March 13th – April 15th is Deaf History Month and there is a lot to celebrate! There is so much that is unknown by the hearing community about the Deaf community. Let’s dive in!
Are you Deaf or deaf?
This seems like a weird question doesn’t it? While there are cases where deaf (the lowercase ‘d’ term) is used as an all inclusive term there are cases where it is not. So what’s the difference?
Lowercase ‘d’ deaf refers to the physical aspect of deafness, ie. anyone with hearing loss
Capital ‘D’ Deaf however, refers to the cultural aspect around deafness, or those who identify themselves as a part of the Deaf culture and community. Most often those who consider themselves Deaf are physically deaf, but this is not a hard and fast rule! CODA’s or Children of Deaf Adults, often times tend to be culturally Deaf but have full hearing. Generally, in order to identify as Deaf you have to have some knowledge of ASL, partake in Deaf events and the community itself, see other Deaf individuals, and/or participate in Deaf politics.
Now that we covered that, let’s dive into Deaf history and explain why it starts and ends in the middle of March – April.
Meet in the Middle?
So why start and end in the middle of the month? Well the dates of March 13th – April 15th include 3 key historic moments that impacted the Deaf community in America:
April 15th, 1817 – Last day of Deaf History Month
American School for the Deaf
This was the first public school specifically for the deaf in the United States. The school was founded by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet with the help of Laurent Clerc in Hartford, Connecticut.
April 8th, 1864
Establishment of the first deaf University – Gallaudet University
On this day, President Lincoln signed a charter establishing the first deaf university. This day is known today as Gallaudet Charter Day and is usually marked with a luncheon and awards program at the University.
March 13th, 1988 – First day of Deaf History Month
Deaf President Now Movement Succeeds
This was a huge day not just for the students and faculty of Gallaudet University but the Nation’s Deaf community as a whole. This was the day that I. King Jordan became the first Deaf President in the University’s 124 year history! For more information about this 7 day protest click here!
The Deaf community has a fascinating history and it is full of amazing prominent figures!
Important Figures in Deaf History
We all know inventor Thomas Alva Edison! His most prominent invention is the electric light. However, he also invented many more things some including the phonograph and the motion picture camera. What isn’t well known about him is that he was completely deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other. He thought of his deafness as a blessing in a lot of ways. Because of his deafness, he was able to have shorter conversations which allowed him more time for work!
Founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA in 1912, Lowe started her first troop of 18 girls from different cultural, racial, ability, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In doing so she stood against racism, sexism, ableism, and many other forms of bias. Founding her first troop paved the way for millions of girls to be a part of something bigger that helps them to develop leadership skills and self-confidence. She is also an important figure to remember for Women’s History Month!
How can you talk about deaf history and not touch on Helen Keller? Probably the most recognizable historical deaf figures, she was not only deaf but also blind. She was the first deaf and blind person to receive a Bachelor of Arts.
Movies to Watch for Deaf History Month
Sweet Nothing in My Ear
Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels star in this family drama. Married for nine years, he is hearing and uses ASL to communicate with his wife who is deaf. They have a happy marriage until their son loses his hearing. The couple cannot agree and struggle to decide whether or not to give their son a cochlear implant.
Bridge to Silence
Peg, who is deaf, experiences a tragic loss; her husband dies in a car accident. She has a nervous breakdown and her mother gets custody of Peg’s daughter Lisa. But what happens when Peg recovers but her mother refuses to let Peg regain custody of Lisa?
Sound and Fury
Sound and Fury is a documentary that follows cousins Heather Artinian who is 10 and Peter Artinian who is almost 2. They are both deaf, naturally born that way; but a difficult decision for their families lie ahead. Both could benefit from receiving cochlear implants, a device that helps to stimulate hearing. The focus of this documentary is less on the device itself and more on the cultural impact that it may have. Can there ever be a connection between those who hear sound and those who hear silence? What will happen to their connection to Deaf culture?
This implant can fix deafness…
For hearing people, this decision seems like a no brainer. I mean if there is a medical way to fix being deaf why wouldn’t you take it? This hearing view is challenged in watching this documentary. Through it, we as hearing people get to see life within the Deaf culture and explore the tough decision about whether or not cochlear implants are more harmful than they are beneficial.
The implants were plopped into the Deaf community right in the midst of the Deaf Civil Rights movement and were met with a lot of resistance. Imagine being told that you could, or worse needed, to be fixed. To a large majority of Deaf people they were not disabled or deficient, they were only different! Amelia Cooper writes in her article Hear Me Out Hearing Each Other for the First Time: The Implications of Cochlear Implant Activation that “Many Deaf culturalists are deeply offended by what they perceive to be the inherently negative implication of cochlear implants: deafness is a medical disability that should be cured rather than a cultural identity that should be celebrated and respected.”
For Further Reading
While there was ample evidence showing the benefits of receiving implants, the Deaf community continued to push against it. In particular, implants being placed in children. For more reading on this topic check out this TIME article, this CBS news article from 1998 (right in the midst of it,) or take a look at this more recent article from StartASL on the resistance and disagreement still found in some members of Deaf culture today.
Love is Never Silent
Love is Never Silent is a movie about a woman named Margaret. She is a Child of Deaf Adults and has always looked after her parents and acted as their point of contact with the hearing world. She struggles with whether should strike out on her own. So Margaret makes a change and gets married. Her parents see this as a betrayal. Now Margaret has to figure out how to bridge her two lives together.
Deaf history is rich and runs deep. Out of deafness came a community and a culture that is beautiful in its own right. A culture and community that is proud of its heritage and happy to share that with the hearing world! Go out there and get to know members of the Deaf community in your area, take an ASL class, or just do some reading. There is a lot to learn!