March 13 through April 15 marks National Deaf History Month. It celebrates the achievements of people who are deaf and hard of hearing. The reason why this observance spans from the middle of March to the middle of April is because there were three major shifts in deaf education history (dating from the early 1800s) that took place.
On March 13, 1988, Dr. I. King Jordan was elected as the first deaf president of Gallaudet University after the Deaf President Now movement strongly advocated for a deaf president. Dr. Jordan was seen as a symbol of “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 educations of the Deaf and hard of hearing in the world.
On April 15, 1817, the first public school - which today is 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 association had proposed that the week become a full month. In 2006, the American Library Association joined the NAD to promote awareness of this observance.
Against the ongoing advocacy efforts, so far, the U.S. Congress has not federally recognized 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.
Shirley Jeanne Allen, EdD
She is the first Black deaf woman in America to earn a doctoral degree. Allen was born in Nacogdoches, Texas in 1941. After contracting typhoid fever when she was 20-years-old, she became deaf. At that time, she was studying 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 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 was placed in 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 the 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 was the founder of America’s Girl Scouts in 1912. After several ear injuries during her childhood, she experienced severe hearing loss.
Low was a very adventurous person and was inspired by her own 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 who came from different backgrounds. In 1927, Low passed away from breast cancer and received a number of posthumous honors. These included the founding 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.
Hairston was born in Harlem, New York in 1929. He attended schools for deaf children until he was 15 years old. He was forced to drop out in order to earn money for his family. After working many different jobs, he decided to become a professional boxer and attended a New York fighting club.
He was initially 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 full life, and died in 2014 at the age of 85.
She was born in 1927 and was the first deaf actress featured on American network television. In the 1960s and 1970s, Norton was acting in major sitcoms on ABC, NBC, and CBS.
In 1967, she was a founding member of the National Theatre of the Deaf, which was the first production company that regularly featured performances in 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 actors who had hearing loss.
Norton graduated from Gallaudet University and California State University at Hayward. She taught psychology, English, and media at Ohlone College. In 2012, she 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 hearing-impaired recipient of 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 currently stars in the movie CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), which can be viewed through Apple TV.
If you, or a loved one, are in need of a hearing test and consultation for hearing aids, please contact us at Pure Sound Hearing.