Gallaudet University: Widening Horizons for the Deaf

Gallaudet University is a unique learning community made up of some 1,100 undergraduate and 400 graduate students who are all deaf or hard of hearing. It is the only higher education institution in the world where all programs and services are specifically designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. All courses are taught in American Sign Language and English.

The school’s mission is to maintain “a proud tradition of research and scholarly activity and [prepare] its graduates for career opportunities in a highly competitive, technological, and rapidly changing world,” according to the school’s mission statement. Gallaudet also aims to advance the intellectual, social, linguistic and economic vitality of deaf people locally and internationally, to preserve the history of the deaf and to “promote the recognition that deaf people and their signed languages are vast resources with significant contributions to the cognitive, creative and cultural dimensions of human diversity.”


Located in Washington, Gallaudet offers Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees in more than 40 majors. Its graduate programs confer master’s degrees in fields such as public administration and international development and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology and linguistics, among other fields.

A majority of Gallaudet’s graduate programs are designed to train students in professional services for the deaf and hard of hearing. For example, Gallaudet’s program for critical studies in the education of deaf learners prepares its graduates “to be agents of change in their roles as practitioners, administrators, teacher educators and researchers through a critical examination of educational, social, and political issues.” In the Department of Hearing, Speech, and Language Sciences, students learn about deafness from a biological, social and cultural perspective and are prepared for faculty and research positions in universities and other research facilities, with coursework in statistics, research methods and higher education pedagogy.

Gallaudet’s Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center includes the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School with programs for young children and the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, serving students up to college age.

The university fields football, basketball, soccer and baseball teams, among other sports. The women’s volleyball team contributed an impressive 10 players to the U.S. Deaf Women’s National Volleyball Team that competed in the U.S. Open National Volleyball Championships in Salt Lake City in 2012.


Gallaudet is a federally chartered, private, nonprofit educational institution. In 1857, the U.S. Congress established the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind. Amos Kendall, former postmaster general under Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, donated land from his Washington estate for the school’s campus. Its first president was Edward Miner Gallaudet, whose father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, was a pioneer in the education of deaf people. In 1864, Congress authorized the school to confer academic degrees. The bill was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the diplomas awarded to the first graduating class of three, and, ever since, every diploma has been signed by the sitting U.S. president.

In 1894, the school was renamed Gallaudet College in honor of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.

Congress significantly amended Gallaudet’s charter in 1954, authorizing permanent federal appropriations for the school. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Education of the Deaf Act of 1986, which reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to making educational opportunities available to deaf people and re-establishing Gallaudet College as Gallaudet University. Gallaudet’s annual federal appropriations are overseen by the Department of Education.

Gallaudet students take pride in their record of advocating aggressively on behalf of deaf people. One landmark cause was securing the appointment of a deaf university president. In 1988, when the university announced it had chosen a hearing person as its seventh president over two deaf finalists, Gallaudet students, with the support of alumni, staff and faculty, shut down the university for several days. The protesters demanded the new president and the chairman of the Board of Trustees step down and that a deaf president be appointed. The Deaf President Now protest was ultimately successful, and I. King Jordan was named Gallaudet’s eighth — and first deaf — president. Jordan served until 2006.

In 2014, Gallaudet University will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the law signed by President Lincoln authorizing the school to confer college degrees for deaf students. With the theme “Celebrating 150 Years of Visionary Leadership,” the celebration will highlight Gallaudet’s pioneering role in advancing opportunities and achievements of the deaf and hard of hearing.


Krishneer Sen came to Gallaudet from Suva, Fiji. He’s working toward his bachelor’s degree in information technology. A senior, he lives with friends off campus.

Back in Fiji, Sen had researched universities and found Gallaudet offered unique educational programs for people who are deaf. “All of the instructors here use sign language, and we have direct access and direct communication, so that’s one very, very important aspect. One of my teachers is the first deaf woman to get her Ph.D. in computer science.”

In addition to the learning environment, Sen appreciates the opportunity to meet people he would not have otherwise met. “We have such a diverse population here, and I wasn’t used to that. We have a gay and lesbian community, which is very strong here, black, Latino — all of these diverse groups. I like that. It also includes hearing people, hard-of-hearing people as well as deaf.”

Sen was able to attend Gallaudet through the World Deaf Leadership Scholarship. Sponsored by the Nippon Foundation in Japan, the scholarship funds Gallaudet students who “demonstrate the ability to become international leaders and make significant contributions to their nation and possibly the world.”

“The goal of the program — and the goal for myself,” Sen said, “is to go back home to Fiji to set up a program that benefits the deaf community.”

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