Creating Awareness for Deaf Life and Culture

Imagine yourself in a restaurant where the waiters and hostesses communicate in American Sign Language (ASL), and the entertainment is presented in ASL, as well. This vision became a reality on April 8 when Gallaudet students in GSR 395 Special Topics Course, “Student Think Tank” hosted Deaf Night at the 5th and K streets, NW location of Busboys and Poets, a popular restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C.

The theme of the night was “Sound Off: Intersectionality with the Gallaudet Community,” and its purpose was to explore and empower deaf culture and life in D.C. The students took over the restaurant operations from 5 p.m. to midnight as waiters, hosts, and assistants, giving hearing patrons first-hand exposure to deaf culture and ASL. Their perspective was enhanced by performers who entertained the audience with ASL poetry, storytelling, dancing, and songs that explored themes of intersectionality–relating from personal experience of what it is like to be deaf and to have another identity–gay, Christian, or a member of a particular ethnic or racial group, for example.

“We achieved our goal of raising the visibility of Gallaudet and the deaf community to the rest of D.C.,” said Dr. Thomas Baldridge, one of the course’s professors. “Through our show, ‘Sound Off,’ we achieved another goal-exposing a sell-out crowd to intersectionality within the Gallaudet Community, one of the most heartfelt social justice issues the Think Tank has explored during this semester.” He added, “We all have several identities as complex multifaceted people.”

To prepare for the Deaf Night event, the class met for several hours one day a week. Baldridge said the students lead the course, with guidance from the faculty. “We developed the syllabus based on our group discussions. We designed the content (of the course) together-including guest speakers, discussions, and writing papers on various topics,” said Baldridge.
Brandon Williams, a senior from Dallas, Tex., said, “We looked at a variety of issues that impact on intersectionality. Many of us have many different issues that are important to us— it may be racism, being a woman, or being a member of the LGBT community. Social justice is very ingrained in academics. The event showed intersectionality through both education and entertainment.”

All of the performers had a connection to the Gallaudet community. For example, Gallaudet Interpreting Service interpreter Adam Bartley presented an American fable to the audience. Alumna Michele Mulligan shared a personal story about being deaf and using a wheelchair. Mervin Primeaux, a former student, shared his story in song about his experiences as a transgender person with HIV.

“The show was simply beautiful and awesome,” said restaurant owner Andy Shallal, a frequent guest speaker in courses taught by Baldridge. “There was so much excitement in the air-everyone from the kitchen staff to the servers and bartenders were one big happy family.” Busboys and Poets also hosts a monthly deaf poetry program. “Part of our mission is that we celebrate diversity in all its forms, and we love the deaf community,” said Shallal.

The true success of the Busboys and Poets event was the visibility of the issues that the students presented to the community. Wendy Tiefenbacher, an adjunct professor who co-teaches the class, said the students are very concerned about social justice and want Gallaudet to be a leader in its promotion. “We were very lucky to be offered that opportunity. Andy (Shallal) very much wanted to bring Gallaudet to his world by making Busboys its venue for the hearing community to learn about the deaf community.”

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