How One Student Gaza Encampment Built a Model for Deaf Accessibility

Washington, D.C. — Among the protesters in the pro-Palestinian encampment at George Washington University cleared by the police early on Wednesday were students from nearby Gallaudet University, the only college in the United States to have all programs designed for those who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Some of them are founding members of Gallaudet’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, which is possibly the organization’s first chapter to conduct all meetings in American Sign Language. Volunteers, including hearing Gallaudet students and community members, organized to create a more accessible space for Deaf protesters at the encampment. There were American Sign Language interpreters to help Deaf students fully engage in the protest and also communicate necessary information.

The encampment came together on April 25, occupied initially only by George Washington University students. Protesters from several other local campuses soon joined in, including the contingent from Gallaudet.

Student protesters across the country have erected encampments like the one at George Washington University to rally against U.S. support for Israel. After Hamas led an attack that killed about 1,200 Israelis on October 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government responded by launching a military campaign in Gaza — an offensive going on seven months. More than 34,000 Palestinians, disproportionately women and children, have been killed, according to local health officials. U.S. student protesters — some with the support of faculty and staff — have been demanding that their universities divest from companies with ties to Israel.

On Wednesday, May 8, in the early hours of the morning, Metropolitan police — some using pepper spray — pushed their way into the George Washington University encampment. In the end, 33 protesters were arrested, including one hearing Gallaudet student who was acting as a volunteer interpreter.

Jules, a Gallaudet staff member who was there when the camp was cleared, said on Instagram that when the police came, coordinators were able to signal to her and other Deaf participants to move.

“I’m Deaf and can’t hear anything, but you can see the body language, you can see their anger,” she said of the police.

Earlier on Tuesday evening, Jules had taught a crowd of pro-Palestinian protesters how to sign “free Palestine.” Later, when the police came, she said she witnessed a woman in front of her being “pushed” and “sprayed in the face.”

“The juxtaposition of community joy and devastating violence on the same night was haunting,” she told The 19th in a written statement.

Bobbi-Angelica Morris is working toward a master’s degree in social work. In addition to their involvement with Students for Justice in Palestine, they are the president of Students Against Mass Incarceration at Gallaudet. They felt drawn to the protest and pro-Palestinian activism because of their intersecting identities.

“I’m a Black, DeafDisabled person. I’m nonbinary as well. And I’m also an abolitionist. I believe in a world without state violence. The system that we have now is based on and encourages state violence. And that’s exactly what Palestinians are experiencing right now,” Morris told The 19th last week. They added: “This is not only about Palestine, this is about collective liberation. None of us are free until all of us are free.”

Morris was the only person interviewed who felt comfortable using their full name. Other students asked to be identified by their first names only because they were concerned about being doxxed or losing access to future employment. Fewer than 40 percent of deaf and hard of hearing Americans work full time, so the Gallaudet students felt particularly vulnerable. However, this fear did not stop them from showing up.

This story alternates using “Deaf,” with a capital “D,” when referring to Deaf culture and community, and the lower-cased “deaf” when talking about audiological status. The choices were based on context and also the identity and preference of the people interviewed.

All interviews in this piece were conducted through volunteer interpreters participating in the protest.

For Elizabeth, an undergraduate studying psychology, staying in the encampment, despite the risk, was about honoring her experience as a Deaf Arab-American.

“I am part Arab. My dad is Arab, from Syria. I know what Israel has done to Palestinians. I’ve been in community with Deaf Palestinians growing up. Deaf people have a duty to each other,” she said.

Morris and Elizabeth are some of the founding members of Gallaudet’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. The group was formed in March after Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff, Israel’s only Deaf rabbi, came to speak at Hillel, the Jewish organization on campus.

Pro-Palestinian students organized a protest in response, decrying the university’s approval of his visit at a time of inflamed tensions over Israel’s attacks in Gaza. On social media, Gallaudet’s Hillel described the event as “successful” and informative.

Students for Justice in Palestine is a chapter-based organization at campuses in the United States and other countries. While many Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, consider Students for Justice in Palestine leadership and some chapters to be antisemitic, tactics and approach have varied from school to school.

A number of Gallaudet Students for Justice in Palestine members were staying at the George Washington University encampment full or part time. Together, they worked to navigate the challenges that came from sharing space with hearing leaders and organizers, most of whom did not know sign language.

Deaf participants were concerned that they may not receive messages or instructions from organizers or police that could help them keep safe.

Hearing participants and journalists had, occasionally, been disrespectful, even if unintentionally, the Gallaudet protesters said during interviews before the encampment’s disbandment. Morris recalled a photographer who “took amazing pictures,” they said. “Then he did a presentation in spoken language. And his comments were like, ‘It doesn’t matter that you’re deaf, it doesn’t mean you can’t hear the cries of Palestinian children.’ He put it on social media and literally said, ‘Gallaudet speaks.’ There are little things like that, where people show ignorance.”

The idea that hearing and speaking are superior forms of communication, called “audism,” is offensive to many in the Deaf community.

“People lack Deaf cultural competency,” Morris continued.

Ave, an undergraduate studying data science, said that there were some structural and logistical issues as well. Many people at the encampment stood in front of the sign language interpreters, blocking them from view of Deaf students, and sometimes needed to be asked to move multiple times. Volunteer organizers weren’t experienced in respectfully communicating and interacting with the Deaf people in the encampment.

“They don’t need to learn ASL. I mean, yes, they do. But at the same time, they should try to gesture or write with us, or sometimes they’ll just be speaking directly at us. I gesture I can’t hear and then they keep speaking at me anyway,” Elizabeth said.

American Sign Language is a different language from English, with different grammar and vocabulary.

“Some people don’t have very strong English comprehension, and so that literacy isn’t there. They need ASL interpretation. And so sometimes news [about the history of the conflict] is not accessible to them,” said Selena, a Gallaudet staff member who came out to support students at the encampment after work.

“[Gallaudet] has Palestinian students and staff, and they have family who have died,” Selena told The 19th. She added: “There’s no sign of sympathy, understanding or support from [Gallaudet’s leadership], or acknowledgement of the pain and trauma they’re going through.”

Gallaudet has not made a statement specifically on the conflict between Israel and Palestine. They did make a statement about the protest at the Hillel event, noting, “we acknowledge the significant devastation and loss of life that Gazan, Israeli, and Palestinian people are experiencing. So too do we acknowledge the suffering experienced by many other groups and individuals.” Most of the statement focused on campus safety, appropriate places to protest and dispelling social media rumors about the event.

Gallaudet protesters don’t feel this statement is sufficient and one of their specific asks is for an “official university statement condemning the 7 month long genocide of Palestinians in Gaza,” according to a post on their Instagram account. While the Israeli government has objected to the use of the term, many protesters globally have called the conflict in Gaza a genocide because of the number of civilians killed.

Access Palestine and the Olive Guardians were among the groups providing sign language interpretation services for Deaf protesters at the encampment. Ranem, who is Palestinian American and Deaf, founded the organizations to ensure deaf and hard of hearing people were informed about the ongoing Palestine-Israel conflict from a Palestinian perspective. Ranem is not affiliated with Gallaudet, but many of her volunteers are.

“I’ve learned so much from [protesters], and they’ve learned so much from us. It’s such a two-way street. And it sustains us to be able to continue to do more good work. That’s what the community ecosystem feels like. We keep feeding each other. I hope it’ll continue to grow in that way,” she said.

The beginner sign language classes Deaf students and volunteers like Ranem organized, to teach important signs like “help” and basic directions, have been postponed. In the event of a new encampment, those same Deaf students and volunteers hope to continue to protest.

“Despite their efforts to destroy us, our spirits will prevail. Our encampment may be destroyed, but we will rebuild and continue the fight,” Jules told The 19th.

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