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The Deaf President Now (DPN) Student Leaders Panel took place on March 9 in Elstad Auditorium before a full house. The Gallaudet University Alumni Association (GUAA) sponsored the event as part of the DPN 25th anniversary celebration, and thanks to a live Internet link, members of the 53 national and international GUAA chapters had an opportunity to tune in.

The “famous four” student leaders from 1988: Bridgetta Bourne-Firl, Gerald (Jerry) Covell, Greg Hlibok, and Tim Rarus were introduced by GUAA President Alyce Slater Reynolds. Today, Bourne-Firl is supervisor of career center and transition services at California School for the Deaf-Fremont. Hlibok is chief of the Disability Rights Office at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C. Covell is a coordinator of the Interpreter Preparation Program (American Sign Language) at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill. Rarus is a senior vice president of sales at ZVRS, a company that offers video relay services, and lives in Austin, Tex.

Reynolds asked the leaders their opinion of the impact DPN has made on the deaf community. They responded by bringing up a number of strong points, such as how deaf people think of themselves, accessibility, and oppression. Hlibok said the most important impact has been improving deaf people’s self-image. Before DPN, deaf people lived in a climate of oppression where they were made to believe their employment opportunities were limited, he said. “But after DPN, that mindset changed immediately,” Hlibok said. “Then the mindset was a deaf person could do anything.”

Communication accessibility for deaf people has also improved, thanks to video relay services (VRS), American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, captioning, and many other advances in telecommunications, Covell said. He agreed with Hlibok’s assessment of DPN’s effect on the deaf community. “DPN was absolutely significant because we changed how deaf people actually feel about themselves,” he said. “I can brag about Gallaudet, because the three (deaf) presidents have made significant changes over the 25 years. I’m very impressed. We have made changes here at Gallaudet to the point where hearing people understand deaf people much better.” Covell added that professor emerita Mary Malzkuhn (G’77), a faculty member in the Department of Government, strongly encouraged her students to stand up for their rights, like African Americans did for their civil rights.

“We wanted to tear down the wall of oppression and ignorance,” Rarus said. “DPN was more than about [getting] a deaf president; it was also about getting freedom from ignorance and oppression. “When the protest broke out, the glass ceiling cracked for deaf people,” Rarus said. “When the wall came down, you could see the land of opportunity. Children were talking about becoming a lawyer or a doctor, and we didn’t have that in the past.”

Speaking on the media’s perspective on deaf culture, Bourne-Firl said the hit ABC Family show “Switched at Birth,” which features several prominent deaf and hard of hearing characters who use American Sign Language, “was phenomenal.” She added, “I thank (deaf actress) Marlee Matlin for her work that changed Hollywood’s mindset. “It’s really time to reach out and grab media’s attention, because it is critical. (The media) plays an intricate role in communication.”

Rarus commented that, thanks to DPN, the professions that include deaf people today are much more numerous than they were 25 years ago. “We have more deaf lawyers like (Hlibok), and see more [deaf] doctors,” Rarus said. But he added that more advances need to be made for the deaf community. “There’s a lot to do: doors need to be opened … .”

Covell added, “It is wonderful to see Gallaudet producing deaf people of high caliber.” Among those students who attended the panel presentation were Student Body Government (SBG) President Stephanie Johnston and SBG Vice President Brandon Williams. Johnston, who is 21, has deaf parents, and only knew about DPN through their pictures. “My parents were oppressed by oralism and they developed their deaf’ identity after DPN,” she said. Meeting the DPN student leaders, “had a big impact on me,” she said. Johnston said majoring in government was the reason she enrolled at Gallaudet. “DPN created resistance to oppression,” said Williams, a social work major. “In fact, people like me look at the DPN protest and see that we do not need to fit in the hearing community. Deaf culture is my culture and my language.”

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