The US Should Recognize Deaf History Month

The US Should Recognize Deaf History Month

By: Julie Sakamoto

Staff Writer

Throughout history, the U.S. government has dedicated certain holidays and commemorative months to celebrating the unique cultures and backgrounds of various ethnic and marginalized groups. These times serve not only to celebrate but also to educate others on the various groups’ histories, and their contributions to American history. These are important times that help us better understand our own cultures and identities, as well as others. While there are hundreds of celebratory dates throughout the year, there are currently only 12 national observances that are officially recognized by the government.

One of those unrecognized, and largely ignored, observances is Deaf History Month, which is celebrated from March 13 through April 15. This commemorates the achievements of Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals and recognizes their contributions to American history, society, and culture. According to the National Association of the Deaf, Deaf History Month was created with three key moments throughout Deaf American history in mind: the Deaf President Now protest on March 13, 1988, the signing of the Gallaudet University charter by president Abraham Lincoln on April 8, 1864, and the establishment of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut as the first permanent public school for the deaf on April 15, 1817.

Deaf History Month is celebrated throughout the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) community itself and is nationally acknowledged by the National Association of the Deaf. Various organizations have been pushing to have it recognized by the government. However, that has not happened yet. 

The U.S Congress should pass resolutions that officially recognize Deaf History Month and request the president to validate its importance. In addition, the hearing community must also recognize the Deaf with respect and acknowledge the differences between cultures, especially regarding the Deaf community. 

Deafness and its Presence in Current Society

When you look up the word “deaf,” chances are, you will find a classic definition pertaining to the physical “disability” of one’s hearing. There is a misconception that deaf individuals cannot hear at all –  however, there are actually many different forms of hearing loss. Along the hearing loss spectrum, the extent of an individual’s disability could range from mild to profound. Some people are born deaf, while a majority of others become deaf at a later age 

The word “Deaf,” with a capitalized D, describes people who culturally identify as Deaf and are typically actively engaged with the community. They often have a shared sign language, and shared social norms unique to them. People who are Deaf often take great pride in their Deaf identity. It is especially important to note that deafness is not viewed as an impairment, but rather a difference.

Deafness is a large part of American society. A study conducted by Gallaudet University, America’s leading liberal arts college just for Deaf Studies and Deaf Culture, showed that ASL was the third-most-frequent language to require a court interpreter. In addition, ASL was the fourth-largest monolingual population in America. 

The Survey of Income and Program Participation, one of a few national surveys that regularly collects data from people with hearing loss or deafness, approximate that 1 in 20 Americans are currently deaf or hard of hearing. This means nearly ten million individuals are hard of hearing and close to one million are functionally deaf, a term used to describe someone who cannot hear at all, even when given assistance from technological devices. 

At UHS, we have our Deaf community with Deaf students and teachers on campus. Our campus offers American Sign Language classes 1&2, open to all students who are interested in immersing themselves in the language. Local restaurants, libraries, and shops often host Deaf Nights and other activities to celebrate inclusivity. 

Deaf History

To truly understand the importance of Deaf History Month, one must understand the background and history of the Deaf community.

History has not been very kind to the Deaf Community. Dating back to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, he suggested that deaf people could not be educated, and that “those who are born deaf all become senseless and incapable of reason.”

Essentially, Aristotle believed that being able to hear was the only way people could learn, making it impossible to educate deaf people. As a result, the deaf were often viewed “lesser” than humans. They could not  legally hold property. They could not  get married because society was afraid that deafness was a hereditary trait that could be passed to their children. They were often denied citizenship and even religious rights. Deafness was regarded as a shameful disability, and any form of signing was ostracized and discouraged. Aristotle’s theory caught hold and was widely believed in for the next thousands of years worldwide . 

Deaf perception started to change during Britain’s settlement of the Mayflower.  In 1620, the same year that Bonet was publishing the first book on sign language, the Mayflower landed at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Among the many immigrants that hopped on ships bound for the New World was a group of settlers originally from Kent County England, who brought with them unique genes that cause hereditary deafness. The result was Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, one of the earliest forms of sign communication.

Martha’s Vineyard is a historically significant location for the very first developments of sign language. Soon, Martha’s Vineyard was home to the largest deaf population on the continent. These deaf islanders created one of the most highly developed signing systems in history. Everyone on Martha’s Vineyard knew the signs and used them regularly to communicate with friends, family, and neighbors. Martha’s Vineyard was one of the few communities  in the world where deaf and hearing individuals were fully integrated in the mid-1700s.

Martha’s Vineyard was an important step forward. This sparked interest within teachers and educators to become invested in deaf education. Specifically, it caught the attention of Thomas Gallaudet. 

U.S. Deaf education of the 1800’s was a period generally known as the heyday of manualism, a term used to support the use of Sign Language. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, along with French educator Laurent Clerc, established the American School for the Deaf in 1817, marking it one of the three dates for Deaf History Month. The second was the opening of Gallaudet University just a few years later. This was an exemplar of what deaf education could achieve in that period.

Despite these advancements, prejudice and discrimination persisted. There were major disagreements among the educators of deaf people. From these disputes, two groups emerged: the manualists and the oralists. Manualist Edward Miner Gallaudet supported the use of sign language in teaching students who were deaf, while Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone and an oralist, was a strong proponent of speaking, and teaching deaf individuals lip reading techniques. 

In 1880, an international meeting of educators banned the use of sign language in the teaching of deaf children. Deaf teachers were excluded from their classrooms because it was believed deaf teachers were not competent. Bell and other hearing people strongly advocated for the suppression of sign language inside and outside of the classroom.

The oralist method had momentum in following years, where the number of deaf teachers declined and verbal methods were predominantly used in deaf classrooms. Oralists saw speech training as the best way to assimilate deaf people into modern American society. Deaf people were once again seen as imperfections in the public body.

Three years after the banning of sign language in public schools, Alexander Graham Bell, a prominent supporter of the oral method, believed that the so-called  “deaf-mute variety of the human race” was a threat to society’s progression. He strongly supported legislation to prevent deaf people from intermarrying in the United States. Although this was never instituted, many believed in his radical ideas regarding the assimilation of deaf individuals.  

The last major event was Deaf President Now, a student-led protest held at Gallaudet University in 1988. It became a symbol of self-determination and empowerment for deaf people around the world. This was a unique time in which  Gallaudet students, faculty, and the national deaf community united behind one goal . Together, they made history. This event marks the last date within Deaf History Month. 

At Gallaudet University, there was a student-led protest to elect a Deaf individual to serve as president of the university. Image courtesy of British Deaf News.

For 124 years, Gallaudet hadn’t had a single hearing president reside over the university. When it came time to elect the new seventh president, people were rallying for a Deaf president. But despite their rallying and efforts to have a Deaf perresident, Zinzer, the only hearing candidate out of a pool of Deaf applicants, won. 

Students began camping out in tents on the lawn of the president’s home and wrote to Zinzer asking her to withdraw her candidacy. Zinzer ignored these messages, causing major backlash from protestors. Deaf advocacy groups made it clear that they wanted the next president of Gallaudet to be Deaf. These groups included the President’s Council on Deafness (PCD), the National Association of the Deaf, the Gallaudet University Alumni Association, and some faculty groups. The Deaf President Now (DPN) supporters believed that the time had come for a deaf person to run the world’s only university for deaf and hard of hearing students. Although Zinzer remained president, the results of this protest reverberated around the world. 

DPN was remarkable not only for its clear sense of purpose, cohesiveness, speed, and depth of feeling, but also for its ability to remove the barriers and erase the lines that previously separated the Deaf and hearing communities.           In addition, it raised the nation’s consciousness of the rights and abilities of deaf and hard of hearing people. 

Some of the positive impacts can be seen today. Deaf characters are (for the most part) played by deaf actors. Some of the most known being Millicent Simmonds, who played a deaf teen in “A Quiet Place” and Russell Harvard, who played a deaf wrestler in “The Hammer”. Deaf characters show up regularly on television and film. Hearing parents are often encouraged to use sign language with their hearing babies to stimulate early language and communication development.

One of the most popular languages in the world, American Sign Language (ASL) is a cornerstone of Deaf culture. Image by MT & Associates.

So, What Now? 

Each of these seminal events represents significant advancements for deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States. The establishment of the American School for the Deaf was the beginning of a long proud tradition of schools for the deaf in this country, which continues to this day. Preservation of these schools is of greatest importance to the community, as Gallaudet University is a central icon, representing the only university in the world that is solely for deaf and hard of hearing students. March 13 represents the day that the deaf community seized its fate during the Gallaudet University “Deaf President Now’’ movement when Gallaudet selected its first Deaf president. 

The Deaf Community faced hundreds of years of oppression and frustration. They were mistreated, misunderstood, ignored, and underestimated throughout history. At some point, enough was enough. They realize that in order for something to change, they need to take matters into their own hands.

It is important to note that the Deaf community is a unique group. They have their own culture, language, tradition, and history. The Deaf community does not view their hearing loss as a disability, but instead, they take pride in it. The Deaf is especially large compared to other minority groups, yet they are often very underrepresented. 

Like many other civil rights movements, the Deaf community’s rich history has proved to be an inspiring journey. The United States government must recognize and celebrate Deaf History Month. Their reforms caught the eye of hundreds of reformers. International recognition of DPN at Gallaudet University sparked inspiration for the deaf in other countries. Ultimately, Deaf history must be remembered and recognized for its important societal contributions. 

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