This weekend is for the Bisons. 

Gallaudet University is celebrating its homecoming this weekend. The Deaf university is hosting both in person and virtual events for students and alumni. Tonight, its women’s soccer team will take on Trinity College, and tomorrow the Bisons football team will face Alfred College. Gallaudet is the oldest Deaf university in the world and was founded in the throes of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln signed the charter to approve its collegiate status in 1864—forever cementing Washington D.C. as a city with ties to the Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and Hard-of-Hearing communities.

But did you know you can view that legacy in an on-campus museum? The National Deaf Life Museum at Gallaudet University fully details the history of the school. Sitting in Chapel Hill (the big building you see while driving on Florida Avenue NE), the museum received its dedicated spot to celebrate the university’s 150th anniversary. The ambience of the museum is other-worldly. Afternoon light filters through stained glass windows—creating a peaceful atmosphere. Watching over the exhibits is Museum Director Meredith Peruzzi. She says the museum, and the university as a whole, are meant to champion the Deaf community in D.C.

“We are trying to use this as a means of educating people about what deaf people can do,” she says. “Here, we’re really talking about a lot of the history.” 

The placards detail Gallaudet’s story starting with the school’s founding by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. They detail the beginnings of traditions like The Rat Funeral, the beginning of on-campus fraternities and eventually sororities, and the admittance of women and people of color after originally only admitting White men. The largest exhibit, “Deaf President Now!”, is about a successful student protest that brought in Gallaudet’s first deaf president and is credited with helping pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. A quarterback from Gallaudet is known for creating the first football huddle, a topical homecoming addition.

Much like homecoming, Peruzzi says the museum is meant to foster a sense of community.

“Gallaudet is home,” she says. “They come here, and we really form a community on campus, and that kind of leaks out to the community at large.”

Peruzzi says Gallaudet has made D.C. one of the largest Deaf communities per capita in the country. She says the Trinidad, NoMa, and H Street neighborhoods have embraced their collegiate neighbors. Many businesses throughout the neighborhoods host Deaf events and have staff who are deaf or hard of hearing. Many hearing employees can also understand and speak American Sign Language. 

D.C. is intricately connected to the greater Deaf community.

  • William Ellsworth Hoy, a.k.a. Dummy Hoy, was the first deaf Major League Baseball player. He played for D.C. and is often credited with popularizing hand signals.
  • Deaf-Blind author Helen Keller is buried in the Washington National Cathedral with her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy.
  • Vint Cerf, who is hard of hearing, developed the first commercial email. He served on Gallaudet’s Board of Trustees from 1997 to 2004.
  • Eleven Gallaudet students were recruited by NASA to study the effects of weightlessness.
  • There’s even a legend that the Lincoln Memorial pays tribute to the Deaf community. Lincoln’s fingers are positioned in such a way to create his initials in ASL, “A” and “L.”

Peruzzi wants Gallaudet to be a welcoming place for all D.C. residents. Post-pandemic, she says they’re looking to provide local health care and ASL classes. You can visit this museum yourself. It’s appointment only due to COVID-19, but may become a walk-in museum in the spring. 

As its homecoming celebrates the legacy and camaraderie of the university, Peruzzi says Gallaudet stands as a symbol to what the Deaf community can do, even when underestimated.

“When the hearing world has said ‘you know, you’re not able to do it,’ well we stand up and do it anyway,” she says. “Even though people don’t think that deaf people can, Gallaudet is here to say: ‘You know, we can. And we’ve been doing it for a very long time.’”

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