How deaf education has changed in Minnesota over 160 years

A woman smiles in front of a grey background.
Jody Olson attended Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf and is now Director of the school, where she has worked to save records of its history.
Courtesy of Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf

In 1863, the Civil War was raging in the United States and Minnesota had just passed laws exiling Dakota and Ho-Chunk people from their homelands. And it was during this tumultuous time that the first deaf students moved into a rented store building in Faribault, Minn., to attend a new residential school.

By the time what’s now called the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf opened its doors, more than 20 similar institutions had opened in other states around the country.

The school now has a campus located about a mile from the state academy for blind students. And deaf education has changed quite a bit in the last 160 years.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked with Director Jody Olson and school psychologist Heather Breitbach about the history of the school, and how its mission has shifted. Nettie Peters interpreted the conversation.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Now, we love Minnesota history on this program. That's why we created a segment called Minnesota Now and Then. Here's today's story.

In 1863, with the Civil War raging in the US and Minnesota just passing laws exiling Dakota and Ho-Chunk people from their homelands, the first deaf students moved into a rented store building in Faribault, Minnesota, to attend a new residential school. By the time what's now called the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf opened its doors, more than 20 similar institutions had opened in other states around the country. The school now has a campus located about a mile from the State Academy for Blind Students. Both are in Faribault.

Education for deaf people has changed quite a bit in the last 160 years. Joining us to talk about the history of the school and how its mission has shifted is director Jody Olson and school psychologist Heather Breitbach. Also with us is Nettie Peters, who's interpreting. Jody, Heather, and Nettie, thank you so much.

NETTIE PETERS: Thank you. Happy to be here.

CATHY WURZER: Jody, let's begin with you. What was the purpose of the school when it was first founded?

JODY OLSON THROUGH INTREPETER: This is Jody speaking. In the past, we had already recognized a need for deaf students to be together because of their unique instructional methods so they could have access to language, which is American Sign Language. The information, public school to our school, is the same. The only difference is the mode of communication. Putting everyone in one place for them to have access to that modality has always been that case ever since we opened 160 years ago.

CATHY WURZER: Now, for a while, deaf schools made students learn to read lips and speak English, right? But that has changed quite a good deal since deaf people called for more instruction in and respect for American Sign Language, right? How did that debate play out in Minnesota?

JODY OLSON THROUGH INTREPETER: Here at our school, we have always used American Sign Language since the beginning. There was a lot of oral or total communication in the school system. But we have always allowed signing in our schools. Some states have not, but ours always permitted sign language for students.

The emphasis was on recognizing language of deaf people, working with English in a bilingual approach. That has changed in more recent years-- the bilingual approach and the philosophy that we use now at our school.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you. Heather, I want to bring you into the conversation right now. Originally, the focus of education was, as I understand it, more on learning the trades. What do you hope students get out of an education today?

HEATHER BREITBACH THROUGH INTERPRETER: This is Heather. Yes, we focused a lot on printing, woodworking, mechanical. Now we have shifted our mindset to the time and age that we live in. We focus on technology, coding, robotics. Those are some of the classes that we offer here on campus.

We try to accommodate what the current market world is seeing so our students are prepared for their future. We have seen that change from the trades. Some trades have become outdated. So definitely, our focus has been adapted to the technology world.

CATHY WURZER: I'm glad you brought up technology. Thank you so much because this is, of course, something that has changed dramatically, obviously, when it comes to education, right? How have technologies changed instruction for folks who are deaf?

HEATHER BREITBACH THROUGH INTERPRETER: This is Heather. I would say, if you would look at captioning, let's take that as one modality of communication. That has been widespread in the 1980s, early '90s. There's still some issues with captioning. It's not 100% smooth and effective. But there's been a huge improvement from past years.

There's been a lot of educational materials. Videos, films online are becoming much more accessible for our students. And captions are being used. So those things are out there instead of relying on a very limited amount of information that we could use.

CATHY WURZER: And Jody, would you like to make a comment about this?

JODY OLSON THROUGH INTREPETER: Sure. Not only in our school, Jody is adding, but the applications are much more user friendly for deaf students-- airports, malls, restaurants. There are still some issues to have it fully accessible, but it's a hundred times better than it was in the past.

CATHY WURZER: Say, since we are talking about the school's history, we have a little audio from our MPR archives. Gosh, it was 30 years ago in 1993 when students called for the administrator then, Wade Karli, to resign. They said he had not hired enough deaf staff or responded to their concerns, and they called for the school to hire a deaf administrator. And I remember Mr. Karli talking with MPR News reporter Bob Potter. So we're going to hear a little bit of that right now.


WADE KARLI: Certainly, I understand the emotions of the students on the issue. This is a national movement since the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet University. And activities have occurred since that time in other states, similar to what we're experiencing now.


CATHY WURZER: So I'm curious, did the school learn anything from that situation?

JODY OLSON THROUGH INTREPETER: It's Jody. During that protest, there was a reframing of our thinking. The theory always has been that deaf people can do anything hearing people can do except for hear. We're no different, no more unique.

But at that point, there had been a hearing person over a deaf population. And there wasn't enough qualified people. At that point, we created more opportunities for deaf people after that protest. It did impact our school somewhat. We became stronger, with a voice on what we needed in choosing our next superintendent and our next principals.

CATHY WURZER: And how do you think having--


CATHY WURZER: Go ahead. Sorry.

HEATHER BREITBACH THROUGH INTERPRETER: Sure. That supporting of idea that there's nothing for us without us-- so that quote we use, you have to wait a minute and kind of think about it. We were allowing people that didn't have any experience, hadn't understood the deaf world, didn't really understand what deaf children needed. We are allowing them to make decisions for our voice. And like Jody said, it definitely reframed our thinking about how to give opportunities to our adults and our students that were deaf.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering, then-- it sounds as though education at the academy has been definitely enriched, given that those who are running it are deaf.

JODY OLSON THROUGH INTREPETER: Traditionally, maybe the last 20 years, Jody is stating, we are seeing more deaf people in the administrative level. Our current superintendent is deaf. Both of our directors, principals at the deaf school are deaf. Our dorm director is deaf. So yes, there's a lot more deaf role models in the system at an admin level. And all of our teachers currently are deaf as well.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, speaking of role models, I'm so excited. We had the chance to talk to Daniel Durant, who was delightful, of course, the Academy Award-winning actor, notable alum, and also, deafblind poet John Lee Clark. And I thought that was the most interesting conversation I have had in years. Are there other alums you want to mention?

JODY OLSON THROUGH INTREPETER: Olof Hanson. If you look in the Faribault area, many people already know him quite well. He was a famous architect in town. He's well known in our deaf community as well. So he is one.

Blanche Wilkins. Our recent dorm that we just built a few years ago is named after her. She is not recognized until recently. But she is well known in the deaf Black education community. Heather, other alumni that you can think of off the top of your head?

HEATHER BREITBACH THROUGH INTERPRETER: We have a well-known person in the deaf community, Frank Turk. He is the father of-- the youth programming in many organizations were set up by him, and he still runs those today.

CATHY WURZER: Jody, getting back to history for just a moment, I know you're a big part of the academy's museum. Do you have any favorite exhibits or items or records there?

JODY OLSON THROUGH INTREPETER: I was one of the authors for the 150th celebration book. And I really enjoyed all of the old pictures that we obtained. In the past, there was gas streetlights. There were uniforms, all of the old buildings that we used to have here on campus.

And the technology, the changes from the TTY, the telecommunication devices for the deaf, and how we communicated through phones-- they were humongous. They took up large spaces in the room. And now, when you look this many years later, we just use an app on our phone. So seeing all of those changes have been greatly impacting our school.

CATHY WURZER: I have so enjoyed having this conversation. Oh my goodness. Thank you so much.

NETTIE PETERS: Thank you. Have a great day. And thank you for having us.

CATHY WURZER: Jody Olson is director of the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf. Heather Breitbach is a school psychologist. Nettie Peters joined this conversation as an interpreter.

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