Memories of Gallaudet

January 25, 2016




This week, Gallaudet University celebrated a new University President. Congratulations to Bobbi Cordano for this wonderful achievement! Thinking back, it made me remember my own experience at Gallaudet back in the 1970’s.


Can you imagine learning Sign Language at Gallaudet University? I compare it to taking Catholicism classes at the Vatican. I spent a summer there learning American Sign Language……or what we called Ameslan back then.

I also worked part-time at the University and lived in a house with Deaf students. Talk about “immersion!” My sister had graduated from Gallaudet and stayed there throughout her working career. My brother worked there too. He started off in the postal room and then moved on to help caption videos for the University. With their help, and my determination to learn my sister’s language, I spent a large chunk of the summer of 1976 enveloped in the world of sign language and Deaf culture.


I was interviewed to determine if I should be in “Sign Language I” or “Sign Language II” classes. I was pretty good at fingerspelling. But I recall the interviewer asking me in sign “who taught you to sign?” I was clueless to what he was asking me and so I was promptly placed in the beginner’s class.

My teacher was Will Stewart. To this day, I cannot imagine a better teacher. He was high energy and fun and made an effort to explain the “why” of each sign when possible. We didn’t really have ASL back then. It was emerging, but the classes were focused on Signed English. After classes, Will would take us to the Gallaudet Rathskeller which I remember as being VERY social and VERY loud! Food and drinks and dancing and hands flying everywhere. This is where I learned that it is nearly impossible to have a “private” conversation in sign language when surrounded by deaf people.

The campus celebrity at that time was a student named Rita Corey. Rita is still an actress and dancer today. Marlo Thomas had just produced “Free to Be, You and Me” and Gallaudet had students and staff perform it in sign language. Lots of funny and entertaining videos are archived showing the early days of performances done in sign language. Popular songs were signed keeping Deaf youth in the loop of 70’s generation music.

This was all before ‘Children of a Lesser God’ and before ‘Deaf West’ and before the ADA and captions and VRS and VRI and ‘Spring Awakening’ and so much of what we’ve grown used to today. My sister had a TTY that seemed to be the size of a small car. I did think it was convenient that every conversation could be read later, but the conversations were slow even with the shorthand ‘sk’ and ‘ga’ and most words cut down to size.

In 1976, I learned enough to finally give my sister a break in the lip-reading arena and Will’s lessons stay with me today. I am grateful for these cherished memories of such a special time. Especially since we were in Washington, D.C. on July 4th, 1976 to celebrate the Bi-Centennial in the park surrounding the Washington Monument. Was that really 40 years ago?

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About Evelyn

Evelyn Hunter is a SODA with years of experiential study in Deaf Culture. She attended Gallaudet University to immerse herself in this unique deaf world while working for the University and studying sign language to hone her skills. Evelyn has served in training, relationship sales, and marketing -- always seeking to expand awareness of Deaf Culture and the unique challenges the deaf face on a daily basis. The Sign Language Company has recently established a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a website with a blog, as Evelyn coordinates the marketing and outreach efforts for the agency. Her goal is to attract new clients seeking exceptional service, while maintaining optimal relationships with clients who have selected The Sign Language Company for over 20 years.

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