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A Look at Deaf History

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

September is Deaf History Month and with it comes the question: Isn’t it about communicating not hearing? People with disabilities in America have long been plagued by isolation and prejudice. Often, people with speech or hearing challenges are ostracized in school or society because of their inability to communicate. But, it is important to recognize that verbal communication is not the only kind nor should it be the only way to communicate with people around you. Historically, American teachers and deaf activists aided in the development of American Sign Language (ASL) expanding the world for people with disabilities.

Inn the late 1800’s, Anne Sullivan revolutionized America’s perspective on non-spoken language. Sullivan began to lose her eyesight around 5 years old. After she graduated from the Perkins School for the Blind in 1886, Sullivan received the opportunity to teach Helen Keller, a young child that had lost her eyesight and hearing to scarlet fever.

Keller resisted Sullivan at first but eventually, the two developed an important relationship. Sullivan taught Keller by using her fingers to spell out words on Keller’s palm. Sullivan took Keller to Boston and New York where the prodigy continued to improve her speaking and comprehension skills. With Sullivan’s help, Keller graduated from college in 1904 and spent her life publishing books.

More recently, the deaf community lost two exceptional activists: Barbara Kannapell and Ursula Bellugi. Barbara Kannapell was born deaf and taught ASL and deaf studies at Gallaudet University, a school that offers education to the deaf or hearing-impaired. She advocated for deaf culture and referred to ASL as her native language. She believed that people with proficiency in ASL and English should identify as bilingual. She once said, “It is our language in every sense of the word… We create it, we keep it alive, and it keeps us and our traditions alive,” according to The Washington Post.

Dr. Ursula Bellugi’s work took a more scientific approach to understanding ASL. She pioneered biological studies that prove sign language is just as complex and systemic as spoken language. Her work concluded that ASL is a language in its own right, passed down through generations of deaf people.

Dr. Bellugi’s discoveries proved that the brain makes no distinction between spoken or signed communication.

Carrying on this are Valerie and Grace Carter. Grace is Valerie’s teen daughter who was diagnosed with Down syndrome and Apraxia as a child, making it difficult for her to express herself despite her obvious intelligence. Sign language helped Grace to communicate, develop deeper bonds and showcase her complex understanding of the world. In 2013, Valerie Carter contributed to the ASL movement by making sign language more accessible to those who need it or want to learn it -by founding GraceSigns, a non-profit.

The mission of GraceSigns is to help ASL become more accessible and help to build greater acceptance of the differences among us all. Using multimodal-learning technology, GraceSigns offers three easy-to-use apps called Sign Me A Story, Sign Me ABCs, and Sign Me A Sentence, that have been downloaded over a million times by educators, parents and individuals in 184 countries. Celebrate Deaf Awareness Month by downloading these free apps and learn to speak a new language.

References: “What Is American Sign Language (ASL)? | NIDCD.” NIDCD. NIH National Institute of Health, Mar. 2019. Web.

Cat McGrath is a Senior studying Political Science and Journalism at the University of Miami, Florida.

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