Opinion Columns & Blogs

Significant milestones evolve from individuals doing small acts

Last week, by the dawn's early light, I had the honor of raising the flag over Fort McHenry. As it unfurled in the breeze, I imagined what it would have been like to witness the epic bombardment from the superior British fleet.

The British weapons had greater range and could unleash their salvos while remaining untouched by the fort’s smaller guns. A British victory seemed assured and Baltimore would soon be forced to surrender. Because of his knowledge of the upcoming attack’s details, Francis Scott Key was detained aboard the HMS Tonnant. Anxiously awaiting the battle’s outcome, Key decided to watch and record his observations.

Through the night, a bombardment of over 2,200 shells and rockets were unleashed upon Fort McHenry. The rocket’s red glare illuminated the night sky as Key pointedly questioned in his notes whether the fort’s defenses would hold. The next morning, much to everyone’s astonishment; the American flag was still there. Defeated, the British withdrew; Baltimore remained untouched and the tide of the war was turned.

The sight of the tattered, yet defiant, American flag inspired Key to change his written observations into a poem. His works became the lyrics for our national anthem. I doubt Key could have imagined his small and seemingly insignificant act would result in a song that would inspire national pride for generations of Americans. Like Key’s famed poem, many significant milestones in deaf education history evolved from individuals doing small, selfless acts.

Thomas Gallaudet, a minister, simply wanted to help a neighbor’s deaf daughter to become educated. When Gallaudet learned there were no schools for the deaf in America, he gathered financial support from some wealthy friends and left for Paris to visit a group who had established such schools across Europe.

Sensing a unique opportunity, Gallaudet convinced one of the deaf teachers, Laurent Clerc, to help establish a school in America. During the three-month voyage, Clerc taught Gallaudet sign language. Together, Gallaudet and Clerc went on to become the most instrumental people in establishing educational institutions for the deaf.

Thomas’ son, Edward, wasn’t originally part of his father’s work. However, after becoming bored with his financing job, Edward began teaching at his father’s school. A natural leader, Gallaudet would become one of the most ferocious defenders of equality in deaf education. Gallaudet established the beginnings of what has evolved into the world’s only university (named after his father) where classes are instructed in sign language.

Twenty-two years ago, Irving King Jordan aspired to become Gallaudet University’s first deaf president. Students, politicians, alumni and community organizations encouraged the board to select a deaf president. Despite King’s superior qualifications, the board selected a lesser-qualified hearing person. When news spread of the board’s decision, the results were unprecedented: The students and faculty shut down the campus.

Quickly, the deaf community across America joined the protests. As national and congressional pressure built, the board reversed its decision and hired Jordan as president. The “Deaf President Now” protest became the modern catalyst to improve the rights of all disabled Americans. Two years later, President George Bush signed into law The Americans with Disabilities Act.

Although the ADA hasn’t entirely ended all discrimination against persons of disability, the playing field is gradually becoming more level. For centuries, the deaf have been constantly pressured to accept the hearing world’s perspective of deaf education. Similar to the battle of Fort McHenry, the deaf community has taken a relentless beating from the hearing world for their cultural convictions. However, the banner, which represents a fully accessible and equal education for the deaf, will never be lowered.

Stephen Roldan, a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel, is statewide coordinator of deaf services for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation within the Department of Social and Health Services. He can be reached at roldasj@dshs.wa.gov.