People and Events in Deaf History

When did closed captioning first become available? What is the history of sign language? Living in this current age, it's hard to imagine what the world was like in the past for those who are deaf and hard of hearing. Taking a moment to recognize the many advocates who have made a difference, both deaf and hearing people, is something we all should do.

Deaf history and heritage are very rich and fascinating. People wanting to learn about deafness in history can read about events such as the Deaf President Now movement that brought Gallaudet University its first deaf president, learn about the development of hearing assistive technology, read about segregation in schools for the deaf, and learn about the many people in history who were deaf.

Let's take a look at just a few of the people, movements, and technologies that have made a difference for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

baby with a hearing aid playing with an ipad / Stock Photo / Pawel_Czaja

Activism in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community

The deaf and hard of hearing community has a strong history of activism. Twice, Gallaudet University students were involved in a protest, first in the 1980s and then again in the early 2000s.

The first movement, "Deaf President Now," resulted in the selection of the first deaf president of Gallaudet University. In the second protest, "Unity for Gallaudet," students rose up against an unpopular choice for president and brought attention to academic issues at Gallaudet.

History and Technology of Assistive Technology

Almost as long as there has been deafness, there have been assistive technology. Technology has given deaf and hard of hearing people the ability to hear has enabled them to use the telephone system and has made video programming accessible.

You might think of closed captioning has been around forever, but the history of closed captions is quite young. The technology began with open captioning on the French Chef in 1972, with closed captioning becoming available but extremely limited in the early '80s. The Telecom Act of 1996 mandated closed captioning, which is now widely available for the deaf and hard of hearing community.

The history of the cochlear implant began earlier than closed captions but is also very young. The first attempt to use electricity to aid hearing was in 1790. The technology took off in the latter part of the twentieth century, and as of 1984, were no longer experimental. This technology continues to improve at almost lightning speed.

From laughable trumpets to sleek BTEs, hearing aids have changed tremendously through the years.

With text messaging, Skype, and email we might forget the difficulties in communication, especially in circumstances such as when deaf parents have hearing children. Yet before these advances came the telephone typewriter or TTY. The first long-distance call using TTY was made in 1964 by its inventor, Robert Weitbrecht.

Economic Survival in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community

Economic survival in the deaf and hard of hearing community has been fraught with challenges throughout history. For example, in the Great Depression of the 1930s, deaf people faced the same challenges as hearing people, but more. Those who lived at that time may remember "deaf peddlers." Those who were deaf or hard of hearing would offer people an alphabet card in exchange for money.

Deaf Education

Deaf education in the United States has a long history, going back to the 19th century.

Perhaps the greatest impact in a negative sense came from the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan, Italy in 1880. At this international conference of deaf educators, a resolution was passed banning sign language. The only countries at the time which were opposed to the ban were the United States and Great Britain. Segregation in schools for the deaf was also a challenge. Just as public schools were segregated, black deaf students could not attend classes with white deaf students, even in the same school.

Not all history, however, was so negative. Take a moment to peruse the history of Gallaudet University to see how humble beginnings in deaf education grew to be a powerhouse.

Media and Hearing

As with technology and education, the role of media in the deaf and hard of hearing community has made tremendous strides. Deaf and hard of hearing publications and news sources have multiplied, beginning with the now retired "Silent News."

Deaf characters (if not deaf actors) have been on television for decades. There have even been attempts to have deaf cable channels. Today, the internet has changed everything and made it possible for the deaf community to have the modern equivalent of a deaf cable channel.

People in Deaf History

Many deaf and hard of hearing people, and some hearing people too, have made major contributions to deaf history. Did you know that a deaf person is behind those delicious Girl Scout cookies you enjoy every year? Or that a deaf woman was a journalist in the 19th century? From Helen Keller to Thomas Edison, to Laura Redden Searing, and more, learn about some of the famous people in deaf history.

Sign Language

Students often want to know the history of sign language. How did it come to be? While deaf educator Abbe de l"Epee of France is often credited with coming up with the early form of sign language that developed into American Sign Language (ASL,) the roots actually go back further to another Frenchman, deaf author Pierre Desloges.

Disturbing Moments in Deaf History

Unfortunately, long ago, deafness was often mistaken for mental retardation and people were often institutionalized with disastrous consequences. Plus, being deaf during the Holocaust was often a death sentence even if you were not Jewish.

Bottom Line

As noted earlier, deaf history and heritage are rich and diverse. From technology to education to media and more, progress in reducing the impact of deafness on individuals around the world. While we still have a long way to go, continued advances and a greater understanding of deaf and hard of hearing by the public are making a difference in so many ways.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Association of the Deaf. NAD History.

  2. Traynor R. The International Deafness Controversy of 1880. Hearing Health and Technology Matters. June 1, 2016.

  3. Boudreault P, Gertz G. The SAGE Deaf Studies Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Sage Publications; 2016.

  4. Hudson M. Being Deaf During the Nazi Era & the Holocaust. Disability History Museum. May 27, 2019.

Additional Reading

By Jamie Berke
 Jamie Berke is a deafness and hard of hearing expert.