prompts the familiar response, "Gallaudet, oh, isn't that the place where the deaf students protested." Dr. Jordan continues to be recognized on the street or in airports by people who remember DPN. This civil rights movement by the students, faculty, staff and alumni of Gallaudet struck a nerve with many, many people, even if they didn't know a single deaf person and had no relationship to Gallaudet. For whatever reason, these people related to the protest and its underlying motivation of self-determination and empowerment. It sent a very powerful message in 1988, and it sends that same powerful message today.
[Update 2010: The above content was written 15 years after DPN. Since then deaf characters and deaf-related storylines have continued to become more common on television and in movies which has opened up more opportunities for deaf actors.
Hearing parents are often encouraged to use sign language with their hearing babies to stimulate early language and communication development.
In 2006 Dr. Jordan stepped down after close to 20 years as president. Unfortunately the search and selection of Dr. Jordan's replacement sparked a second protest at the University. Dr. Jordan was eventually succeeded by President Robert R. Davila—also a deaf man—who served a three-year term. After a successful search process in 2009, President T. Alan Hurwitz—also deaf—became the tenth president of Gallaudet University on January 1, 2010.]