April 1st marks National Deaf History Month. Previously celebrated on March 13 through April 15, the achievements of people who are deaf and hard of hearing are recognized during this month.
On March 13, 1988, Dr. I. King Jordan was the first deaf president of Gallaudet University after the Deaf President Now movement strongly advocated for a deaf president. Dr. Jordan symbolized “self-determination and empowerment” for all members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
On April 8, 1964, Gallaudet University - the first institution in the world that advanced education for the deaf and hard of hearing - was officially founded. President Abraham Lincoln signed a document for Gallaudet University in Washington. He formally declared that the university would be the first school that advanced the education of the Deaf and hard of hearing in the world.
On April 15, 1817, the first public school - today known as the American School for the Deaf - became accessible in America. Over 100 years later, on March 13, 1988, Gallaudet hired its first deaf president after the student-run Deaf President Now movement took place.
In 1997, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) officially introduced National Deaf History Month.
In 1996, the organization proposed the week should change to a month. In 2006, the American Library Association joined the NAD to promote awareness of this observance.
Against the ongoing advocacy efforts, the U.S. Congress does not federally recognize this holiday.
We can still celebrate and recognize National Deaf History Month. Here are five shining examples of activism, education, and perseverance, even through the hardships that included their disability.
Shirly Jeanne Allen, EdD
She is the first Black deaf-woman in America to earn a doctoral degree. In 1941, Allen was born in Nacogdoches, Texas. After contracting typhoid fever when she was 20 years old, she became deaf. At that time, she studied music at Jarvis Christian College and resumed playing piano for audiences, even with her hearing loss.
She graduated from Gallaudet University in 1966 and Howard University in 1972. She later earned a doctorate in education from the University of Rochester in 1992. She was a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 28 years and retired in 2001.
Allen was honored and featured in several editions of Who’s Who of Professional Women, received a lifetime achievement award from Who’s Who in America, and then made the Jarvis Christian College’s Pioneer Hall of Fame.
Robert R. Davila, PhD
He is a Mexican-American who grew up in California. He became deaf after contracting spinal meningitis at the age of 8. His mother sent him to the California School for the Deaf in Berkley, California. She wanted to make sure that he received equal access to education. Davila learned American Sign Language (ASL) at school, along with other essential skills.
In 1972, he later received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education and earned his Ph.D. in educational technology from Syracuse University.
Davila became an influential advocate for disability rights. He was also the assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services under President George H.W. Bush. He eventually led several organizations that were devoted to supporting the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, which included serving as president of Gallaudet University until 2009.
Juliette Gordon Low
She was born in 1860 and founded America’s Girl Scouts in 1912. After several ear injuries during her childhood, she experienced severe hearing loss.
Low was a very adventurous person, inspired by her passions for the arts, athletics, animals, and nature to create a worldwide movement that has enabled girls to develop leadership skills and self-confidence.
With her first troop of 18 girls, she took a stand against racism, sexism, ableism, and other biases that helped bring together young women from different backgrounds. In 1927, Low passed away from breast cancer and received many posthumous honors. These included the start of the Juliette Low World Friendship Fund, which provides financial support for international travel and service work for Girl Scouts and Girl Guides across the globe.
Eugene Hairston (A.K.A. “Silent Hairston”)
He was the first deaf African American boxer. He became deaf after contracting spinal meningitis as a child.
In 1929, Hairston was born in Harlem, New York. He attended schools for deaf children until he was 15 years old. Hairston had to drop out to earn money for his family. After working many different jobs, he became a professional boxer and attended a New York fighting club.
Initially, he was overlooked by the trainers because of his hearing loss until they saw how talented he was in the boxing ring. He shortly went pro, won 45 fights, and defeated two world champions before he turned 22. In 1952, doctors advised him to quit boxing because they were concerned that he would go blind due to the repeated punches to his head. He retired, lived a fulfilling life, and died in 2014 at 85.
She was born in 1927 and was the first deaf actress featured on American network television. In the 1960s and 1970s, Norton acted in major sitcoms on ABC, NBC, and CBS.
In 1967, she was a founding member of the National Theatre of the Deaf, the first production company that regularly featured American Sign Language (ASL). The theatre toured in the U.S. and Europe and on Broadway. Norton was a disability rights advocate and appealed to the Screen Actors Guild after she and her husband Kenneth North, who is also deaf, were not cast in roles because a director was worried about working with hard-of-hearing actors.
Norton was a graduate of Gallaudet University and California State University at Hayward. She taught psychology, English, and media at Ohlone College. In 2012, Norton was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet. She passed away in 2015 at the age of 88.
Academy Award-winning actor Marlee Matlin had relentlessly worked to get the Americans with Disabilities Act signed into legislation - which passed on July 26, 1990.
She has been the only recipient with a hearing problem to win the award and has since used her platform to raise awareness on accessibility, diversity, and inclusion.
Matlin’s parents discovered she had hearing loss when she was just 18 months old. To her parents’ credit, they treated her just like her hearing brothers and sent her to the same schools in their neighborhood. She emphasized that her parents treated her with respect, which can be difficult for any parent who has a child with challenges.
Starting at age seven, she went from the lead role of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz at the International Center of Deafness and the Arts to winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her role in Children of a Lesser God at age 21. She stars in the movie CODA, which viewers can watch on Apple TV.
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