There are many inspirational Deaf leaders we have admired, but one unique person comes to mind whom we would like to spotlight: Marie Jean Philip (1953-1997). Known internationally as an ASL and “Bi-Bi” pioneer and icon who advocated for Deaf people’s natural right to sign language, she was a teacher, lecturer, advocate, and as importantly, the favored storyteller of Deaf children.
Born into a well-known Deaf family in Massachusetts, MP attended the American School for the Deaf and went on to Gallaudet University with a goal to earn a bachelor’s in Psychology. In her senior year, she took a break and did a short stint in Florida. After Florida, she got a job at Northeastern University under Harlan Lane as an ASL research assistant and teacher, which is what lit a spark in her drive for ASL rights.
While at Northeastern University, MP attained a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics and a minor in Cultural Anthropology. Later, she went on to work for The Learning Center for Deaf Children as a Bilingual- Bicultural (Bi-Bi) Coordinator, which importantly put her at the forefront of the Bi-Bi movement where she cast great influence through her knowledge and wisdom across the United States and around the world. MP was working on attaining a master’s and a doctorate in Deaf Education at Boston University when she passed away unexpectedly due to pulmonary embolism. We can only imagine what more she would have achieved had she lived!
MP was already such a legendary figure in her own time who was able to articulately reconcile her own experiences growing up with access to a language and keenly apply it to an understanding how ASL was a real language and Deaf Culture was a real culture and why Deaf children should be taught in schools using the Bi-Bi approach. And, through it all, she was outspoken about her strong belief that being Deaf with ASL and Deaf Culture is natural and wholesome.
MP once said “You just can't take away sign language from deaf people. Even if you put them in oral schools, they'll find a way to sign somewhere. Even if they're locked up, they'll find a way to sign.”
Truly, she was the epitome of the Deafhood spirit!
Edit 12/06/21: Corrected the misspelling of MP's last name which should be 'Philip'.
Edit 12/07/21: Removed a statement that MP graduated from Gallaudet University with a bachelor's degree. It was clarified that MP left Gallaudet University in her senior year to "take a break" when she decided that the Psychology field was the wrong major for her.