The history of Gallaudet University in northeast D.C. traces its roots to 1816 when Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet left Paris with the hopes of opening the first school for the deaf in the U.S. Others would embrace and support their efforts including philanthropist and former U.S. postmaster general Amos Kendall, Edward Miner Gallaudet, a resident of the District and the 38th Congress who authorized the institution to grant and confirm college degrees in early 1864.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the act on April 8, 1864, which, from then on, would be celebrated annually as Charter Day, commemorating the official beginning of what would eventually be known as Gallaudet University. Today, 150 years later, Gallaudet has become a beacon for visual learning and language, social justice and equal rights for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, boasting 23,000 alumni worldwide with a community whose members come from all 50 states in the U.S. and close to 100 countries.
However, despite its success in preparing thousands of students to thrive in the world while showing society the need to give greater credence to the many gifts that deaf people possess and have to offer, Gallaudet has remained relatively unknown to most Americans and the world.
But like the phoenix which rose from the ashes, Gallaudet would emerge from a place of relative obscurity to the international stage on Sunday after one of its graduates, Troy Kotsur, won best supporting actor at the Oscars during the 94th Academy Awards.
As one of three deaf actors who starred in the film “CODA” — the movie which swept the awards this year including Best Picture — Kotsur, 53, who has toiled in the industry for 30 years, became the first male deaf actor to win an Oscar.
Kotsur portrayed Frank Rossi in the movie — a comedy and coming-of-age tale that focuses on Ruby, a 17-year-old girl, who dreams of becoming a singer.
But with a father, mother and brother, all of whom are deaf, and portrayed by three deaf actors, Ruby must pursue her dream knowing that her family literally cannot hear her voice and will therefore never be able to comprehend the depths of her abilities.
With his victory, Kotsur, whose wife Deanne Bray is also deaf, joins Marlee Martin, his co-star in “CODA,” as the only two deaf Oscar winners in the Academy’s history.
Kotsur illustrated why being deaf counts as less about an individual overcoming something than realizing that being deaf may be best understood as a process of understanding oneself — even building connections both within and beyond the signing and deaf community.
Kotsur, assisted by his translator who delivered his acceptance speech as he used American Sign Language, dedicated his win to the deaf community, the CODA (child of a deaf adult) community and the disabled community, saying, “this is our moment.”
“This is amazing to be here on this journey,” Kotsur signed. “I cannot believe I’m here.”
“This is just the beginning for me. This is a new chapter. My question is, is Hollywood ready for a new step forward?”