Roberta Cordano, president of Gallaudet University. (Joshua Yospyn/For The Washington Post)

Roberta Cordano, 52, lives in the District. She spoke through an interpreter, Carolyn Ressler.

You’ve been officially installed as Gallaudet’s first deaf, female president for two weeks now.What has prepared you for this role?

Nothing. And everything.

Okay! Sums that up.

Let me elaborate just a little bit. When you look at the charter that was signed by President Lincoln, it is still the only time in the history of the world where a government recognized the right and the needs of students who are deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind to have access to higher education. Now I would call this a period of renaissance for us. It was determined that we would have a college here that will teach through sign language. A hundred and fifty-two years later, we’ve learned that the brain looks for any language at birth. It doesn’t discriminate against language. It’s people who do that. It’s not an either-or option anymore, whether it should be English or American Sign Language. It now must be “and.”

Your parents met here?


Why did you decide not to go here yourself?

I had decided at the age of 13 that I wanted to become a lawyer. At that time, my parents were very aware that it would be easier if I went to a college that was esteemed more highly by law school admissions. Their perception was that there was still a lot of bias against deaf students at the time, and Gallaudet, about how well-prepared students would be. My parents said, “You can do well at another liberal arts college where the classes are fairly small. If you really, really want this, this might have to be your sacrifice, not to go to Gallaudet.” The question is rather: What did I miss by not coming here? And I missed a lot. There were some parts of my journey that would have been faster had I come to Gallaudet, but that was my sacrifice. At the time I graduated from law school, I was the 17th deaf person in the United States to become an attorney.


But after Deaf President Now [a student-led movement in 1988 for a deaf school president] and the passage of the [Americans With Disabilities Act], it was clear that law schools woke up, and they started to see that these students are very civil rights-minded. Today there are over 350 deaf attorneys in the United States.

You were a student around the time of DPN.

I was a law student at that time.

How do you expect that will inform your presidency?

I’m here because DPN happened. It was young deaf people with support of the adults around them. My mother was on the [Gallaudet University Alumni Association] board at that time. They were one of the first organizations to give money to the students’ protest. I was a witness with my mother’s involvement. It’s the community that will lead decisions. My job is to listen carefully.

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