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An Intro to Deaf History

Unveiling the Captivating Tapestry of Deaf History

Deaf history, a fascinating timeline, intertwines with American history and is often overlooked in mainstream narratives. Today, we embark on a revelatory exploration, shedding light on the remarkable events and individuals that have shaped the Deaf community’s narrative.

Join this exploration as we delve into the highlights, from the origins of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language to the groundbreaking Deaf President Now protest.


Martha’s Vineyard –

In the quaint shores of Martha’s Vineyard, a unique form of communication thrived. Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) emerged as a bridge between Deaf and hearing residents, fostering inclusivity. Originating in 1714, this early manifestation of Deaf culture exemplifies the resilience and ingenuity of the community, laying the foundation for further advancements.

The Father of Deaf Education –

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, an influential figure in Deaf history, embarked on a transformative journey inspired by Alice Cogswell, his neighbor’s daughter who lost her hearing at a young age. This encounter ignited Gallaudet’s passion for Deaf education. His collaboration with Laurent Clerc, a Deaf Frenchman, led to the establishment of the American School for the Deaf in 1817, marking the birth of American Sign Language (ASL). Combining elements of French Sign Language (LSF) and MVSL, ASL became a vibrant language that resonated with the Deaf community.

Gallaudet University –

The legacy of the Gallaudet family continued with Edward Miner Gallaudet, who founded the Columbia Institute for Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind in 1856. Over time, this institution evolved into Gallaudet University, a prestigious college granting degrees to Deaf individuals. Serving as a symbol of intellectual prowess and empowerment, Gallaudet University stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit that thrives within the Deaf community.

Oralism –

Alexander Graham Bell's involvement in Deaf history takes a surprising turn. Although renowned for inventing the telephone, Bell advocated for oralism, emphasizing speech, and lip-reading over sign language. This ideology sparked passionate debates within the Deaf community and influenced educational approaches for years to come. Bell's complex legacy underscores the resilience and determination of the Deaf community to assert their own linguistic and cultural identity.

The Deaf President Now Protest –

In 1988, the Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University became a breaking point. Fueled by the belief in their capabilities, students demanded a Deaf president, challenging the status quo. Through tireless demonstrations and unwavering resilience, their united front led to the appointment of Dr. I King Jordan as Gallaudet University's first Deaf president. This triumph reverberated across the nation, reshaping perceptions, and igniting legislative changes that championed the rights and inclusion of the Deaf community.


In 1990, a landmark moment occurred with the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This groundbreaking legislation prohibits discrimination based on disability, ensuring equal rights and opportunities for individuals with disabilities. The ADA has had a profound impact on society, promoting accessibility, inclusivity, and the removal of barriers in various domains, including employment, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications. It serves as a powerful tool for advocating for the rights and dignity of people with disabilities, fostering a more inclusive and equitable society for all.

Deaf Gain –

Have you ever come across the term 'Deaf Gain'? It's a concept that was coined in 2005 at Gallaudet. It challenges conventional perspectives on hearing loss and presents a fresh understanding. Rather than focusing solely on what may be perceived as lost, Deaf Gain highlights the unique strengths, perspectives, and contributions that deaf individuals bring to society. It reframes deafness as an opportunity for gaining valuable insights, emphasizing the richness of deaf culture, the depth of visual communication, and the heightened visual and spatial awareness often associated with deafness. Deaf Gain invites us to appreciate and celebrate the diverse ways of being and perceiving in the world and to recognize the inherent value of all individuals, regardless of their hearing abilities. A great read is Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity by H-Dirksen L. Bauman and Joseph J. Murray. Joseph is a University of Iowa alum and a professor at Gallaudet.

21st Century –

In 2012, a significant milestone was achieved with the passage of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. This act mandates that all televised material, including its online distribution, must be captioned. As a result, individuals with hearing loss now have greater access to information and entertainment.

Celebrating Deaf Achievements and Embracing Inclusivity

Deaf history unveils a narrative of resilience, cultural richness, and triumph over adversity. From the origins of Martha's Vineyard Sign Language to the transformative milestones at Gallaudet University and the enduring impact of the Deaf President Now protest, the Deaf community's journey is a testament to the power of unity and advocacy. This blog post is just scraping the surface. As we celebrate these remarkable achievements, let us continue to embrace inclusivity, accessibility, and the diverse ways in which individuals communicate and thrive.



Chapman, B. (2021a, January 12). Impact –. Gallaudet University.

Chapman, B. (2021b, January 12). The Influence Of Alexander Graham Bell –. Gallaudet University.

Chapman, B. (2021c, January 12). Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet –. Gallaudet University.

Chapman, B. (2021d, January 12). What’s In A Name –. Gallaudet University.

Harvard University. (n.d.). Deaf history Timeline. Retrieved from


About the Author

Megan Lillie is a first-generation college student currently pursuing a B.A. in Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. Alongside her major, she also is pursuing minors in American Sign Language and Human Relations. Megan actively promotes ASL as an Ambassador, encouraging new students to take ASL classes. Additionally, she serves as an Event and Communication Coordinator for an organization that advocates for mental health dogs on campus throughout the year. Megan’s personal journey as an abuse survivor has shaped her into an empath, and a passionate advocate for mental health and trauma. In addition to her academic pursuits and advocacy work, Megan shares her life with two cats and her partner’s 155-pound Great Dane, wholeheartedly nurturing her love for animals. Exploring hiking trails and seeking personal growth are among Megan's top ways to spend her time. To read more about her experiences and insights, find Megan on Medium:

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