It’s final: National Deaf History Month is April 1-30
April is National Deaf History Month. It’s a time to celebrate inclusivity, effective communication and equal access for people who are D/deaf. D/deaf is an inclusive term itself, encompassing people who have a full range of hearing loss, from mild to moderate trouble hearing to complete hearing loss.
One of the earliest recorded mentions of Deafness is found in ancient Greek writings by Aristotle. Since then, Deaf individuals have made significant contributions to society and culture.
Ludwig van Beethoven created some of his greatest musical pieces after he lost his hearing starting in his late 20s. Thomas Alva Edison was deaf, as was Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts. In 1995 Heather Whitestone became the first Deaf Miss America. Nyle DiMarco was the first Deaf winner of both America’s Next Top Model and Dancing with the Stars. Marlee Matlin became the first Deaf actor to win an Oscar, in 1987. In 2022, her costar in CODA, Troy Kotsur, became the first Deaf man to win an Academy Award.
National Deaf History Month has an interesting history itself. The annual month-long celebration of American D/deaf history has occurred during two periods: March 13-April 15 and April 1-30. The National Association of the Deaf approved both time periods in previous years. In 2020, the NAD board voted to simplify things and designated the full month of April as National Deaf History Month.
March 13 is significant in D/deaf history because that’s the date when the interestingly named I. King Jordan because the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Gallaudet is the world’s only university with all programs and services designed specifically for D/deaf students. For its first 100 years, the university did not have a president who was Deaf. But that changed when students and staff called for a “Deaf President Now,” leading to Jordan being named president in 1988. That’s why March 13 was selected in the past as the beginning of National Deaf History Month.
Deafness has become increasingly visible in America. American Sign Language, the visual language of the Deaf in the U.S. and Canada, has gained recognition outside D/deaf culture. Scores of TV ads feature Deaf actors, and an ASL interpreter, Justina Miles, almost stole the show during this year’s Super Bowl performance by Rihanna. The University of Memphis now offers a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Sign Language and Deaf Studies and a minor in ASL. In 2017 the Tennessee General Assembly recognized ASL as a modern language that can fulfill the high school graduation requirement for world language credits.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed in 1990, ensures people who are D/deaf and others who have disabilities are not discriminated against in areas including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services.
The ADA requires businesses to provide services to facilitate communication with people who are Deaf. Usually, that means it’s up to the business to provide an American Sign Language interpreter. There are a few organizations in the Memphis area that can provide ASL interpreters. DeafConnect, the Memphis nonprofit that has been serving the D/deaf community for almost 50 years, provides American Sign Language interpreters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Our ASL interpreters provide hundreds of hours of interpreting each month.
DeafConnect was founded in Memphis in 1974 – 16 years before the ADA passed – as a partner for the D/deaf and hard of hearing. DeafConnect works with organizations like Williams Sonoma, Amazon, McKesson, FedEx, AutoZone Park, the IRS, the Navy and Sephora who employ D/deaf people in Memphis.
There are more than 100,000 members of the D/deaf community in the Memphis area and more than 750,000 across Tennessee. Some of them are hard of hearing; others don’t hear at all. Deafness is the third most common disability in the world, although Deaf people in general don’t consider themselves disabled. Instead, they experience life like the rest of us – with friends, families, challenges and successes. Deaf individuals may communicate differently, but they have the same hopes and dreams we all do.
April is a time to celebrate what makes D/deafness unique and amazing. We hope you’ll join us in the celebration.