At the corner of Florida Avenue and West Virginia Avenue in Northeast, Gallaudet University’s brick-walled campus sits on rolling green hills. Gallaudet has been a fixture of the neighborhood since it first opened in 1864 through an Act of Congress signed by Abraham Lincoln. It remains America’s only liberal arts college for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Gallaudet’s student population has grown significantly over the past 150 years, with a current undergraduate enrollment of about 1,200 students and additional school programs for parents of infants, elementary, and high school.
Gallaudet has also transformed how the United States views and values the Deaf community. The campus holds an important place in Deaf culture and politics. In 1988, it was the site of victory for the Deaf President Now movement, which elected the university’s first Deaf president, a moment that proved to be a precursor for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Over the past decade, many of the neighborhoods near Gallaudet have grown in popularity. Housing prices have gone up. Union Market, the trendy, open-concept food emporium and shopping center, sits right next door. To the south, the buzzing nightlife of H Street beckons. To the East, the residential Trinidad neighborhood continues to slowly gentrify.
Set amid these changes, the University is one of many diverse aspects of the city’s social scene and culture. Today, more than 1,000 Uber driver-partners self-identify as Deaf or hard of hearing. They are also members of a vital community at the heart of D.C.’s history and future. Request a ride and there’s a good chance your driver will be someone with a connection to Gallaudet.
Mimi d’Autremont is a photographer and videographer who has spent several years working with Gallaudet. On one of the coldest days of the year, with a “bomb cyclone” in the weather forecast, d’Autremont met two drivers who are longtime members of Gallaudet’s community.
I work as a Public Safety Officer. Our duties are similar to those of the D.C. Metropolitan Police department. We’re solely responsible for the 99 acres and three different schools that make up Gallaudet’s campus.
It’s not uncommon that someone started their education here as an infant and remained until they graduated from the university.
I had experience leading groups, which helped as I became department instructor. Being a leader means standing up for your decisions and taking responsibility. You need to find balance between the people who work with you and the bosses you report to. Everyone knows I will stand up for them.
As a supervisor, my job includes training new officers. One of the best feelings is seeing them grow. There’s one officer whose arrival I vividly remember. He’d worked in a prison in his home state. His approach was rough, to say the least. He was confrontational, having a hard time accepting my constructive criticism. But he learned how to communicate, how to de-escalate situations, how to be a leader and lieutenant. I’m very proud of work we’ve all done together.
As a driver, my experiences with riders have been very positive. People are receptive. Many are aware of my deafness because the app notifies them. Some may not have interacted with Deaf individuals, so I always let them know they should tap me on the shoulder to get my attention. I think it’s good for them to experience having a Deaf driver. It helps to bridge the gap.
Gallaudet is my community. When I was growing up, I didn’t have an identity. I wasn’t sure which world I lived in. Enrolling here helped me discover who I am. Having an identity can give you peace.
Sign language is my native language. I serve on the board of a non-profit organization called the Deaf Health Initiative. One of our organization’s goals is to address the high unemployment rates within the Deaf community.
Deaf people are often unable to access important information that can educate and transform lives. This is an issue that Congress and businesses should be doing more to prioritize. We established a Facebook group called the Investment Guide for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing to educate the Deaf community about how to proactively supplement income through investing. Since a significant amount of investment and financial-related information online is inaccessible to Deaf people, our focus is to provide this information in sign language.
After graduating from a program for Deaf students at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I moved to D.C. Gallaudet is a great community. We’re fortunate to be here, in a location with a significant Deaf population. When local businesses and restaurants are familiar with Deaf individuals, they often know to provide better services for us, which can make life easier.
For many Deaf individuals, Uber has been life-changing. I never view my deafness as a burden when driving. In fact, there have been studies that show Deaf individuals can drive better. We’re more visually alert, especially behind the wheel.
Still, the hearing community can have misconceptions about the Deaf community. I’ve been asked many times about how I drive if I’m Deaf. Being Deaf doesn’t mean you’re broken! I try to challenge these assumptions by providing a great experience for riders.
Photos: Mimi d'Autremont
Colleen Shaffer is a D.C. native who works on Uber’s local operations team, writing for 730DC on the side. She’s also an enthusiastic cyclist and frisbee player.