History of Sign Language – Deaf History

The events that occurred in the history of sign language are actually pretty shocking.

How deaf people experience life today is directly related to how they were treated in the past. It wasn’t long ago when the deaf were harshly oppressed and denied even their fundamental rights.

The are many famous deaf people who have made a name for the deaf throughout the history of sign language and proved that deaf people can, in fact, make history.

Aristotle was the first to have a claim recorded about the deaf. His theory was that people can only learn through hearing spoken language. Deaf people were therefore seen as being unable to learn or be educated at all.

Therefore, they were denied even their fundamental rights. In some places, they weren’t permitted to buy property or marry. Some were even forced to have guardians. The law had them labeled as “non-persons”.

Aristotle’s claim was disputed in Europe during the Renaissance. Scholars were attempting to educate deaf persons for the first time and prove the 2,000 year old beliefs wrong. This mark in the history of sign language is what started the creation of a signed language.

Starting to Educate the Deaf

Juan Pablo de Bonet

Juan Pablo de Bonet

Geronimo Cardano, an Italian mathematician and physician, was probably the first scholar to identify that learning does not require hearing. He discovered, in the 1500s, that the deaf were able to be educated by using written words. He used his methods to educate his deaf son.

Pedro Ponce de Leon, a Spanish monk, was very successful with his teaching methods while teaching deaf children in Spain. This was around the same time that Cardano was educating his deaf son.

Juan Pablo de Bonet, a Spanish priest, studied Leon’s successful methods and was inspired to teach deaf people using his own methods. Bonet used the methods of writing, reading, and speechreading as well as his manual alphabet to educate the deaf. His manual alphabet system was the first recognized in Deaf history. The handshapes in this alphabet corresponded to different sounds of speech.

Organized deaf education was non-existent until around 1750. This was when the first social and religious association for deaf people was founded by Abbe de L’Epee, a French Catholic priest, in Paris. Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee is one of the most important people in the history of sign language.

Abbe de L'Epee

Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee

Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee established the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes in 1771. This was the first public free deaf school. Deaf children came from all across France to attend the school and brought the signs they learned from signing at home with them to the school. L’Epee learned all of these different signs and utilized the signs he learned from his students to teach his students French.

The signs they used soon became a standard signed language L’Epee taught to the students. More schools were founded and the students brought this language back to their neighborhoods. The standard language L’Epee used in the history of sign language is known as Old French Sign Language. This language spread across Europe as more students were educated.

Many people say that Abbe de L’Epee invented sign language–which is not true. If you want to know who invented sign language, read our “Who Invented Sign Language” article.

Although Abbe de L’Epee claimed sign language is the native language for the deaf, Samuel Heinicke believed in Oralism. Oralism was brought about as people used speechreading and speech to teach deaf students instead of manual language.

Even though this positive advancement in sign language history took place, oralism was the bump in the road.

Laura Bridgman

Laura Bridgman

In relation to the deaf-blind, the first deaf-blind person to be educated was Laura Bridgman. She was born 50 years before Helen Keller, but is usually not credited with being the first deaf-blind person to learn language.

Helen Keller

Helen Keller

Helen Keller is the most well-known deaf-blind person (she has taken the credit before Laura Bridgman). While she wasn’t the first deaf-blind person to be educated, Helen was the first one to graduate from college, and she did it with honors.

Another common topic in the Deaf Community is deaf people and sports. A favorite deaf athlete is William “Dummy” Hoy. Dummy Hoy was the first deaf major league baseball player. He hit the first grand-slam home run in the American league, and created the hand signals that are still used in baseball today. It is so amazing that one deaf athlete can have so much impact and break so many records in baseball, yet many people don’t know about him. Truly amazing.

There are many famous deaf people in the history of America as well. Deaf Smith, for example, is famous for the important role he played in the Texas Revolution. Deaf Smith County, Texas is named after him.

American Sign Language

The history of American Sign Language has earned its own page. Please don’t forget to read about this important part of the history of sign language in the United States.

Speech versus Sign

Sign language is now seen as the native communication and education method for deaf people. However, it wasn’t always this way.

Even though sign language became commonly used, supporters of the oralism method believed the deaf must learn spoken language to fully function in hearing society.

Two of the largest deaf schools in America began educating the deaf in 1867 using only oral methods and encouraged all deaf schools to do the same. These methods did not use any sign language and began to spread to schools for the deaf across the U.S.

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell

Probably the most devoted supporter of the oralism method was Alexander Graham Bell (yes, the man who is credited with inventing the telephone). Bell started an institution in Boston in 1872 to train teachers of deaf people to use oral education. He was one person in the history of sign language who really tried to damage the lives of deaf people.

In 1890, he founded an organization that is now known as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf.

The dispute of sign language versus spoken language continued for the next century in sign language history. The International Congress on the Education of the Deaf met in Milan, Italy in 1880 to discuss the issue. This meeting is now known as the Milan Conference.

The supporters of the oralism method won the vote. Congress declared “that the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in the education and instruction of deaf-mutes”.

The outcome of the conference were devastating. Over the next ten years, sign language use in educating the deaf drastically declined. This milestone in the history of sign language almost brought the Deaf back to ground zero after all of their progress. Almost all deaf education programs used the oralism method by 1920.

Even though oralism won the battle, they did not win the war. American Sign Language still was primarily used out of the classroom environment. The National Association of the Deaf was founded in the United States and fought for the use of sign language. They gained a lot of support and maintained the use of sign language as they argued that oralism isn’t the right educational choice for all deaf people.

In 1960, something big happened. William Stokoe, a scholar and hearing professor at Gallaudet University, published a dissertation that proved ASL is a genuine language with a unique syntax and grammar.

Heather Whitestone

Heather Whitestone

ASL was henceforth recognized as a national language and this was one of the biggest events in sign language history.

In 1964, the Babbidge Report was issued by Congress on the oral education of the deaf. It stated that oralism is a “dismal failure” which finally discharged the decision made at the Milan Conference.

In 1970, a teaching method was born that did not fully support either sign language or oralism. Instead, the movement attempted to bring together several educational methods to form Total Communication. This method became a new philosophy for deaf education.

Allowing the deaf access to information by any means, Total Communication can include fingerspelling, sign language, speech, pantomime, lipreading, pictures, computers, writing, gestures, reading, facial expressions, and hearing aids.

Another huge event in the history of sign language was the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement at Gallaudet University in 1988. The DPN movement unified deaf people of every age and background in a collective fight to be heard. Their triumph was a testament to the fact that they don’t have to accept society’s limitation on their culture.

Andrew Foster was the first African American Deaf person to earn a Bachelor’s Degree from Gallaudet University in 1954 and is known as the “Father of the Deaf” of Africa.

In 1995, a woman named Heather Whitestone became the first deaf woman to be named Miss America in the Miss America pageant. She showed the world that a deaf person can do anything a hearing person can do, and that all things are possible with God’s help.

The Best History of Sign Language Books


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Deaf Culture

Deaf history greatly affects how deaf people live their lives today. And not only do deaf people have a history, they have a culture… Deaf Culture.

Deaf culture is culture like any other. Deaf people share a language, rules for behavior, values, and traditions. The way the Deaf culture is living today is a direct result of the Deaf history that preceded it.

 

What Other Visitors Have Said

Click below to see the favorite historical figures from other visitors to this page…

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Ludwig Van Beethoven was completely deaf for the last part of his life and yet managed to produce some of the greatest music of all time. Beethoven Articles by Students Who is your favorite person from deaf history? Beethoven by Kimberly Brunner | April 12, 2017 “Oh, I love this song.” My Grandmother smiles and […]

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Alexander Graham Bell – Helpful or Harmful?

We all know Alexander Graham Bell (known as AGB in the Deaf community) as the inventor of the telephone. That makes him a good guy, right? Creating a way for man to effectively communicate across long distances? Not so much. Bell was an innovator and educator. However, he was also an oppressor, and this side […]

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Abbe de L’Epee

Abbe de L’Epee, a French Catholic priest, founded the first social and religious association for deaf people around 1750. L’Epee’s full name was Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee and he was one of the most important people in the history of sign language. A common story retold throughout the history of sign language claims that […]

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William Stokoe

William Stokoe – or William C. Stokoe Jr. – changed the course of American Sign Language history. Before Stokoe, ASL was not seen as a real language. It was seen as meaningless gestures or pantomime and because of this, ASL wasn’t even considered for use in the education of deaf children–a type of education they […]

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Laurent Clerc

Laurent Clerc played a significant part in the history of American Sign Language and was the first deaf teacher of the deaf in America. He was also among the first of these educators in the world and has been known as “The Apostle of the Deaf in America” and “The Father of the Deaf.” Not […]

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Laura Redden Searing – First Deaf Female Journalist

Laura Redden Searing was born in 1839 and is best known for being the first deaf female journalist. She was sent by the St. Louis Republican to cover the American Civil War in 1860 and lived a life where she never allowed her deafness or age to hold her back. Laura Redden Searing Articles by Students […]

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Laura Bridgman – The First Helen Keller

Laura Bridgman was the first deaf-blind person to learn language. When you think about the first deaf-blind child to be educated, you will most likely think of Helen Keller. In reality, though, Helen’s frustrated teacher was not the first to attempt this type of education. She was born on December 21, 1829 in Hanover, New […]

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Helen Keller – The First Deaf-Blind College Graduate

Helen Keller is an internationally acclaimed author and lecturer. And that is so amazing because she was deaf and blind. When I was in elementary school, we learned all about Helen Keller. I completed a report on her and dressed up as Anne Sullivan in the fourth grade. Helen is the most famous deaf-blind person […]

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Deaf President Now (DPN)

A big event that occurred in Deaf history was the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement. DPN was a huge protest at Gallaudet University that started in March of 1988. The students, faculty, and staff at the university as well as the national deaf community were united and fought together for one clear goal… To finally […]

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Julia Brace

Julia Brace was a deaf-blind girl who was born before both Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller. She was successfully educated, but lost the credit as the first to Helen Keller. Julia Brace Articles by Students Julia Brace by Anonymous | October 6, 2016 The famous deaf person I choose was Julia Brace. She lived a […]

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Heather Whitestone – The First Deaf Miss America

Heather Whitestone McCallum is known as “Miss Deaf America” (even though Miss Deaf America is a different pageant). She was the first deaf woman to be crowned Miss America in the Miss America pageant. Heather is both beautiful and intelligent, and it’s nice to see that the panelists didn’t discriminate against her because she’s deaf. […]

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George William Veditz

George Veditz was a former president of the National Association of the Deaf of the United States and was one of the first to film American Sign Language. George William Veditz Articles by Students George Veditz by Alyssa Mattingly | October 20, 2016 “ASL is not just a different language, it is a different medium […]

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Edward Miner Gallaudet

When Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet died in 1851, his youngest son Edward Miner Gallaudet continued his legacy in deaf education, played a big part in the history of American Sign Language, and founded the first college for the deaf. Edward Miner Gallaudet Articles by Students Who is your favorite person from deaf history? Edward Miner Gallaudet by […]

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Geronimo Cardano

Geronimo Cardano played a significant role in the history of sign language–particularly in the history of deaf education. Cardano was an Italian mathematician and physician. He discovered in the 1500s that the deaf were able to be educated by using written words. Before his theory, people believed that it was impossible for people to learn […]

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History of American Sign Language

The history of American Sign Language didn’t truly begin until 1814 when deaf education was introduced to the United States. There is virtually no information about American Sign Language history before this time. Early in the 1800s, there were only a few thousand deaf Americans. No standard signed language existed at this time, but various […]

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Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet

Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet is probably the most influential person in the history of American Sign Language. Gallaudet, along with Laurent Clerc, was responsible for starting the first free public school for the deaf in the United States. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet Articles by Students Who is your favorite person from deaf history? Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet […]

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Andrew Foster

Andrew Foster is a very important person in Deaf history. He was the first African American Deaf person to earn a Bachelor’s Degree from Gallaudet University and is known as the “Father of the Deaf” of Africa because he founded the first school for the deaf there and went on to establish 31 more. Andrew […]

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The Inspirational Edward Gallaudet

By: Anonymous Clearly, I can’t choose a favorite, because every one of them are breath-taking! But the person I admire the most is Edward Miner Gallaudet. He continued his father’s legacy, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. In 1857, Amos Kendall established a deaf and blind school. When Edward was offered an opportunity to lead the school, he gladly […]

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The Beginnings of Deaf Education in America

By: Joseph Evans (05/18/18) Alice Cogswell was born on August 31, 1805. At the age of two Alice came down with an illness which took her hearing and speech from her. Sources have called this illness cerebral spinal meningitis, spotted fever and scarlet fever. As a result of her deafness and inability to speak, Alice […]

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Ferdinand Berthier

By: Catherine Ritchie (07/22/17) The Deaf community has a rich culture with many prominent figures in its history. Some whose names are fairly well known such as Gallaudet and Helen Keller and other’s whom receive less recognition despite their important contributions. My favorite person thus far in Deaf history is one of the latter – […]

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John Alvin Ray

By: Jennifer Hatley (07/07/17) I find music to be my outlet for so many different things. I chose John Alvin Ray as he was an American singer, songwriter, and pianist. John Alvin Ray made his debut and held his popularity in the 1950s. I find that being able to find and not be afraid to […]

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Ludwig Van Beethoven

By: Emily Keller (06/22/17) My favorite deaf person in history would happen to be Ludwig Van Beethoven. I absolutely love music, and art, and to know that the famous Beethoven was deaf, yet still wrote the most intricate and melodious music will never cease to amaze me. We know that we hasn’t always deaf, but […]

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My Four Favorites

By: Rozelyn Wisen (06/19/17) I have been thinking about this assignment for awhile now and contemplating who I felt was the most interesting and made the most impact on deaf culture. At first I was interested in writing about Abbe Charles-Michel de l’Epee and his contribution to deaf education and the developement of Sign Language, […]

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Teresa de Cartagena

By: Jack (04/07/17) Teresa de Cartagena was a nun in 15th Century Spain. She is remarkable for being Spain’s first feminist writer as well as for being deaf and writing positively about it. Teresa went deaf in her late twenties/early thirties. She was devastated by this, thinking that God was punishing her despite her devotion […]

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Regina Olson Hughes

By: Cynthia Brainerd (02/27/17) Regina Olson Hughes (1895-1993) became fully deaf at the age of 14, due to the effects of scarlet fever. She could still speak fluently, but had to find new ways of communicating with the world around her. She attended the famous Gallaudet College where she later lived for 30 years, married […]

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Influences in Deaf History

By: Steph Grizzard (02/24/17) I don’t know if I can pick a favorite person to influence deaf history. It is such a rich history and the culture is what it is today because of all of them together. Abbe de L’Epee founded the first public deaf school and used all of the signs that the […]

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There are several

By: Sue I’ve been losing my hearing for many many years now and it’s becoming more and more profound as I get older and the tinnitus gets louder and louder. I’ve know since a very young age that my hearing would go and now that day is fast approaching. Reading the Deaf History is fascinating […]

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Deaf People Can Do Anything Except Hear

By: Brent This now famous quote is from my favorite person in Deaf history – I. King Jordan. He became the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University as a result of the Deaf President Now movement in 1988. Before that time, the premier university for the Deaf was led by hearing presidents. While a hearing […]

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Pedro Ponce de Leon

By: Marcus McNeal (11/29/16) “Everybody has to start somewhere. You have your whole future ahead of you. Perfection doesn’t happen right away.” (Haruki Murakami, 2006). The quote speaks a lot to the person who I’ve chosen to write about, who is known as Pedro Ponce de Leon. A 16th century Spanish Monk, Ponce de Leon […]

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Kevin Lucas Smire

By: David Cooper (10/13/16) The deaf person wrote about was Kevin Lucas Smire who was also known as “Deaf Kev.” He was born on October 28, 1996 and is 19 years old. I picked him because I love music so I searched for hours looking for a deaf musician and I found this guy. He […]

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Alexander Graham Bell

By: Jamie Saults (05/18/2016) I am writing about Alexander Graham Bell because I thought it interesting that he fought so hard for the deaf community and even married a deaf person, yet also thought that deaf people weakened society. His beliefs led to a debate in the form of communication used by the deaf and […]

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Matt and Kay Daigle

By: Karri Kimery (08/18/2016) As I was reading about people in the deaf community, I came across Matt and Kay Daigle.  These two met in 1993, at Deaf/Hearing touring theater company where they were both cast members.  These two are comedy partners.  While they were at a cartooning convention in Missouri, Kay approached Matt concerning […]

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Alexander Graham Bell

By: Hanna England (09/15/16) My favorite person from Deaf History is Alexander Graham Bell. Graham was born on March 3, 1847, and later died on August 2, of 1922.  Although Bell is mainly known for his invention of the telephone, he also is known as the father of oralism in Deaf history. Alexander grew up […]

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Edward Miner Gallaudet

By: Kanesha Gittens (08/27/16) I chose to do my paper on Edward Miner Gallaudet. The reason I chose Gallaudet was because we have the same birthday. That had me interested and finding out more about him.  He was an extraordinary man who had a dream of doing more in life. Which for some years he […]

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Gertrude Ederle

By: Natalie Picone (08/27/16) In 1926 at the age of 19, Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to swim across the English Channel.  Twenty-one miles from Dover, England to Cape Griz-Nez. Gertrude was born to German immigrants in New York City on October 23, 1905.  She was one of five children.  Ederle did not learn […]

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Favorite Deaf Person

by Triniti (Washington) Helen Keller is my personal favorite deaf person. I was completely astounded when I heard her story. As a second or third grader, I simply couldn’t imagine not being able to see or hear. She is to this day my idol, and one of the many reasons that I have continued to […]

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Laura Bridgmn and Helen Keller

by Annaleise I had to pick both Laura Bridgmn and Helen Keller because both are amazing women who did amazing things. Before Deaf Culture was actually recognized as something every Deaf person had difficulties being educated and accepted into society. However these lady’s found a way to be educated and to learn to communicate with […]

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Louise Fletcher

by Lisa I’m going to talk about someone here who first opened my eyes to sign language, and that is the actress Louise Fletcher. Louise Fletcher most famously played Nurse Ratched in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I have always been a huge movie fan, and have, since I can remember, stayed […]

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I can’t choose just one!

by Vickie (La Verkin, UT, USA) Is it possible to have more than one favorite in deaf history? I am in awe of the people throughout history (and even today) who gave their all to make a difference in someone else’s life. There are those who became interested in helping their own children and ended […]

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Juan Pablo de Bonet

by Keana (Colorado ) Juan Pablo de Bonet is my favorite person to go down in the Deaf community history because all he did. He established many schools, made some signs for his deaf child and the schools he established as well as teaching them, he was a hearing man that really connected with the […]

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Mabel Gardiner Hubbard Bell

by Alan (Sodus, NY USA) Yes Bell ! The deaf wife of Alexander Graham Bell. She met “Alec” as a 15 year old medically deaf student in his oralism school. And the story begins in MAKE A JOYFUL SOUND, the authorized biography of Mabel and Alec by Helen Elmira Waite. I fear this history has […]

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Off the beaten path…

by Rick Whited (Grand Terrace, California) I’m with others in noting that all of these individuals played a significant role in the history of sign language – some from a positive perspective, others from a negative. What more can be said of L’Epee and the Gallaudet’s? Even Bell thought he was progressing the education and […]

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So Many Contributions

by Nicki B (Wisconsin) I can’t really choose one to identify with. There are so many people who made contributions to sign language becoming what it is today. People that were blessed with hearing took it upon themselves to learn ASL and want to communicate with deaf people. I find that amazing. These people in […]

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My own views on deaf history

by Nicki (Canada) After reading this article, as well as the other available ones on this site and a few from another ASL book I am reading I have come to the conclusion that I can’t choose one person in deaf history as my favourite. I have to say that they all have their goods […]

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Challenging Society: Alice Cogswell

by Cliona (Canada) The Likeness of 9 year-old Alice Cogswell Despite a short life, Alice Cogswell led a life well-lived. I admire her greatly because she did not allow society to tell her that being deaf in the 1820’s somehow made you less than human. Alice was born in 1805, and contracted “spotted fever” (most […]

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Contemporary Deaf Performers: Focusing on Joel Barish

by Sara Huang (Taipei, Taiwan) I have read a lot about the oppression of the Deaf, but I really appreciate people who have embraced Deaf culture and have a passion for studying the social fabric of Deaf people in other countries. Joel Barish has traveled the globe and has been filmed with Deaf people from […]

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Geronimo Cardano is my favorite, Aristotle is a jerk

by Megan (Arizona) My favorite person from deaf history would probably be Geronimo Cardano because he was the first person to recognize that just because a person was deaf didn’t mean that they were also incapable of learning. Before this discovery, deaf people were written off as stupid and (this breaks my heart) “non-persons” because […]

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Giving God the Credit He is Due

by Abigail Endsley (Houtson, TX, United States of America) Unfortunately, I feel almost materialistic for deciding that Heather Whitestone is my favorite person mentioned on this page. Although, my choice was not made simply because she was beautiful and successful. No, my choice was made because of her attitude and humility. Heather not only did […]

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Great People of the Deaf Community

by Lexi (Las Vegas) There are so many inspirations in this world, but deaf people inspire me the most. I see deaf people as equals, but much more courageous. The things they overcome just amazes me. Helen Keller surprises me. I can’t imagine being neither deaf nor blind and she was both. And graduating college! […]

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Heather WhiteStone

by John A. Scott (Vidor, TX United States) Heather Whitestone is my favorite person from deaf history simply because she really did prove, just like Beethoven, that a deaf person can in fact pull things off easily if given a chance. For instance, according to doctors, I have been hearing impaired since the day I […]

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Hmm…who to pick?

by Olivia (USA) This is a difficult choice, who is MY favorite. They are all amazing people, who have done so much to help the deaf and learn about the deaf, and create sign language, and make sign language what it is today. Not to mention, help us hearing ones, learn of the deaf and […]

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So Much History To Cover

by Carol (White Cloud, MI ) I am not sure I could pick one person that is a favorite at this time. I have already learned so many interesting things from deaf history that are not only educational, but shocking. As a full hearing person, I was taught that Helen Keller was the first deaf […]

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I don’t know!

by Anonymous All of the individuals in this article are all important. Without them, sign language, and potentially the deaf society wouldn’t be the way that it is today. I only have great appreciation for the history and culture that they have provided and encouraged. I was completely ignorant to this culture in the deaf […]

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Inspiration from the Deaf

by Anonymous Village on Taro River by Oreste Carpi I am not deaf, but have been allowed the chance to come across this amazing language, and have started learning it at my school. However I never really took the time to analyze the culture, or the people who’ve founded it. It’s amazing how far these […]

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Thank GOD

by Karen Arnold (Hamilton, IN USA) The persons that I feel contributed most to the advancement of communication with and for the Deaf is GOD because he gave the Deaf, their desire to express themselves and to be understood.As a hearing person, I learned to express myself through hearing others talk. For most people (hearing) […]

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Longing from afar off…

by Cheri Witmer (Anaconda, MT) This may not be my favorite person, and as little as I have read on deaf history I don’t feel like I can pick just one, so these are just a few of my thoughts…Ever since I was taught the alphabet in sign language I fell in love with it. […]

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Lou Fant

by Brenda Dawe, NAD IV interpreter and ASL instructor, Kirtland CC (Roscommon, MI) Brenda the Bridge Lou Fant, CODA, is my favorite historical figure. Unlike Stokoe, he could sign, had a Deaf heart and spent his life making services for the Deaf include interpreters. He was instrumental in establishing the Registry of Interpreters of the […]

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Touched By A Touch

by Janeel Hew (Hawaii) Hands that speak all I needed to hear. In history, time spans endlessly. I, on the other hand, need go back only 40 years to find my favorite person of Deaf Culture in my life. I wish that I could tell you his name, but I never knew it. I did […]

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My admiration

by Amanda (Greenville, SC) It was not until I read this history lesson that I realized how difficult is must have been growing up deaf. I have been hearing all my life, but I fell in love with a hearing impaired boy in high school. We dated for five years and then married. I knew […]

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My Daughter is Amazing!

by Maggie (Pasadena, Md) I would have to say that my favorite person is my daughter. I was her teacher for the past twelve years and I must say that she was a very good student. She took her schooling to heart and learned everything I taught her. Even though I wasn’t the greatest teacher, […]

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My Favorite Deaf History Figure is Granville Redmond!

by Grace (Canada) Malibu Coast Spring by Granville Redmond My favorite deaf historical figure is Granville Redmond. His struggle to be accepted by the common man is fairly touching, and his paintings are simply out of this world! Throughout his life, he accomplished much more than most do. Aside from creating a wealth of inspiring, […]

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Nothing is Impossible

by Tiffany (Pinon Hills CA USA) I came to be on this site because my nephew decided that he wanted to learn ASL. We are both martial arts instructors and plan on opening a school soon. A family came in and their son was totally deaf but wanted to learn karate and there was no […]

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Oh the ringing irony

by Rebeca (Redding, Ca.) I do not find Alexander Graham Bell to be inspirational or admirable in this case, and yet I must say he is my favorite historical figure. Mr. Bell’s futile attempts to make the deaf community conform was condescending and ignorant. His interest in “helping” the deaf of his time was, in […]

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Rebel!

by Robyn Bell (Toledo, WA USA) As a young man L’Epee had certain expectations given to him by the people around him. His father was a well-know architect and probably wanted a great many things from his son. L’Epee decided to study theology. Not a great career choice, but at least something with honor. The […]

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Rodger Young

by Anonymous Rodger Young was a deaf man who faked his Army hearing test in World War II. He won a Posthumous Medal of Honor in the Soloman Islands. Rodger Young was a member of the United States National Guard with the rank of sergeant. However, before going to war in World War II, he […]

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A Second Look at Myself

by Samantha (Vermont) I do not believe Helen Keller is the most important person in Deaf History, but I do believe she inspired me the most. I have learned quite a bit about Helen Keller since I was first introduced to her life in the fifth grade. I have glasses, and I am hard of […]

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Alexander Graham Bell a Villain?

by Christi (Charleston, WV) This article was very interesting to read. I would have to say my favorite person is Abbe de L’Epee. In reading his story I can see that he truly was a follower of Christ. Christ is our example and Christ became a servant to mankind and gave his life that we […]

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Alexander Graham Bell

by Anonymous He is not my favorite. He is the one most interesting to me. He is interesting because he had a deaf parent, married a deaf individual, and had deaf children yet he was so against the development of the deaf community. I often wonder why he spent his whole life fighting to get […]

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Anne Sullivan

by Christie Busselle (Missouri) “The Miracle Worker” has always been one of my favorite movies. Even when Melissa Gilbert did the remake of it with Patty Duke switching from Helen’s role to Anne’s role. In both movies I felt Anne’s character was the star. She was a woman who, despite her handicap, showed a determination […]

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Any people of color here? If not, I choose William Hoy

by Patricia (Salt Lake City, UT, USA) William Hoy was a very bright man. After completing his high school education, he set up a shoe repair shop and played baseball on the weekends. He was so talented and played so intelligently that he progressed to playing professionally, even in Major League Baseball. He established a […]

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The People from Deaf History

by Melissa Gschwend (Benson, AZ USA) I can’t say for sure that I have a favorite person from Deaf History. So many people played such wonderful roles in the support and progress of the Deaf. I remember well the Deaf lady that won the Miss America Pageant. I have watched the Helen Keller movie and […]

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Athletics and Deafness

by Amanda C. (Modesto, ca, usa) I’d have to say that my favorite person that I have been introduced to has to be William Hoy, the baseball player. I myself do not know any deaf people or have much interaction with many people in my community that are deaf. However I do work for a […]

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What are we learning?

by Coco (Texas) In our stream-line schools today in America we virtually do not learn anything of deaf history. We learn of wars and slavery and discoveries, but not about deaf people. As a hearing person, I think the only deaf person I had ever heard of in school was Helen Keller. Her story was […]

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Whoever started the Total Communication Movement

by CCR (PR) This is an unfair question because Deaf History has too many great persons to only choose one. If I had to choose it would be a tie between Pedro Ponce de Leon, Juan Pablo de Bonet and Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee. I believe these inspiring individuals took it upon themselves to […]

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William Hoy

by Emma Hill (Seaside Oregon) It was so neat to read about William Hoy. I hadn’t known about him until reading this account of deaf history, which is really well written by the way. It was short, but so full of pertinent information. I think you’re absolutely right, it is amazing that he’s not better […]

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Belinda

by Belinda Well, I really don’t have a favorite person from deaf history. I do love reading about deaf history and all they have gone through. Each story about each person is amazing to me. I went to a church many years ago where the pastor’s wife taught some beginning ASL classes. ASL is so […]

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Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe

by Greta D’Amico (Auburn, CA, USA) I would have to say that there are three categories of people that really stand out to me as heroes for the Deaf. First, those dedicated souls who didn’t give up on their deaf students. I am especially impressed with Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who was so determined to […]

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Alexander Graham Bell

by Heather (Liberty, MO, USA) I know that Alexander Graham Bell is a very controversial figure in Deaf culture, understandably. I can also see how his invention isolated an already oppressed people group–the entire deaf community for many years. However, I think it is amazing how his invention has come full-circle. Without the invention of […]

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Children of Deaf Adults

by John W Dudley (Corpus Christi TX) Born 1933 on a black land farm near Penelope Texas raised by Deaf Grandparents and grew up with deaf siblings, family and friends. Most of whom attended The State School for the Deaf in Austin Texas. Who is my favorite – WOW! But one I will always remember […]

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Anne Sullivan

by Annie (plattsmouth nebraska usa) I believe the person I admire most in the history of the deaf would have to be a person who was not deaf at all but a person who had a tremendous impact on a persons life who was deaf and on many who are not deaf, Anne Sullivan. From […]

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Heather Whitestone

by Maggie Walker (Nashville, TN, USA) The person I find most interesting in ASL history is Heather Whitestone. Women in general are so often put down because of looks, body figures, and other nonsense. It’s even worse for deaf women. Not only do they already have all the regular weight from society on their shoulders, […]

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Deaf people. Deaf History.

by Jenna (WA) Honestly, I don’t think I could choose one person to be my favorite of all Deaf people. I mean, after all, the reason we have Deaf History is because of the people. Before studying up on Deaf History, I never knew how many people were subject to the great changes made by […]

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Name forgotten but lesson remembered

by Anonymous I was surprised to read that President Lincoln played a role in deaf history. This is something that isn’t mentioned in American history. I know most Americans wouldn’t care about legislation allowing college degrees to be issued from a Deaf college. Maybe that is why I find history boring they don’t include interesting […]

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Difficult to say

by Aurora To be honest, I can’t really choose a favourite person from Deaf history since I am just now learning and getting involved with ASL. I can only say that I admire and respect all those who have helped bring knowledge and acknowledgment to deaf people’s culture and need for recognition. Oppression of any […]

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Who is Your Favorite Person from Deaf History? Share Your Thoughts!

There are so many people who played a significant role in the history of sign language. So, naturally, everyone is bound to have a favorite!

Who is YOUR favorite historical figure? Is it Abbe de L’Epee? Thomas H. Gallaudet? Alexander Graham Bell? Share your thoughts!

For Start ASL Assignment Submissions: Don’t forget to tell us why this person is your favorite as well–make it a good well thought-out answer of at least 500 words. Try to also think outside the box and perhaps choose someone who hasn’t been mentioned yet. It will be fun to see why everyone chose who they did! :)

13 replies
  1. Lynne Hartman
    Lynne Hartman says:

    As someone who is just starting to learn about deaf History and culture, I don’t feel like I can choose just one favorite. Based off of this article alone, I really believe that Louis Laurent Clerc was a huge influence and a great educator for the deaf community. He seemed to have a real passion to educate the deaf and spent the better part of his life doing just that. His legacy still lives on in deaf schools across the world. I also found it fascinating to learn about William Hoy. My daughter plays softball and it was very interesting to read how he influenced the umpire signals used today and made a lasting impact on the game even though he isn’t widely known outside the deaf community. In further reading about deaf historical figures, I was surprised to discover that Thomas Edison was also deaf, something I may have learned years ago in school, but had not thought about or realized again until now. I wish schools would teach more of these kinds of stories and facts and incorporate these people into their history lessons instead of only teaching Helen Keller for deaf history. Thank you for this article and for enlightening me on deaf people who made an impact.

  2. Morgan Most
    Morgan Most says:

    It’s hard to choose, but Hellen Keller has to be my favorite person in sign language history. I have watched documentaries and read biographies about her because her story is inspirational. She is my favorite because she broke down so many barriers and proved to the world that the deaf and blind can be successful.

  3. Darcy Teal
    Darcy Teal says:

    From reading this article I can not possibly choose one favourite person but to me Juan Pablo de Bonet is amazing as he was one of the first to try and teach a deaf student other than his child. I admire those who created ways to teach their own children but to me Bonet stepped outside of the comfort zone. He chose to do something that was very uncommon at the time . When those that were deaf were typically pushed aside and disregarded he decided to create a manual language and use his own methods to teach. To me that takes courage, to go against what other people are saying and just try any way. That is something that I think each person in sign language history did, the went against the norm (well except Alexander Graham Bell, but lets not get into that). I couldn’t imagine having to deal with people like that saying that I was unable to learn or communicate effectively (I’m hearing) I’m thankful for those who paved the way and the ability to learn sign today.

  4. Sarah Looper
    Sarah Looper says:

    I am inspired by Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. I am amazed at the passion he had for teaching the deaf. For a man to leave his home country, his family and friends, and his ministry, and travel half way across the world simply to learn how to teach the deaf is mind boggling. And why did he do it? Because he had a young deaf girl as a neighbor; not a family member, but just a neighbor. What love and care he must have had for that young lady and her family to go to such lengths to help her. Also he took it a step farther and started a public school for the deaf, inviting the deaf to come from all over the country. He not only did all of the above, but he made teaching the deaf his life long ministry. I find such a commitment extremely intriguing. Oh that people in today’s day and age would have such compassion for others! I, myself have had a strong, burning desire to learn sign language and to work with the deaf for as long as I can remember, but I’m not sure that even I could say that I have that kind of a commitment to it.

  5. Alex Roman
    Alex Roman says:

    Anne Sullivan is most interesting to me, because, even though she did not have hearing loss herself, she overcame her own visual impairment to prove that Deaf/Blind individuals can learn to read, write, and speak fluently. She overcame innumerable obstacles in her fight to educate Helen Keller whose family and herself did not make it easy for this first-time teacher. Sullivan dedicated her entire life and health to educating, interpreting for, and supporting Helen Keller. She was so successful that Keller learned multiple languages, gave speeches around the world, and wrote articles and a memoir without assistance. After graduating from university, Helen Keller became an enormous advocate of education for the Deaf, Deaf/Blind, and individuals with other disabilities. Without Anne Sullivan, none of that would have been possible, and Helen would have languished without language or direct interaction, probably ending up in an asylum.

  6. Patricia marie
    Patricia marie says:

    At the risk of coming across as a cliche, I have to say that Abbe de L’Eppe is my favorite person from the history of American Sign Language. Reading about how much he did for the Deaf community brought tears to my eyes and inspiration to my heart. The fact that he decided to learn how to communicate properly with the Deaf instead of forcing his usual ways of communication onto them was an extremely honorable rarity for that time period. Though everyone should have that mind-set, it was uncommon and amazing that he was able to stray from what others thought and aid the Deaf in showing their true potential. I definitely understand the reasoning behind his being named “Father of the Deaf.”

  7. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    I first learned about Sue Thomas through the T.V. show named after her. It was this show, I think, that sparked my long lasting interest in learning ASL. The lead role is played by Deanne Bray who portrays Sue Thomas so well.
    Sue has such great faith in God that has held her through so many trials in her life. After her mom passed away she started a program called Silent Night to help homeless people. There is also The Levi Foundation, a dog training centre named in honour of her first hearing dog, Levi. She has written a book, learned piano, and worked for the F.B.I. Thomas has accomplished so many things in her life.
    Along with Sue Thomas F.B.Eye, I recently found another movie called No Ordinary Hero. It shows a little bit of what life for Deaf people is like. You can see how some people can be so rude and others can be more understanding.
    If I had to choose someone else in Deaf history who lived a little longer ago, I would probably choose William Stokoe. He proved that ASL is a language in and of itself, and without him, I don’t know if this website, StartASL.com, would have been created in the first place

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