Starting Work

Printing is a specialized trade and newspaper print shops were largely unionized. Entering the field as a printer required both technical and institutional knowledge. The path to employment at The Washington Post varied amongst Deaf printers. Many obtained training at Deaf schools and others learned the skills needed for linotype or offset printing in trade school programs. As they entered the field, Deaf printers received guidance from family members, teachers, and friends.

A black and white photograph of a fair skinned teenage boy operating a linotype machine. In the background, an older fair-skinned man in overalls is seated at another linotype machine.

A photograph of a teenage boy training on a linotype machine at the Missouri School for the Deaf in the 1950s.

Courtesy of the Gallaudet University Archives.

Residential Deaf Schools:

From the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, vocational training programs at residential Deaf schools were established to prepare students for skilled employment after graduation. Not all students had the same educational opportunities. Courses in carpentry, shoemaking, automotive repair, barbery, and printing were common in Deaf schools for boys and young men. However, across this period Deaf students of color were denied admission or educated in separate facilities often without the expensive industrial machinery.

Girls and young women at Deaf schools were largely not permitted to join in manual or industrial training. Instead they received instruction in domestic service well into the twentieth century. However, as their opportunities were expanded outside of homemaking skills, courses in typewriting were added. These skills would later translate into employment in print shops like The Washington Post.

A video featuring several Deaf printers describing training in printing trades at residential Deaf schools.

Time: 4:25. Click to enable captions. Transcription here.

The establishment of print shops in Deaf schools included the purchase and use of various forms of printing technology. Some Deaf printers recalled training on large metal linotype machines from a young age. Others remembered learning how to lay out text using small metal movable type stored in a wooden letterpress drawer, known as a California job case.

A sepia photograph of a young fair-skinned boy wearing an apron standing at a case of type. He holds a small metal box in one hand and selects type from the case with the other.

A 1917 photograph of a young Deaf boy withdrawing type from a California case, a wooden box used to store and transport movable type. National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Trade schools and Apprenticeships:

In the mid-twentieth century, Deaf community members saw changes in support for occupational training. After World Wars I and II, new federal programs focused on issues of employment among veterans and people with disabilities. These programs resolved labor concerns by expanding vocational training opportunities and encouraging the hiring of Deaf and disabled people. Throughout this period Deaf people also formed organizations to support the advancement of Deaf people in the workplace. These vocational rehabilitation programs guided Deaf people to trades like printing and often funded continued education in trade schools. 

Experience in trade schools throughout the twentieth century would have differed from the training received at Deaf schools. Instruction would be delivered in spoken English, and until the end of the twentieth century, sign language interpreters would not be available. Instead, in trade schools Deaf people learned from and alongside hearing printers.

A video of several Deaf printers describing trade school experiences in American Sign Language. 

Time: 1:28. Click to enable English captions. Transcription here.

For some, trade school programs reinforced the skills obtained in Deaf school workshops. For others, like Deaf women and black Deaf people, the courses provided a meaningful foundation in the tools and skills needed to enter the workforce. 

Apprenticeships were the traditional path to work in newspaper print shops for most printers. Since the nineteenth century, apprenticeships were common for skilled craftsmen. Union membership and employment opportunities commonly required apprenticeships of five to six years. These focused on the multiple skills required to work on the floor of a printshop, from linotype operation to page layout and make-up. Many Deaf printers began their work in newspaper printing in smaller print shops outside of DC. Bob Zekas was the first Deaf printer to be an apprentice at The Washington Post.

In this video, Bob Zekas describes his experience as the first Deaf printing apprentice at The Post

Time: 28 seconds. Click to enable English captions. Transcription here.

Gallaudet Connection: 

A color photograph of a red brick building Victorian Gothic building. In the foreground a fair-skinned man and woman stand together.

An image of the iconic Chapel Hall at Gallaudet University, photographed in the 1960s.

Photo courtesy of the Gallaudet University Archives.

Some Deaf printers entered the workforce at The Washington Post while enrolled as students, or employed as faculty and staff, at nearby Gallaudet University. Printing was lucrative work that attracted those with previous experience and training. Additionally, the nature of newspaper printing, which focused on the daily production and distribution of the news, created a persistent demand for temporary workers working overnight and weekend shifts. Deaf students at Gallaudet often advised one another to seek work opportunities at the Post in the mailroom, composing room or press room.

In this video, several Deaf printers describe the connections between The Washington Post and Gallaudet University.

Time: 2:37. Click to enable English captions. Transcription here.

The Post provided a unique workspace opportunity that was without parallel elsewhere. Aside from residential schools and later the United States Post Office, seldom do we find a large cluster of deaf people in professional jobs as was the case at The Washington Post. Deaf people obtained training at their home state schools or through specialized trade programs, and as some moved to Washington, DC to pursue higher education, some did leave college for economic mobility. Work opportunities in the printing trade in the metropolitan Washington DC area were plentiful, particularly for white deaf people. In addition to the newspapers, the Government Printing Office (GPO) also employed Deaf people. Communication access at the Post, while not completely barrier free, offered reasonably accessible pathways for Deaf workers in the mailroom, composing room, and the floor room. Even the uniqueness of deaf workers converging at The Washington Post from across the nation can be found in support of their favorite professional football team back home. Gallaudet had drawn deaf students from across the country, and many worked at the Post. An already tight knit community had been created from shared experiences and even tighter community was created at the Post, where many of the Deaf workers recalled their co-workers with great fondness as their “brothers and sisters.”

For a list of sources used, see Works Consulted.