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Three MSSD alumni and a staff member shared their experiences in witnessing the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement of 1988 with members of the MSSD community at a March 15 presentation in Theatre Malz. The event, which was held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of DPN, was also available online worldwide.

The panelists who were MSSD students during DPN were Karl Ewan, now a program manager at Gallaudet’s Department Residence Life Office; Cindy Officer, professional studies coordinator for the Center for Continuing Studies; and Michelle Wynn, a federal government employee. Mark Tao was a residence educator during the 1988 DPN week, and is now an MSSD science teacher. MSSD student James Trusock III served as moderator.

Trusock asked the panel members their opinion of the impact DPN had on the MSSD and KDES community. They responded with moving comments that showed a sense of unity through a common identity. “When I came to MSSD, I knew no American Sign Language (ASL),” said Officer, who arrived at MSSD at the age of 15. “However, after DPN, that week changed my feeling from needing to learn’ American Sign Language to the feeling that I’m deaf and ASL is MINE. My ASL improved after DPN. I learned that I did not need to apologize for being deaf, and to recognize that I’m a culturally deaf person. That week was magical.” Officer now has three children, one of them deaf and an MSSD student. Her entire family is ASL-fluent.

While walking to school, during the early days of DPN, Wynn said she was puzzled about the crowd that had gathered off campus. “Then a teacher explained to me about DPN and encouraged me to join the protest. I wanted to be involved because I’m deaf, too,” she said. Wynn added that DPN taught her how deeply deaf people understand each other’s needs, and it is that bond that creates deaf pride. Tao explained that everyone involved with DPN-KDES students, MSSD students, Gallaudet students, and the deaf community all had a shared dream they wanted to pursue. “Deaf President Now really impacted me,” Tao said. “I was very moved. I will never forget DPN.”

“DPN was not just a civil rights thing for us, it was also a civics lesson for us,” Ewan said. “Before DPN, hearing people had the role of paternalism, ruling everything. When DPN came in the picture, deaf people popped up. Our big allies during DPN week were the interpreters, who had a big role of passing on our message to the world. If it were not for them, we might not have a very successful protest.” DPN also had an impact on friendships, Ewan said. “DPN had an impact on deaf people’s attitudes and on deaf rights, but I also made many friends at MSSD and Gallaudet. I also learned that as a deaf person, you always need to fight (for your rights). Today is far better for deaf people compared to 25 years ago … .”

Tao recalled that MSSD teachers allowed students to skip class to march to the rally at the U.S Capitol. “MSSD students were motivated and high spirited, chanting “Deaf President Now!” along with the other marchers, Tao said. Officer recalled that her teachers had stations where students learned how to write letters to the media, their parents, and Congress in support of DPN, and they made signs with messages related to the demands of DPN.

The panelists also talked about their parents’ involvement in DPN. Wynn, the only deaf member of her family, said her parents and siblings didn’t know much about deafness, or the passion that fueled the movement. “However, Leslie Page, then an audiologist [now a program manager at the Clerc Center], explained to my parents about DPN and deaf culture,” Wynn said. “My parents have supported DPN ever since. They also know ASL.” Ewan’s parents were both deaf, and therefore very involved in DPN, Ewan said. Because her family’s makeup is a mix of deaf and hearing members, Officer’s parents had a different perspective, but fully supported the movement. “It was a hot week for them,” Officer recalled. Her mother sent letters to editor of their local newspaper in West Virginia, objecting about how its reporters presented the DPN story as a trivial event, marginalizing the protest as sympathy. She explained to them that DPN was a movement similar to steps that blacks and women had taken to gain their civil rights.

Looking back, no one on the panel expressed any regrets about participating in DPN, particularly in light of the benefits deaf people enjoy today, many of which may not have come about if DPN hadn’t served as a catalyst for change. “We have access to interpreters, video relay services, video interpreters, closed captions, text messaging, and video phones, while 25 years ago, we only had TTYs and regular mail,” said Ewan. Tao commented that more hearing people know ASL because high schools and colleges often include it as a language course. “I’m proud of myself because I witnessed DPN, seeing everything happening,” Tao said. “I tell my children about DPN, and friends and family. When I fly to other countries I tell people about DPN, too.”

Trusock said he was inspired by the panelists and hopes he, too, will make MSSD proud someday. He closed the panel by leading the audience in a chant, “I Can, You Can, We Can!” that also was led by one of the DPN student leaders, Bridgetta Bourne-Firl, during an event held during her visit to campus the prior week.

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