History of the Deaf

“Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:14

The last Sunday of September is World Day of the Deaf. It was started in 1958 by the World Federation of the Deaf to bring awareness to Deaf culture, challenges, and the importance of sign language. In honor of this day, here’s a look into some important people and events in Deaf history. 

Influential People

Teacher: In the 1540s, Pedro Ponce de Leon became the first teacher of the Deaf. Ponce de Leon (1520-1584) was a Benedictine monk who founded the first school of the Deaf near Madrid, Spain. He taught them to write the words as he pointed to the object they were writing. From writing, they learned to read and speak as well. 

Settler: In 1694, a Deaf man named John Lambert was one of the early settlers in Martha’s Vineyard. Deafness ran in his family, and two of his seven children were born without hearing. Lambert’s lineage is now prominently seen as one out of every 155 people are born deaf on Martha’s Vineyard. As a result, everyone on Martha’s Vineyard uses sign language to communicate. 

Headmaster: In 1760, Charles Michel l’Epee opened a school for the Deaf in Paris, France, using sign language as the primary method for communicating after he had met two deaf sisters who spoke using sign language. L’Epee is now considered the “Father of the Deaf.”

Tutor: Less than twenty years later, a man in Germany named Samuel Heinicke began using the oral method to teach the Deaf (lipreading and speaking). In 1754, Heinicke started tutoring, and one of his students was a young deaf boy. L’Epee and Heinicke wrote letters to each other about their strategies for teaching the deaf; some of these can be found in the Library of Congress today. 

US Influencer: On Christmas 1875, a man named Laurent Clerc was born in France. When he was a year old, Clerc fell in a fire and lost his hearing. At age twelve, he went to a Deaf school in Paris where he taught as an assistant after graduation. During this time, American minister Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet met a deaf girl named Alice Cogswell. Upset that there were no schools for the Deaf in America, Gallaudet went to England in search of help. He met a French teacher who invited him to France to learn at the Royal Institution of the Deaf. While there, Gallaudet met Clerc, who taught him French Sign Language. Clerc returned to the United States with Gallaudet to help set up the first school for the Deaf in the US. 

One can see the influence French Sign Language had on American Sign Language when looking at certain signs. For example, the French word for to search/to look for is chercher. The sign for this word is made using the “C-hand” in front of the face moving in a spiral motion to represent the act of looking for something. 

Actresses: In 1971, Linda Bove joined the cast of “Sesame Street” as television’s first cast member who was deaf. Bove taught many children about Deaf culture and how to sign words. She was on “Sesame Street” until 2003. About fifteen years later, in 1986, Marlee Matlin became the first Deaf performer to win an Oscar, which she won for the best actress for “Children of a Lesser God.” 

Important Events

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) was founded in 1880. The organization was created by and for those who are deaf and hard of hearing to have a voice in Washington, DC. Internationally, NAD represents the World Federation of the Deaf, established in 1951

In 1924, the Deaflympics were founded. The first games were held in Paris, France, that year under the name International Silent Games. Like the Olympics, there are summer and winter games; the summer run every four years. In the first year nine countries were represented; today there are 116! 

Some after, World War II erupted. Since they could not fight in the war, the employment of the Deaf in blue-collar jobs was greatly increased. Sadly, another significant thing that happened was many Deaf people were prevented from having children and even killed in Nazi Germany. 

In the 1970s, the Total Communication Movement, led by Roy Holcomb, was started. This movement advocated for people to use any form of communication they desired and did not restrict people to only sign language or oral. 

In the 80s and 90s, a series entitled “Deaf Mosiac” ran that taught the current events in the Deaf population at that time. It was hosted by Gil Eastman and Mary Lou Novitsky. Around this time another series called “On the Other Hand” was also popular; it taught sign language and Deaf culture. 

In 1988, after 124 years of being a university for the Deaf, Gallaudet University finally elected its first deaf president. The campaign was known as “Deaf President Now” (DPN). A few years later, in 1995, Heather Whitestone, from Alabama, became the first deaf woman to win the Miss America pageant. 

In 2022, Troy Kotsur became the first male actor to win an Oscar for his performance as Frank Rossi in the film CODA

I am hard of hearing; I lost my hearing as an adult but have been using sign language since I was a child. I would highly encourage everyone to learn sign language, even if it’s the basics and fingerspelling. By taking that step, we can help bridge the gap between the “Hearing World” and the “Deaf World.” And when you do that, those who can’t hear will feel heard. 

NOTE: The word Deaf is often capitalized because lowercase and uppercase deaf are not the same. Deaf with a capital D is used when referring to the culturally Deaf. People who are a part of the Deaf culture and are proud of it. The lowercase case deaf refers to the condition of not being able to hear.