Women’s History Month: Spotlighting Deaf Women Advocates & Artists

With March pinned as Women’s History Month, the opportunity to celebrate Deaf women making history today is upon us.

This year’s Super Bowl featured Deaf artist, Justina Miles’ signing lyrics in ASL for the game’s pre-show and during Rhianna’s halftime performance. With rhythmic sign, Justina delivered the music and the vibe to millions of Deaf and hard-of-hearing fans and made history as the first Deaf woman to perform during Super Bowl’s halftime show. A Black Deaf Woman making history in the middle of a football game—sign of the times.

Established in 1978, Women’s History Month is a time to acknowledge the hurdles overcome and stereotypes dismantled by women throughout centuries and ongoing today. We recognize the challenges that women face daily, particularly women with disabilities like Deaf women. While the list of amazing women is endless, Ava honors ten Deaf women who are artists, advocates, and making impact in their communities.

Video Source: TikTok

10 Deaf Women Making History

Millie Simmonds

Deaf actress and activist Millie Simmonds has gained recognition for her performances in film and television. Simmonds made her film debut in 2017, playing the lead role in the critically acclaimed drama "Wonderstruck," directed by Todd Haynes. She has since appeared in several other notable projects, including the horror film "A Quiet Place" and its sequel, "A Quiet Place Part II," where she played the daughter of Emily Blunt and John Krasinski's characters. Simmonds' acting skills have been praised for her ability to convey complex emotions and thoughts through sign language and facial expressions, making her a rising star in the entertainment industry.

Portrait of actress Millie Simmonds dressed in a red sweater with white flowers. She smiles at the camera.

Image Source: IMDB

Lauren Ridloff

Lauren Ridloff was born Deaf to hearing parents who didn't know American Sign Language (ASL). Despite this, she developed a strong connection to ASL and later went on to teach sign language to hearing students. In 2018, Ridloff made her Broadway debut in the Tony-winning play, "Children of a Lesser God," earning critical acclaim for her portrayal of a Deaf woman in a hearing world.

She has since appeared in a number of films and television shows, including the hit TV series, "The Walking Dead." Ridloff's contributions to the entertainment industry and her advocacy work have helped to raise awareness about the importance of Deaf representation and have opened doors for more Deaf actors to take center stage.

Portrait of actress Lauren Ridloff, smiling at the camera dressed in a black button-up shirt.

Image Source: Illinois State University News

Sara Novic

Deaf author, Sara Novic, advocates for Deaf awareness and shares insight into Deaf culture through her writing. She is a creative writing professor and a Deaf rights’ activist, who highlights the importance of intersectional representation of Deaf people in her novels. For Sara, writing is a vehicle for communicating thoughts and feelings and a means to amplifying the diverse voices within the Deaf community.

“Fear of silence is the invention of the hearing. I don’t believe in silence as a void. It’s additive, forcing me inward to engage with my thoughts without distractions, challenging me to participate in the world differently, to use my remaining senses to their fullest, in ways I certainly wouldn’t if I had remained hearing.”

-Sara Novic

Born in New Jersey in 1987, Novic grew up in Croatia and in the U.S. She earned a BA in creative writing and English literature from the University of Michigan and an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia.

Her first novel, "Girl at War," was published in 2015 and became an instant bestseller. The book tells the story of Ana Juric, a ten-year-old girl living in Croatia during the Yugoslav Wars, who is forced to flee her home and eventually settle in the United States. The novel was praised for its vivid portrayal of war-torn Croatia and its exploration of themes such as identity, trauma, and displacement. Her most recent novel, True Biz has been adapted for the screen in a new coming-of-age series starring Millie Simmonds about a Deaf teenager who finds her voice through learned sign language when she attends school for the Deaf.

Portrait of Deaf writer, Sara Novic dressed in a button-up short sleeve shirt and wearing glasses, she stands against a wall and smiles slightly at the camera.

Image Source: Sara-Novic.com

Nakia Smith

Nakia Smith is a Canadian TikTok influencer and advocate for Black American Sign Language (BASL). Developed during a time of segregation, when Black students were barred from attending the first U.S. school for Deaf people, BASL has become an important source of communication within the Black Deaf community.

Smith is committed to sharing BASL and Deaf studies with a wider audience and bringing greater awareness to the unique cultural and linguistic contributions of Black Deaf individuals. Through her TikTok channel, Smith creates engaging and informative content that highlights the expressive power of BASL, while also raising awareness about the challenges and obstacles faced by Black Deaf individuals in society. Her work as an influencer and advocate has helped to promote greater inclusion and diversity within the community and has inspired others to celebrate and embrace the richness of Deaf culture.

Photograph of Nakia Smith smiling outside in a light blue fleece.

Image Source: New York Times

Haben Girma

Haben Girma is a DeafBlind lawyer, disability rights advocate, and author. Born and raised in California, Girma was the first DeafBlind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. Throughout her career and professional development, Girma has worked to promote greater accessibility and inclusivity for people with disabilities. She has served as a legal advocate for disability rights and has helped to shape policy and legislation to promote greater access and equity.

Girma was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the National Council on Disability, where she helped to craft recommendations on disability policy for the U.S. government. Girma is also a highly respected author and public speaker, and her memoir, "Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law," has received critical acclaim for its honest and inspiring portrayal of her life and work. Her advocacy and leadership have helped to break down barriers for people with disabilities and have inspired countless individuals to pursue their dreams and create a more inclusive world.

Profile portrait of Haben Girma looking off in the distance with a pensive gaze, she wears a black top.

Image Source: Wall Street Journal

Claudia Gordon

Born hearing, Gordon became profoundly Deaf after experiencing sudden severe ear pain at the age of eight. Despite facing discrimination and challenges as a Deaf woman, she has achieved remarkable success and has made a significant impact in advocating for equal access and opportunity for people with disabilities.

“Thanks to the values that were instilled in me during my formative years, I understood then that those voices of doubt neither dictated my worth nor my capacity,” said Gordon. “I want to contribute to a better society where there is more understanding and acceptance of people with disabilities and where the same
opportunities are provided for all."

-Claudia Gordon

She is a pioneering figure in the disability rights movement and was the first Black Deaf woman to graduate from the American University law school. Prior to law school she studied political science at Howard University. With the goal of pursuing a career dedicated to serving individuals with disabilities like herself, Gordon ended up serving as a key advisor for disability issues under former President Barack Obama. Today, she continues her commitment to accessibility awareness and education by dedicating her time as a Senior Accessibility Strategy Partner at T-Mobile (formerly Sprint). She plays a leadership role in the company’s corporate-wide diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Video Source: Working Nation

Tasha Ghouri

Love Island icon Tasha Ghouri recently made history as the first-ever Deaf contestant on the show. Ghouri was born Deaf and received her cochlear implant at the young age of five. Through her Instagram account @taskswithtashax, Tasha Ghouri is committed to raising awareness for Deaf people and promoting a positive image of Deafness.

Her account highlights how being Deaf is not a disability, but rather a unique ability or "superpower." Ghouri uses her platform to share inspiring stories, provide educational resources, and advocate for greater understanding and inclusivity. By promoting a message of empowerment and celebrating the strengths and abilities of Deaf individuals, Ghouri is making a significant impact in promoting positive change and breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions about Deafness.

Image of Tasha Ghouri, dressed in a gold top, her hair pulled back with smokey eye make-up.

Image Source: Heat World

Raven Sutton

Raven Sutton is a social worker, Deaf dancer and ASL performer. Raven received her Bachelor’s and Master's degree in social work from Gallaudet University. She's worked as a Survivor Resource Specialist for Deaf, Domestic, and Sexual Violence Survivors at Deaf Dawn located in Washington D.C.

Raven aspires to build a practice as a Dance Therapist to improve the lives and general welfare of at-risk youth in her community. She believes that self-expression through various art forms plays a valuable role in self-discovery. Her passion for music and dancing exposed to her the lack of Deaf accessibility in the music industry. She performs as an ASL interpreter for concerts and works to improve inclusivity in the entertainment industry.

Raven is an advocate for Deaf awareness and uses her platform to educate people on Deaf issues such as the need for greater accessibility. Her content has gained viral recognition and has garnered the attention of major publications. She recently became the first Deaf contestant on Netflix’s “The Circle.”  She continues to use her platform to inspire others to learn about Deaf culture and support accessibility and diversity everywhere.

Portrait of Raven Sutton. She smiles at the camera and wears a yellow sweater and has blue hair.

Image Source: LinkedIn

Marlee Matlin

Marlee Matlin is a highly accomplished figure in the entertainment industry, as well as a dedicated activist, role model, mother and author. In 1986, she made history as the youngest woman and the first Deaf person to win an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the film Children of a Lesser God. Today, this achievement still stands as a testament to her exceptional talent and trailblazing spirit.

Throughout her career, Matlin has been involved in charity work as a fierce advocate for disability rights and representation. She has fought tirelessly to ensure that Deaf and disabled actors are given fair opportunities to pursue their craft and be accurately portrayed on screen. Matlin has also been a vocal proponent of accessibility measures like closed captioning, which have greatly improved the viewing experience for Deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences.

Matlin and the cast of the film CODA received the 2022 SAG Award for Best Ensemble, showcasing her continued success and impact in the industry. Matlin's unwavering dedication to promoting equity and inclusivity in the entertainment industry has helped pave the way for future generations of Deaf and disabled artists to pursue their dreams and make their voices heard.

Image of Marlee Matlin smiling in a dress holding a 2022 SAG Award in one hand and signing "I love you" with the other.

Image Source: Kveller

Shoshannah Stern

As an actress, writer, and producer, Shoshannah Stern has become a powerful voice for disability representation and inclusion. Born Deaf, Stern learned American Sign Language (ASL) during infancy, and she continues using it as her primary language today. Although she faced barriers in the industry due to her disability, Stern has made a name for herself as an advocate for Deaf and disabled actors and creators.

She graduated from Gallaudet and began her acting career in the early 2000s, appearing in television shows like "Boston Public" and "Jericho." In 2007, she was cast in a recurring role in the popular Showtime series "Weeds," playing the character of a functionally Deaf high school student. The role helped her gain a reputation in the industry, which led to further opportunities.

In 2018, she co-created and starred in the groundbreaking series "This Close," which was one of the first shows to feature Deaf and disabled actors in leading roles. The series was praised for its authentic representation of Deaf culture and experiences, earning Stern and her co-creator, Josh Feldman, a Peabody Award nomination.

Stern's advocacy support goes beyond her contributions to the entertainment world. She uses her platform to raise awareness about the barriers that Deaf and disabled individuals face in all aspects of life. She has worked with organizations like the National Association of the Deaf and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund to promote equity and access.

Image of Shoshannah Stern dressed in a plaid blazer standing in front of a Sundance step-and-repeat, smiling at the camera.

Image source: Entertainment Tonight

An Opportunity To Celebrate Women

While these Deaf women have impressive accomplishments to be honored, there are many others—Deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing—advocating daily for equal rights and diversity. With equity and inclusion, we expand minds and build opportunities. Whether it’s a family member, friend, teacher, colleague or stranger in the spotlight, take time this month—and every month—to recognize the invaluable contributions of women in our community and throughout the world today.