Popping the Gallaudet bubble: Deaf students balance interaction with a changing, predominantly hearing neighborhood
| Story by Shaun Courtney |
| Multimedia by Josephine Peterson |
The sound waves reverberate in the chest, with a rhythmic “thump, thump, thump.”
Deaf or hearing, passersby feel the police cruiser before they see it speeding, lights flashing, along Florida Avenue Northeast near Gallaudet University. It is hard to ignore. The rumbler siren, often a tool for grabbing the attention of distracted drivers, is used in this neighborhood to alert Gallaudet’s 1,900 deaf and hard-of-hearing students of an approaching police car.
Gallaudet University’s 99-acre campus in Northeast Washington is surrounded by a tall black wrought-iron fence that, from the outside, looks imposing. From inside, the barrier makes the campus feel comfortably sequestered from the hustle of Washington. In recent years, nearby neighborhoods of H Street, NoMa and Union Market right next door have brought an influx of mostly hearing people with new development around the campus.
Many members of the university community expressed complicated feelings about what the shifting world beyond Gallaudet’s gates means for the university. There is excitement about more buildings with deaf-friendly architecture and the possibility of a community where more people speak American Sign Language ASL, even if they are not deaf or hard-of-hearing. But what if the hearing community’s increased presence diminishes the unique ASL culture of the campus?
“Will many people who don’t know ASL stroll around on our mecca and speak?” wondered Student Body Government Vice President DT Bruno, 22, in an email interview.
His primary language is ASL, written English is his second language.
Gallaudet is a bilingual campus: ASL and written English. It is generally considered rude to use spoken English on campus without also using sign language, according to several students. Staff members and teachers who are hearing are expected to learn ASL.
Gallaudet was chartered by an act of Congress, which President Abraham Lincoln signed into law. It is the only university in the world where all programs and services are designed to meet the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, according to the school website. It is a place unlike any other.
It also in the midst of a rapidly changing area of the city.
NoMa has seen its population increase from fewer than 1,000 residents in 2008 to more than 6,000 by 2015, according to data from the NoMa Business Improvement District. The census tract around Gallaudet also saw dramatic changes in demographics between censuses, with the black population decreasing 52 percent of the population in 2000 to just 28 percent in 2010. The median house price went from $400,000 to $550,000 in NoMa over a five-year period, according to the Business Improvement District.
Today, Gallaudet University has a plan to open the west side of campus near its 6th Street NE gate, next to Union Market, to create a better connection between the school and its surrounding community. This new development plan is part of the tension between new opportunity and retaining ASL culture that members of the university community expressed.
Many of the university’s students grew up in communities with few ASL speakers, so opportunities to interact in their primary language were limited before they came to Gallaudet.
“It was a culture shock. There were so many more deaf people around the school and D.C. itself. I am able to communicate efficiently 24-7,” Lyssa Matsche, a 20-year old sophomore studying social work, said in an email interview about her initial reaction to Gallaudet. Matsche is deaf.
Several students described the university as bubble, a place where they can be immersed in ASL and feel fully included in their college experience.
“Sometimes, people look at Gallaudet and look at the deaf community and think, ‘Well, it is sort of insular.’ It’s not that it’s insular, it’s more that it’s cherished,” Kati Mitchell, a community and government relations official for Gallaudet, said in a phone interview. Mitchell is hearing.
Students, teachers and university officials expressed both eagerness and protectiveness about Gallaudet and students’ experiences with the nearby community.
The plan to build better physical links through improved pedestrian crossings along the school’s 6th Street Northeast gate will create “more connection to real world,” said Cody Paulay-Simmons, a deaf 22-year-old fourth-year student in an email interview.
The architecture for the new buildings is being designed as deaf-friendly. The buildings will feature wide-open, well-lit interior spaces that allow for clear visibility across a room. Exterior adaptations also accommodate people who use ASL, like wide sidewalks for so students can sign and walk side-by-side.
Bruno, the student body leader, said he is hopeful that efforts to incorporate the school’s bilingualism into both a new development at Union Market and at the edge of the gated campus will carry the culture off campus, not vice-versa.
He said he sees the benefit of having closer relations with the community beyond campus, especially if it means more hearing people who know at least some ASL.
“I was surprised to see how many ordinary people know ASL in this community. It gave me a better experience of D.C. My lack of hearing wasn’t a factor in my experience of living in D.C.,” said Bruno.
Though the school was chartered to create a place where deaf and hard-of-hearing students could learn alongside one another, Gallaudet’s presence spreads beyond the gates.
“Gallaudet has been here since 1864, so we’ve been a part of the community ever since. People take notice,” Darrius Doe, a fourth year student at the university, said.
Doe, 21, is hard of hearing; he used ASL and spoken English to communicate simultaneously during an interview at a skate park behind Union Market.
“Our very first customers were actually Gallaudet students,” Sam Blum, 26, the guest experience manager for &Pizza, said in a phone interview. Blum, who is hearing, works at the pizza shop on H Street, which opened in 2012.
Staff members at &Pizza on H Street know several basic ASL signs, the frequent customer card at Dolcezza Gelato spell out “Free Coffee” in ASL signs. Developers are asked by community leaders to install benches that face each so people can sign to one another. Gallaudet has even partnered with Union Market to host ASL classes for hearing community members.
Heather Edelman, 46, who is hearing, moved to the neighborhood just south of Gallaudet in 2012. She said her interactions with Gallaudet students add to her two teenagers’ understanding of the diverse world around them.
Edelman has been on the receiving end of these moments. She described one time impatiently waiting for the car in front of her to start moving after the light changed from red to green. Then she realized everyone in the car in front of her was speaking ASL.
“I felt like a jerk because, you know what? I can wait a second until the people stop looking at each other and look at the light,” Edelman said. “It’s good to remember that there are other people experiencing different things in life.”
The university hopes that businesses like &Pizza and people like Edelman will continue to incorporate ASL into their experience of the neighborhood.
“When you come to this area, the cool part of it is about it is that there’s this unique aspect of another language that is being used,” Mitchell, the university official, said.
he neighborhood around Gallaudet, according to Mitchell, is becoming akin to Chinatown, but instead, “ASL town.”