National Deaf History Month
Deaf History Month was introduced in 1997 by The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) to celebrate the accomplishments of people who are deaf and hard of hearing (HoH). National Deaf History Month was celebrated annually from mid-March to mid-April to recognize three milestones for the Deaf community: the opening of the first public school for the deaf (now known as American School for the Deaf) on April 15, 1817, the founding of Gallaudet University, on April 8, 1864, as the first university in the country, and the hiring of the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, I. King Jordan, on March 13, 1988 (171 years later!). Why in 1988? His hiring was a result of a protest called Deaf President Now (DPN) by students, faculty, and the national Deaf community. However, since 2022 Deaf and HoH Month dates were changed to April 1 through April 30 so that this month would be inclusive of all individuals in the Deaf community, including BIPOC and LGBTQIAA+. Learn more here and from this article.
According to data provided by the Hearing Loss Association of America, approximately 2-3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears and approximately 48 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. Deaf persons in the United States experience inequitable access to education, justice, health care, and jobs. The 2019 National Deaf Center report, “Deaf People and Employment in the United States,” shows that deaf persons are actively looking for work to a greater extent than hearing persons and that employment rates for deaf persons has not increased from 2008 to 2017.”
There are multiple challenges and barriers, including systemic racism and homophobia. Here’s an excerpt from The Learning Center for the Deaf describing intersectionality which highlights the experience of a Deaf BIPOC child with mental health challenges:
Devonta and Kristie both work with another family of a Deaf female who is Black and Dominican–we will call her “C.” “C.” attends a school for the Deaf and has emotional disabilities. Since the age of four, she has had difficulty maintaining positive relationships with adults and peers. Her teachers report her as “rambunctious, inconsiderate and lazy.” The school has filed several reports of child neglect with the State’s child protective services agency. Each time, the agency has been unable to find any evidence of neglect.
Reading that brief vignette brings up many questions about equity in access to services.
Despite continued challenges, there have been many achievements within the Deaf community. From the website INSIGHT Into Diversity | Diversity Magazine Publication Insight Into Diversity highlights the first deaf Black woman to earn a doctoral degree in the US, a deaf Mexican-American who as a child worked alongside farmworker parents, the first deaf African-American boxer, the deaf founder of the Girl Scouts, and the first deaf actor. Deaf Women United created Deaf Women’s Herstory Month in 2014 to celebrate contributions made by this under-recognized group during Women’s History Month in March.
“Driven by compassion and a strong sense of purpose, deaf women have long been fighters for social justice. Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (1790-1846) was a popular deaf writer whose work “The Wrongs of Woman” exposed the deplorable living and working conditions of female laborers in London. Juliette Gordon Low, who became deaf as a young adult, devoted her time to charity work and founded The Girl Scouts of America in 1913. Since its creation, The Girl Scouts program has helped millions of young Americans from all walks of life to become more confident and capable individuals. In 1986, Marilyn J. Smith founded Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services to address the unique needs of deaf and deaf-blind victims of abuse. Smith’s organization has centers across the country that are run by and for deaf people to provide training and education regarding issues of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna
Deaf women have also made significant contributions to the sciences. Annie Jump Cannon, born in 1863, became progressively deaf throughout her childhood, but not before she learned about the constellations from her mother. Cannon’s lifelong passion for astronomy led her to pursue a degree in physics, studying stars and novae in the College Observatory at Wellesley. She became the leading expert in stellar classification, a world traveler, and an advocate for women’s suffrage.
Anthropologist and poet, Ruth Benedict was born in 1887. Partially deaf from childhood, Benedict was fascinated with observing the world around her and devoted her life to cultural studies. Known for her humanist perspective, Benedict gained prominence as a respected female researcher in a field dominated by men. Her book “Patterns of Culture” helped shape modern social research methodology.
Between communication obstacles and societal oppression, deaf women had to break through the barriers to receive the education they deserved. It was the impressive intelligence of young Alice Cogswell which inspired Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet to create the world’s first University for the Deaf in 1817. Through the 19th century, deaf-blind women such as Julia Brace, Laura Bridgman, and Helen Keller went on to further prove that physical disabilities did not limit one’s ability or desire to learn.
These pioneers opened the door for women like Marie Jean Philip (1953-1997), who was a Gallaudet graduate, educator, and international advocate for deaf language rights. Philip was one of the first people to research, study, and establish American Sign Language as a recognized language!” (excerpt and photo from Sign Nexus Celebrating Women Through History)
Marie Jean Philip
Deaf history is rich and vibrant, with needs for representation of all those in the Deaf community.
Black American Sign Language BASL
Black American Sign Language (BASL) is a variation of American Sign Language (ASL) and was highly influenced by the segregation of Southern U.S. schools. Schools were separated based on race therefore, it created two communities among Deaf signers. The way that the two communities were taught sign language was quite different as there were only white Deaf signers at white schools and Black Deaf signers at Black schools.
BASL differs from ASL in its dialect, syntax and vocabulary. BASL tends to have larger signing space and also tend to prefer two-handed variants of signs, while ASL tended to prefer one-handed variants.
Sign language, like spoken language, has regional variations (people sign more slowly in the South, for example), as well as features that reflect gender, age, socioeconomic status and, it turns out, race.
Not surprisingly, when schools began to integrate students and teachers noticed differences in the way Black students and White students signed and Black Deaf students and their teachers were having trouble understanding each other.
In 2012, a study was done lead by Carolyn McCaskill, a deaf, Black woman who made it her profession to study Deaf culture. She is a professor at Gallaudet University, a famous D.C. private university for the Deaf and hard of hearing. She worked with a team of researchers to study how 96 Deaf people to understand the variations of Black signers. The research uncovered “a rich signing system that reflects both a history of segregation and the ongoing influence of spoken Black English”. The book “The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL” was written as a result of the research (and an accompanying DVD) both emphasize that Black ASL is not just ASL with a few “slang” signs thrown in.
To learn more, you can watch the PBS show “Signing in Black America”; the first documentary about Black ASL.
Deaf History and Experiences, Links and Resources