This guest post is co-authored by the Library of Congress Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator, Eric Eldritch, and the Library of Congress Teacher in Residence, Earnestine Sweeting. Lenore Swartzwelder and Tom Tarantino, members of the Library of Congress Deaf Association, also contributed to this post.
National Deaf History Month, March 13 to April 15, celebrates deaf history and promotes awareness of American deaf culture. Library of Congress primary sources provide interesting glimpses into this rich cultural heritage for your students to explore.
Among other things, Deaf History Month promotes the contributions of individual deaf Americans to U.S. society. How many of your students know that Thomas Edison, a famous American inventor of the phonograph, was hard of hearing? A famous American sculptor John Louis Clarke, also known as Cutapuis or “Man Who Talks Not,” received several important commissions for large-scale carved panels to embellish public buildings during the 1930s. Both Edison and Clarke lost their hearing after having scarlet fever.
On April 8, 1864, the Thirty-eighth Congress approved an act authorizing the board of directors of a new school in Washington, then called the Columbia Institution of the Deaf and Dumb, to grant degrees. In June of that year, Edward M. Gallaudet, the college’s first president, wrote a letter inviting Abraham Lincoln to attend and address the school, now called Gallaudet University. Students may read the letter and identify what techniques Gallaudet used in trying to persuade Lincoln to come.
Today, Gallaudet University is the leading liberal arts school for educating students who are deaf and hard of hearing and arguably the leading expert on American Sign Language (ASL). To help your students understand the importance of ASL to the deaf community, ask them to imagine their what their classes would be like if they were conducted in a language they didn’t understand. Have students read this article about Gallaudet University from May 1900. What can they learn from it about the pivotal changes in the education of the deaf? If time allows, support them in researching more recent changes.
This stone sculpture on Gallaudet’s campus is by Colombian deaf sculptor Abelardo Parra Jimenez. Invite them to consider why Jimenez might have called the sculpture “Universal Knowledge.” Ask your students to think about the meaning of the large eye on the sculpture and its significance on a campus dedicated to educating the deaf and hard of hearing.
Have students discuss historical attitudes around language used to describe groups of people. William Ellsworth Hoy, a deaf Major League Baseball player, was nicknamed “Dummy” Hoy. Discuss reasons why the terms “deaf and dumb” or “deaf mute” are no longer used. Students might conduct research to learn why the terms “deaf” and “hard of hearing” are now more widely accepted than “hearing impaired.”
Tell us how your students have explored the history and contributions of the nation’s deaf community.