Deaf Historical Figures
Written accounts of deaf people date back 10,000 years. The ancient Greeks and Romans also occasionally mention deaf members of prominent families. The Roman Emperor Hadrian was reportedly hard of hearing, and the 10th emperor of Japan is recorded to have had a deaf son.
Unfortunately, the history of the deaf community has often been one of discrimination and hardship. Attitudes toward deaf people have historically ranged from ignorance to outright hostility. Deaf education is a relatively recent advance. For thousands of years prior, the deaf community was segregated from the rest of society and poorly understood. This, in spite of the fact that some of the most remarkable people in history have been deaf.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven is arguably the greatest musical genius in the history of the world. However, the great composer’s career was severely challenged when he began to go deaf. Deaf people were stigmatized in Beethoven’s day and Beethoven kept his deafness a secret for fear that it might end his career. Ironically, Beethoven’s deafness actually had little effect on his work. The famous composer wrote many of his most transcendently beautiful symphonies and the beloved “Moonlight Sonata” when he was almost completely deaf.
William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy
“Dummy” Hoy was one of baseball’s first deaf players and gave the American League its first grand slam. Umpires used hand signals to help Hoy see calls from the outfield, thereby borrowing an element of deaf culture and starting a baseball tradition of hand signals that endures to this day.
Thomas Edison’s life and work were profoundly influenced by his deafness. Edison told the story that he lost his hearing as a child when a man lifted him into a train car by the ears. However, both Edison’s father and his son were also deaf, raising the possibility that the deafness might have been hereditary. Others attribute his deafness to scarlet fever, which he had during childhood. The inventor of the light bulb and the phonograph often claimed that being deaf was an advantage in his work, since it helped him to concentrate without distractions. He also said that having to write everything down eliminated the possibility of miscommunication.
Heather Whitestone McCallum
Heather Whitestone McCallum was the first deaf Miss America and helped bring national attention to the deaf culture. McCallum was Miss Alabama in the 1995 Miss America pageant. In spite of being profoundly deaf, she performed ballet to music during the talent portion of the competition. During her year-long reign as Miss America, McCallum worked with deaf children.
Laurent Clerc is known as “The apostle of the deaf in America” and is one of the most influential men in the history of American deaf education. Clerc, who became deaf in his early childhood, attended the School for the Deaf in Paris and later became a teacher there. While lecturing in London he met the Reverend Thomas Gallaudet, who wanted to work in deaf education and planned to open a school for the deaf in America. Clerc returned to America with him and together they co-founded the first permanent school for the deaf in America.
Marlee Matlin is the first deaf actress that has won an Academy Award. She won a Best Actress Oscar for her debut role as a deaf caretaker at a school for the deaf in the 1986 movie Children of a Lesser God. Matlin’s performance helped educate the public about the deaf community and deaf culture and helped make her a star. Matlin has since appeared in many movies and TV series, including The West Wing and Reasonable Doubts.