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The Most Iconic Moments in Deaf History

Everyday history is made, whether for better or for worse. Unfortunately, there are often parts of our history that are overlooked, no matter how crucial they might be, and Deaf history is one of them. Today we can proudly share and celebrate five of the most iconic moments in Deaf history.

Martha’s Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard is known to most people today as nothing more than a great vacation or tourist spot. What they don’t know, is just how rich the history there is. Originally, the island was inhabited by the Wampanoag Native American people. Around 1642, Thomas Mayhew established the first English settlement of Martha’s Vineyard. Then, in 1694, Jonathon Lambert became the first known deaf settler of Martha’s Vineyard, his deaf genes spread throughout the island and the population of Deaf people grew and grew. Eventually, Martha’s Vineyard established its own sign language, known as MVSL, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language. And so, Martha’s Vineyard became a Deaf Utopia, as while not everyone was Deaf, just about everyone knew MVSL making life for the Deaf easy, for lack of a communication barrier. Sadly, today the Deaf population in Martha’s Vineyard has greatly declined, and its language, MVSL is now dead. Yet, the ideas and hopes of a Deaf Utopia continue to live on.

The Invention of French Sign Language

It is said that French Sign Language or LSF was created by Abbe Charles Michel de l'Eppe, a French priest who stumbled upon two Deaf people signing to each other on the street. Intrigued, I’Eppe sought to learn the language, which is now known as Old French Sign Language. Later, I’Eppe went on to form the National Institute for the Deaf. In the late 19th century there was a divide between manual and oralist schools. At the Milan International Congress of Teachers for the Deaf-Mute in 1880, it was decided that oralism would be used, and manual signing was given the boot. This went on until 1991, barely thirty years ago, did the National Assembly passed a law that allowed the use of LSF in Deaf education. It wasn’t until 2005 that LSF was fully recognized as its own official language. The invention and perseverance of LSF is an important and iconic part of Deaf history. The Deaf language is a lot like its people, no matter how oppressed it is, we can only grow stronger and more resilient. Despite the attacks from Oralists, French Sign Language became the basis for countless other sign languages, including ASL.

Hartford Asylum for the Education & Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb Established

Another iconic moment in Deaf history. While many would take offense to the title, it is noteworthy that the word “dumb” at the time actually meant “unable to speak”. The establishment of the Hartford Asylum was critical, as it lead to many other key historical events in Deaf history. The Hartford Asylum played an especially important role in American Deaf history. The Hartford Asylum was founded in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut by Mason Fitch Cogswell, Thomas Gallaudet, and the help of a few other who played no minor role in the school’s establishment. Most iconic, however, would be Gallaudet’s involvement of French sign language instructor, Laurence Clerc. It was Clerc and Gallaudet who worked to bring MVSL and LSF together to create and teach ASL, American Sign Language. This was the beginning of a whole new culture and way of life in America. The Deaf way.

Gallaudet Established

The establishment of Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. is easily one of the most iconic moments in Deaf history as it is, and remains to be, the world’s only university specifically designed to accommodate the Deaf. Thus, deaf from all over the world come to Gallaudet to get their higher education. It was actually President Abraham Lincoln himself who signed the bill that gave the institute the ability to give out degrees. Gallaudet (Edward Minor) was made the school’s president. Gallaudet University was named after Edward Miner Gallaudet’s father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, although Edwards was the school’s superintendent. The school was originally named “the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind”. Later the school name was changed to Gallaudet College in 1954 and eventually, it earned the title of University. Today, Gallaudet continues to be the pride and joy of Deaf education in the Deaf community.

Deaf President Now Protest

Finally, we conclude this article with one of the more recent and most iconic moments in Deaf history, the Deaf President Now Protest of 1988. Most Deaf are familiar with this moment in our history. It all began on March 6th of 1988 when the Board of Trustees at Gallaudet University decided to appoint hearing President Elisabeth A. Zinser.

For years, the students of Gallaudet University had been in support of a Deaf president for the University. There were, in fact, three candidates apart from Zinser who was Deaf. So, unhappy with the Board’s decision, the students (and some staff and faculty) effectively shut down the campus.

The student protestors then came up with four demands for the Board of Trustees.

  1. Elisabeth Zinser would step down as president, and a Deaf president would be elected

  2. Jane Spilman would step down as chairmen for the Board of Trustees

  3. At least 51% of the Board of Trustees should consist of Deaf people.

  4. Finally, there would be no retaliation to the students involved in the protest.

The board eventually agreed to these terms and assigned the Deaf president Dr. I. King Jordan. Though not the president the students had initially wanted, he was Deaf, and thus their demands had been met. This is one of the most important events to have ever taken place in Deaf history. This was the first time that Deaf people from all around the world, students or not, came together as one voice and not only fought oppression but fought and won.

And there we have it. Five of the most iconic moments in Deaf history. Deaf history is just as important as hearing history, or world history, but is often overlooked. Most hearing people don’t even realize just how rich the Deaf community and culture are. Thus, hopefully, this does Deaf history some justice. I’m not Deaf, but I believe in equity and I believe that history is important, no matter what culture or community it comes from, in that if it is ever forgotten, it will most certainly be repeated.

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