Gallaudet University, the 140-year-old school for the deaf in Northeast Washington, announced yesterday that it has received a $5 million donation from a Utah inventor and his family -- the second-largest private donation in the school's history.
The school said the contribution will help build a language and communications center on the 99-acre campus for several university disciplines devoted to the study of deaf people's language, culture and history.
The donation came from James LeVoy Sorenson -- a billionaire inventor of the disposable surgical mask, the first blood recycling system and the disposable venous catheter -- and his son, James Lee Sorenson, who developed a videophone for the deaf.
The building will be named the James Lee Sorenson Language and Communication Center.
"We're just delighted that the Sorenson family is showing this kind of confidence in the university," Gallaudet President I. King Jordan said in an interview.
The school's largest previous donation was $10 million received in 1992 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to build a conference center on campus.
The low-profile Sorenson family has amassed a fortune through inventions and real estate investments in the Southwest and is known for its philanthropy in the Salt Lake City area. This year, James LeVoy Sorenson was ranked No. 51 on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $2.4 billion.
Gallaudet, which enrolls 1,800 mostly deaf or hard-of-hearing students, launched a campaign in January to raise $20 million for the new center.
It will allow nine of the university's programs, now scattered across the campus -- including the Center for the Evaluation of American Sign Language Skills, its Sociology and Linguistics departments and its 85,000-book Deaf Collection -- to be housed in one place, Jordan said. He said the facility will allow for more collaboration among departments.
"The campus is really excited about this," said Jordan, who is deaf himself and signed as he spoke during an interview in his office Wednesday. "You can probably see I'm excited about it."
James LeVoy Sorenson, 83, has even bigger plans. He said he hopes the gift will help boost the use of American Sign Language worldwide. "We would like to see a language that is universal, and sign language just might be [it]," Sorenson said.
For the last 18 months, Gallaudet and a Sorenson company, Sorenson Media, have partnered in the development of Sorenson's videophone for the deaf. Gallaudet supplies certified American Sign Language interpreters for the phones, which allow the deaf to talk to the hearing with a videophone connected via a broadband Internet connection to a television or computer.
With the system, the deaf user signs to an interpreter on the screen, who relays the information to a hearing user on a standard telephone and then signs the reply to the deaf user, helping them conduct a conversation in real time.
Sorenson Media has placed about 200 of the phone systems around Gallaudet's campus. About 20,000 of the phones are in use nationwide, said James Lee Sorenson, 54, chief executive of Sorenson Media, who has a deaf brother-in-law.
Exploding demand for the phones is increasing demand for hearing interpreters trained by Gallaudet who are experts in American Sign Language, he said.
"We have great synergy [with Gallaudet] already," Sorenson said in an interview. "We hope that [the donation] provides for better understanding and better education for the deaf."
Jordan said the university will start looking for an architect. The school has raised an additional $1.6 million but still has to raise the remaining funds.
Jordan said he does not know when the building will be constructed.
"The only good answer is ASAP," he said.