Celebrating Deaf History Month

How the ADA has helped paved the way for the Deaf community

The Evolution of Deaf History Month

Image Source: Twitter

This year, we have an extra reason to celebrate Deaf History Month. While we have many Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to thank for their significant achievements and contributions, Troy Kotsur — the first Deaf man to win an Academy Award for his role in the recent CODA film — has stolen the spotlight this time, making the Deaf and hearing impaired communities prouder than ever.

Troy has shown us what is possible, and how the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) in conjunction with accessibility rights has helped make dreams come true.

Did you know? Deaf History Month Started As Deaf History Week…

Every year since 1997, Deaf History Month takes place from March 13 through April 15 to commemorate the achievements and contributions of people who are Deaf and hard-of-hearing.

The celebration’s inception is credited to two Deaf employees who attempted to rectify communication barriers by teaching their colleagues sign language while working at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library back in 1996. The library seized the opportunity to create a better work culture, devoting an entire week-long campaign to raising Deaf awareness.

Image of the Martin Luther King, Jr. library in Washington, D.C.
Image Source: Wikipedia

Unexpectedly, what was originally envisioned to be a one-week mission, evolved into a month-long period of promoting a greater understanding of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Shortly after, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) proposed the celebration be extended, and officially in 1997, the first nationwide Deaf History Month was celebrated.

Although Deaf History Month is young, its popularity is growing and the American Library Association (ALA) has initiated efforts in conjunction with NAD to encourage the White House to declare it as an official nationally recognized event.

Timing Is Everything

So why, you ask, is Deaf History Month celebrated from March 13 to April 15? Deaf History Month straddles two months that overlap with three historical moments in Deaf education dating all the way back to the 1800’s.

Reason #1: On April 15, 1817, America’s first public school for the Deaf, founded by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, and Dr. Mason Cogswell opened in Hartford, Connecticut. Legend has it that Gallaudet first met Cogswell’s daughter, Alice, when he was on a trip visiting his hometown. Peering out of his bedroom window, he noticed his siblings were playing with all the other children, except for her.

When he began to try and speak to her, he learned that she was Deaf. Not knowing sign language, he used hand ques, followed by writing the word he was trying to communicate, on a paper. Inspired by their connection, Gallaudet was eager to learn other ways he could help Alice.

Image Source: Google

Subsequently, excited about the prospects of educating his daughter and possibly all other Deaf children in the country, Alice’s father happily financed a trip to Europe for Gallaudet to learn sign language with the hopes of eventually opening an institution. His hopes came to fruition, and in 1817 Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc — the first Deaf teacher of Deaf students in the United States that Gallaudet had convinced to return back home with him from France — opened the American School for the Deaf, with only seven students enrolled.

Image Source: Wikipedia

From there forward, the school served as a model institution and a training ground for numerous other schools for the Deaf that opened elsewhere, following their courageous lead and phenomenal accomplishment. As a leader in Deaf education, the American School for the Deaf has impacted personal lives and American culture, and has formed local, national, and global connections between Deaf, hard-of-hearing, as well as hearing communities.

Reason #2: Forty-seven years later, on April 8, 1864, Gallaudet University, the first institution of higher education for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, was officially founded. In the midst of a raging Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed an Act of Congress, authorizing the university to confer college degrees.

Image Source: Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives

While credit for the university’s grand opening can be largely attributed to Lincoln, the bill may not have been passed through both the Senate and the House, and landed on the President’s desk if it weren’t for the energetic advocacy efforts of the university’s young superintendent, Edward Miner Gallaudet, Thomas Gallaudet’s son.

This seminal moment in our world’s history, marked the first time that a government sanctioned the right of an educational institution to provide access to a collegiate education for Deaf people through the use of sign language and written language. Consequently, the granting of this charter opened a future of educational, business, and employment opportunities by guaranteeing true access to higher education for generations to come both here in the U.S. and around the world.

As a tribute to the historical moment, American Sculptor Daniel Chester French was commissioned to design a statue of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Alice Cogswell for the university’s campus to symbolize new beginnings in education but to also represent the future of education for all Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rumor has it that the iconic statue was designed with intentions of portraying Thomas Gallaudet fingerspelling the ASL alphabet letter “A” to his pupil Alice who used to imitate him. Approximately 30 years following the Gallaudet/Cogswell statue, Chester also sculpted the monumental seated statue of Abraham Lincoln. While there is no proof of the sculptor’s intention, some onlookers believe it shows ambiguous handshapes of the ASL alphabet letters “A” and “L”.

Reason #3: On March 13, 1988, Gallaudet University hired its first Deaf president. For over a century after it was founded, Gallaudet’s presidents had always historically been white hearing males. Determined to be a force of change, students rallied together to fight for representation where they felt it was needed most, and refused to relent until the Board of Trustees acceded to meet their demands.

Image Source: gallaudet.edu

Students fearlessly seized control of their campus, campaigning and protesting to overturn the appointment of Elisabeth Zinser, the only one of the three finalists who was hearing. After a week, the board elected Dr. I. King Jordan as president, and the event became known as the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement which has become synonymous with self-determination and empowerment for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people all over the world.

Image Source: Twitter

The power demonstrated by the Gallaudet students and Jordan, who quickly became a global leader for Deaf and disability rights, fueled further efforts around Deaf rights for years to come. More significantly, the impact of their actions also helped catalyze attempts to pass the Americans With Disabilities Act. The campaign to elect the first Deaf president in university history represented much more than just leadership at Gallaudet. It was a stepping stone to claiming a leadership position for ALL Deaf people.

Gallaudet University’s Lasting Impact

Today, 150 years later, Gallaudet University has become a beacon for visual learning and language, social justice, and equal rights for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people everywhere. Although the university has remained somewhat unknown to most Americans, the institution has prepared thousands of students to thrive in the world, while simultaneously showing society the importance of giving greater credence to the many talents that Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals have to offer.

Most recently, Gallaudet University stole the spotlight, rising to the international stage at the Oscars, after alumni Troy Kotsur became the first male Deaf actor to snag a coveted Academy Award for his performance in CODA.

With his victory, Kotsur who was accompanied by an ASL interpreter announced, “I just wanted to say this is dedicated to the Deaf community, the CODA community and the disabled community,” Kotsur signed on Sunday. “This is our moment.”

In an interview with ABC News, Kotsur expressed that “It’s really important to show hearing people what it’s like as a fly on the wall and immerse themselves in deaf culture.” Thankfully, Hollywood leaders have made efforts to push inclusion forward and display authentic representation by recognizing Deaf talent and increasing Deaf awareness.

“This is our moment.” 
— Troy Kotsur

It is clear that at the Oscars, Kotsur won much more than just an award. He won worldwide recognition for the entire Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Kotsur and the rest of the cast of CODA helped elevate the Deaf community.

Perhaps one of the more inspiring moments of the Oscar award was not Kotsur, but the audience who collectively responded with sign language to congratulate him.

The ADA Connection

The combination of these three historic events represents a huge victory for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. The Deaf President Now movement, specifically, was a powerful event that elicited major media attention, causing the world to sit up and take notice. The movement highlighted Deaf culture and gave profound strength to the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community as a whole.

And, the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — a federal law that forbids discrimination against people with disabilities — made enormous strides for all people with disabilities in an effort to make sure they are granted the accommodations they need.

At last, we are seeing ADA practices in action more often and accessibility rights being exercised just as they should.

At Ava, we believe that you deserve professional accessibility — whether it be at work, school, at a hospital, or for any other crucial situation. With our new Ava Advocacy service, we work in ordinance with the ADA to make sure you receive expert help getting the accommodations you need quickly, easily, and at no cost.

To learn more about our Ava Advocacy service, click here.