WASHINGTON — When Steve Walker was a student at Gallaudet University in the 1980s, he says, the school for the deaf and hard of hearing was a very different place than it is today.
When Walker studied at Gallaudet, students were advised not to venture outside the campus, because most people in the surrounding neighborhood didn't speak sign language. Students didn't feel welcome in the outside community, and struggled to communicate in restaurants where they couldn't understand the servers. As the school celebrates its 150th anniversary, Walker says that has changed.
These days, the northeast Washington neighborhood around the school, including the upscale Union Market food hall next to the campus and the bars and restaurants of nearby H Street, accommodates the deaf community. Walker works at the school as a sign language interpreter for students who are both blind and deaf. He uses what's called tactile interpreting, in which a student will hold his hands as he signs to understand him.
Walker says what is happening in the area around Gallaudet is a serious change in cultural sensitivity.
"Wow, there is a big shift in what I've seen," Walker says, raising his eyebrows as he signs. "Back in the '80s, when I was here, students basically did not feel welcome on H Street. But now, I see a lot of students, faculty and alumni going anywhere they want to go. And especially, it's nice to see people on H Street using American Sign Language to be able to communicate with us, because that makes us feel even more welcome."
Nearly 1,200 alumni registered for Gallaudet's 150th anniversary celebration and reunion on campus this past week.
Gallaudet is a mecca for deaf students, says Wendy Martin, who graduated in 1980. Martin, who hails from Alberta, Canada, says she knows people from all over the world who came to Washington to study at Gallaudet. The university has about 1,000 undergraduate students and nearly 900 employees, half of whom are deaf or hard of hearing.
Fred Weiner, assistant vice president for administration at Gallaudet, says businesses have realized it makes much more sense, and money, to welcome the deaf community than to ignore it.
Jessica Burdge, a manager at Trickling Springs Creamery at Union Market, says about half the vendors in the market have students from Gallaudet on staff. In Trickling Springs' two years at the market, Burdge says, she has seen a change in how people do business. Many vendors use sign language right along with deaf students and teachers.
Over at Rappahannock Oyster Bar, general manager Jean Paul Sabatier signs the words for salty, sweet and bitter. Sabatier says vendors in the market attend free sign language classes at Gallaudet or arrange for university students to come teach them.
"The Gallaudet University community impacts not just Union Market but the businesses in this entire area," says Cory Churches, manager of the restaurant Ris at Union Market. During the lunch rush, she points out a side effect of having a substantial clientele that is deaf: "It's interesting to be in a crowded place and it's kind of quiet."
Some of the changes businesses are making are simple but important for deaf people. Samantha Siedschlag, who graduated from Gallaudet two years ago and works in the admissions office, says that when she came to the school, people in the nearby area were "clueless" about deaf culture.
Now, she says, business owners know to make their restaurants well-lit, so it is easier for those using sign language to converse. Restaurants use white napkins instead of black in case students need to write on them to communicate.
"We have to be culturally sensitive with them, they have to be culturally sensitive to us," Siedschlag says. "So it's a two-way street."
Weiner says the cultural shift enhances students' education when they take jobs in the community. Students who have a positive experience in the neighborhood often return as alumni and open up their own businesses. He says this in turn helps the local economy.
Weiner, an alumnus himself, class of 1983, says the presence of the university community makes the neighborhood unique and helps refine its bilingual cultural identity.
"We envision it as an ethnic enclave, where two languages are used, ASL and English," he says. "And how amazing, to have the individuals around here start to use those two different languages to communicate with each other."
Some alumni say there is still much to be done to make society more understanding of deaf culture.
"I just hope that not only is it H Street and the restaurants there that are becoming more culturally aware of Gallaudet University and our community, but I hope that that extends farther out beyond this neighborhood, so that the cultural sensitivity expands to Washington, D.C., the surrounding area, and the country," he says, smiling. "That's what I'm looking forward to."