by Cogan Schneier July 12, 2014
WASHINGTON — When Steve Walker was a student at Gallaudet University in the 1980s, he says, the school for the deaf and hard of hearing was a very different place than it is today.
When Walker studied at Gallaudet, students were advised not to venture outside the campus, because most people in the surrounding neighborhood didn't speak sign language. Students didn't feel welcome in the outside community, and struggled to communicate in restaurants where they couldn't understand the servers. As the school celebrates its 150th anniversary, Walker says that has changed.
These days, the northeast Washington neighborhood around the school, including the upscale Union Market food hall next to the campus and the bars and restaurants of nearby H Street, accommodates the deaf community. Walker works at the school as a sign language interpreter for students who are both blind and deaf. He uses what's called tactile interpreting, in which a student will hold his hands as he signs to understand him.
Walker says what is happening in the area around Gallaudet is a serious change in cultural sensitivity.
"Wow, there is a big shift in what I've seen," Walker says, raising his eyebrows as he signs. "Back in the '80s, when I was here, students basically did not feel welcome on H Street. But now, I see a lot of students, faculty and alumni going anywhere they want to go. And especially, it's nice to see people on H Street using American Sign Language to be able to communicate with us, because that makes us feel even more welcome."
Nearly 1,200 alumni registered for Gallaudet's 150th anniversary celebration and reunion on campus this past week.
Gallaudet is a mecca for deaf students, says Wendy Martin, who graduated in 1980. Martin, who hails from Alberta, Canada, says she knows people from all over the world who came to Washington to study at Gallaudet. The university has about 1,000 undergraduate students and nearly 900 employees, half of whom are deaf or hard of hearing.
Fred Weiner, assistant vice president for administration at Gallaudet, says businesses have realized it makes much more sense, and money, to welcome the deaf community than to ignore it.