Areas of Study

The Gallaudet Renaissance

In front of a rapt audience that nearly filled the 262-seat theater in H Street Northeast’s Atlas Performing Arts Center, a film featuring American Sign Language (ASL) storyteller Manny Hernandez depicts the biological architecture of a tree in an entirely new way: A hand fans open, the fingers gather as it nears pursed lips. Another hand blooms and demurely closes. Popping fingers take flight, then descend to curving palms that resemble columns rooted in the ground.

The performance is part of an eight-minute immersion into a one-of-a-kind university environment. The film, “Gallaudet,” debuted on April 1 at an evening program billed as “The Gallaudet Renaissance.” In attendance were the cast and crew of the film, members of the Gallaudet community, local developers, the head of the D.C. Office of Planning, and other invited guests.

The film begins with a black and white drawing on a sketchpad. The illustration pulls closer and closer until the viewer tumbles inside, like Alice discovering a remarkable new world after falling into a rabbit hole. Therein lies Hernandez’s story, as well as an artistic account of a DeafSpace presentation, flashes of Gallaudet history, a re-imagining of the Sixth Street market outside the Gallaudet walls, and glimpses of a vibrant classroom discussion and bustling student life. Visual effects and animation sponsored by Sprint Relay made the portrayal stunning.

Many themes, one leap ahead
President Alan Hurwitz introduced the film, hinting at the many underlying themes that the audience was about to see flash before them.

Dr. Dirksen Bauman, a professor of deaf studies and the film’s producer, said the work and the opportunity to show the film-can leverage the niches that Gallaudet already has. Gallaudet University, Bauman emphasized, “is perhaps the one and only small liberal arts university in the world that is at the epicenter of a large-scale paradigm shift.” He added, “Gallaudet University began the revolution in the understanding of human language. Today, understanding the nature of language is more accurate, thanks to Gallaudet.” This paradigm shift is only the beginning of the Gallaudet renaissance. The film is intended not to lecture about what Gallaudet has, but to inspire a leap ahead in thinking, changing the deaf education paradigm from one of rehabilitation to innovation.

Why film? “They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” said Ryan Commerson, the film’s director, “…what about a motion picture?” A few frames later, the audience could understand the choice of media.

Following the film, speakers examined the anatomy of that performance and the subject matter.

First came, “The Hand: A Natural Resource.” Deaf studies professor Benjamin Bahan led this exploration of where ASL could take current technology. One can do so much with simple gestures on an iPhone, he pointed out. Imagine, now, the potential for complex hand movements like those Hernandez used.

Next came, “The Brain: VL2.” Melissa Malzkuhn, coordinator of community engagement for VL2 and a graduate of the Deaf Studies Program, touched upon the center’s academic approach to unleashing the potential of visual learning. Does the National Science Foundation-supported research center pose the question, What if we changed our concept of hearing loss to deaf gain?
“The Body: Innovation Lab” portion of the evening brought in Fred Weiner, executive director of program development, and Hansel Bauman, director of campus design and planning. The two described a physical space they see forming across the street from the Gallaudet campus with a wealth of possibilities. Weiner and Bauman envision an Innovation Lab and surrounding buildings that could house a motion picture studio, policy institute, culinary institute, deaf museum, science center, and much more. They are working with the developers and Small Area Plan approved by the City Council to create a space for both Gallaudet community members and city residents to live, learn, and make connections.

The final speaker moved from a physical center for the community to a spiritual place. Dr. Laurene Simms completed the exploration with “The Heart: Media.” Via video, the professor in Gallaudet’s Department of Education recalled an early encounter with the power of media through the movie Roots. The story of writer Alex Haley’s enslaved ancestors grabbed the black community’s attention in a new way, Simms said. Deaf media could jolt the deaf community awake, as well.

Attracting the community
Audience members certainly felt the draw of media that night. Alumnus David Kurs came from Los Angeles, Calif., where he works in the film industry as a writer and producer.
Dr. Frank Bechter, an anthropologist, drove two hours from his home in Virginia. “I’m very interested in how social science ideas apply to community development,” said Bechter. He had a sense that Gallaudet was not just using such concepts, but leading the way in this endeavor, and he wanted to find out more.

David Chapman, a retired police officer, D.C. resident, and long-time member of the Gallaudet Community Relations Council, also felt the event was a must-see. When it comes to connections, it matters little whether the medium is ASL, blueprints, or moving pictures. “The bottom line,” he said, “is enhancing the lines of communication.”

Positioning Gallaudet for the future
This film appears at an important moment in the history and future of Gallaudet. At a time when “niche” institutions of higher education, such as historically black colleges and universities and all-women’s colleges, are questioning their relevance, many are consolidating their efforts into what they do best. The film embodies a vision of Gallaudet’s strengths, and does it through the powerful tool of visual media.
As Bauman and Commerson envision, this film is but a small harbinger of a greater renaissance to come in deaf media production that, as the Gallaudet Strategic Plan states, “promotes Gallaudet and frames deaf people and their signed languages as positive aspects of human diversity.”
–Rhea Yablon Kennedy

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