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National Deaf History Month: Exploring Deaf Culture with Library of Congress Primary Sources

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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.

College Hall, Gallaudet University

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.

The [Washington,D.C.] Times, May 6, 1900
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.

Abelardo Parra Jimenez’ stone sculpture “Universal Knowledge” at Gallaudet University

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.

Comments (11)

  1. Great post! I would like to add that the Science, Technology & Business Division is sponsoring a program on March 20 by Michael Chorost, science writer, and cochlear implant recipient who has written two books, and will speak about this experience. Here is a link to the Press Release:

  2. I am almost deaf. Where can I find a program to help me get hearing aids. I am 44 years old and will be 45 in April. Most programs I found for hearing aids are for children or the elderly. I am also Disabled, got Buerger;’s Disease, high blood pressure, Mental illness. Can hardly walk
    95 percent deaf.. I am very low income. I can’t afford to buy hearing aids.

  3. Robert, Try getting assistance for aids from your local Department of Rehabilitative Services Office. Good Luck!

  4. I am looking for a publisher of my biography (in English or French) of Roch-Ambroise Sicard (1742-1836), the founder of the National Insituton ofr hte Deaf in Paris in 1794.Sicard was the immediate succesor of the abbe de l’Epee, whose signs he greatly improved upon with syntax and grammar, contrbuting signifiicantly to ASL and the education of T.E. Gallaudet and the establishment fo the first American School for the Deaf in Hartford.

    • You may want to visit your local library. The reference librarian will be able to direct you to resources that will help you identify publishing companies who may be interested in your work.

  5. Will love to access some of these information from the Library of Congress to help my ASL students in High school.

  6. I am an Arts & ASL teacher at a
    local Montessori Academy and my Wife is deaf and helps out at the School from time to time

    We have exhausted many resources trying to find video based educational material/content for the students to watch and enjoy in class.

    More entertaining and fun things that teach ASL & that which includes perhaps Deaf Kids telling stories and sharing creative content with hearing students to experience

  7. Robert, most education departments might have a Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. In Florida, we have one and I have received hearing aids at no cost. People with severe hearing loss are helped right away. They will help you with other things as well.

  8. I am in 6th Grade and I am looking for resources on Sign Language for my fair, I have tried looking around and it isn’t giving me enough information. I wanted to know if there something that can help me for fair?

    • Hi Madison, This was a post by guest writers who are no longer in the positions they held when they wrote this, so I don’t have any additional information. You might send your question to the Library’s Ask a Librarian service (scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the button that says “Ask a general question.”) They’ll be able to help you better if you can say more about the kinds of resources you’d find helpful, and where you’ve already looked. Good luck with your project!

  9. Cause people who are deaf use Sign Language?

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