What Are the Protests Like at Gallaudet?

Chants and cheers in American Sign Language.

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Deaf students at Washington, D.C.’s, Gallaudet University have continued to block the school’s gates after campus police arrested more than 100 protesters last Friday night. On Sunday, the president of the National Association of the Deaf expressed her support for the students and called the situation “out of control.” What actually happens at a rally among the deaf and hard of hearing?

The same stuff that happens at any rally. At Gallaudet, student leaders stand where everyone can see them and make speeches in American Sign Language. (The speakers introduce themselves by finger-spelling their names.) At the end of each speech, the crowd cheers by making the sign for applause—raised arms and waving hands. The applause isn’t silent, though; people also clap, hoot, and scream to show their support. (Click here to watch a video of a Gallaudet rally from April.)

The protesters also chant in sign language to express their solidarity. The most popular chant at Gallaudet uses the signs for “GALLAUDET UNITE SAME,” which means “unity for Gallaudet.” Other chants include “KING STOP DENY” and “JK OUT NOW,” which refer to university president I. King Jordan and his named successor, Jane K. Fernandes. Just like in spoken language, it’s possible for a chant to “rhyme” in sign language. ASL poet Clayton Valli has categorized rhymes in terms of hand shape, facial expressions, the direction of movement, and so on. (The chants at Gallaudet happen not to rhyme, but signers say they do have a specific and visually pleasing rhythm.)

Some of the protesters at Gallaudet are completely deaf; others can hear to varying degrees. Everyone can feel the rhythmic vibrations from large bass drums that are sometimes pounded in time with the chanting. Cheerleaders at schools for the deaf often rile up crowds at sporting events with sign-language chants, clapping, and drumming.

Students have been flashing the “ILY” sign at protests, which combines the letters “I,” “L,” and “Y” to create the sign for “I love you.” (The ILY sign is also used as a common greeting.) They’ve also been wearing T-shirts and carrying placards with English messages like “Arrested for Gallaudet’s future.”

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