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Deaf History

The history of Deafness and the Deaf community is long, and it comes with many periods of misunderstanding, oppression, and discrimination. The history also comes with great resilience, beauty, and strength. The Deaf community, denoted with the capital 'D' as a cultural and linguistic minority, has a rich culture and gorgeous language, American Sign Language. We invite you to learn more. All the pictures and icons have links to additional information. As you read, please note the use of historical terms that are not appropriate today. For example, deaf-mute is an offensive term as is hearing impaired. The correct terms are Deaf (cultural and linguistic minority), deaf (physical hearing loss, moderate to profound), hard of hearing (mild to moderate hearing loss), and Deaf-Blind (may be hard of hearing or deaf with low vision to complete blindness). 

1000 B.C.  Hebrew law provided that the Deaf have limited rights to property and marriage.


355 B.C. Aristotle said "Those who are born deaf all become senseless and incapable of reason.”


360 B.C. Socrates mentioned the use of signs by the deaf Plato’s Cratylus. Socrates discusses innate intelligence, and claims that Deaf people are incapable of language and ideas.

77 AD  Pliny the Elder published his Natural History. He mentioned Quintus Pedius, the son of a Roman Consul. Quintus was a very talented artist who happened to be Deaf. In order to be an artist, he had to first receive permission from Caesar Augustus. 

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354-430 AD  St Augustine believed that faith comes by hearing and that deafness is a hindrance to faith. However, he believed that Deaf people can learn and thus are able to receive faith and salvation. Augustine refers to bodily movements, signs, and gestures, and believed that these modes were capable of transmitting thought and belief. He implied that it is equal to spoken language.

1521  Rudolf Agricola, a Dutch humanist, believed that the Deaf could communicate via writing. He advocated the theory that the ability of speech was seperate from the ability of thought.

1501-1576  Girolamo Cardano was the first physician to recognize the ability of the Deaf to reason and the first to challenge Aristotle's belief that hearing was a requirement for understanding.

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1591  Alberti, a German physician, published the first book of any kind specifically regarding deafness: Discourse on Deafness and Speechlessness. He stated that hearing and speech were separate functions. Alberti believed that Deaf people were rational, capable of thought, even though they lacked speech. He showed that the Deaf can read lips, understand speech, and read, without the ability to hear.

1614-1684  John Bulwer was a British physician who studied gestures and published Philocopus, also known as the Deaf and Dumbe Man’s Friend in 1648 and Chirologia, also known as the Naturall Language of the Hand in 1644. These were the first English books on deaf education and language.

1620  The earliest records of Deaf Education are from Spain. Melchor de Yebra and Juan Pablo de Bonet are prominent during this era. De Yebra was familiar with the hand alphabet used by monks sworn to vows of silence. He published those handshapes and publicized its use for for religious purposes among deaf people to promote understanding of spiritual matters. Bonet supported oralism but used fingerspelling to teach speech and literacy. He used this methodology so the deaf could be integrated with hearing society.


1680  George Dalgarno, a Scottish Tutor, taught students to lipread, speak, and fingerspell. He published conclusions about the education of the deaf in Didascalocophus, also known as the Deaf and Dumb Man’s Tutor which supported the use of fingerspelling and gestures in the education of Deaf people.


1755  Samuel Heinicke established the first oral school for the deaf in Germany. 

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1760  Abbe Charles Michel de l'Epee (1712-1789) established the Royal Institution of Deaf and Mutes in Paris. L'Epee supported the school at his own expense until his death. After his death, the government began to support the school. His successor was the Abbe Roch Concurrou (Curcurran) Sicard (1742-1822). It was Sicard who brought Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu to London where they met Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. In the same year, Thomas Braidwood founded the first British Academy for the deaf.

1776  Abbe de l’Eppee published “Instruction of deaf and dumb by means of methodical signs.”

1812  Braidwood School was founded in the United States by John Braidwood.


1798 Beethoven first noticed his hearing loss, becoming hard of hearing. His hearing loss progressed for almost twenty years until he became totally deaf, but he continued to compose, including  the 9th Symphony, both “Missa Solemnis,” the solemn mass for orchestra and vocalists, and the opera “Fidelio,” among other major works.

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1816 Laurent Clerc, a Deaf man from France, came to the US with Thomas Gallaudet to help set up an educational institute for the deaf in America.

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1817 The Hartford Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, later known as the American School for the Deaf, was established by Mason Cogswell, Thomas H. Gallaudet, and  Laurent Clerc. French Sign Language and Martha's Vineyard Sign Language were combined to make American Sign Language

1831   Dr. Samuel Howe was the first director for the first school for the blind in the United States which later became known as the Perkins School for the Blind.


1844  The Tennessee School for the Deaf was founded. TSD is a state-operated residential and day school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students ranging from pre-kindergarten to grade 12 and also includes a post-secondary transition program. It is located in Knoxville, TN within the historic Island Home Park neighborhood. There are campuses in Jackson, TN (K-6) and Nashville, TN (K-6) as well. 

1846  American Annals of the Deaf began publication in Hartford at American School for the Deaf.

1856  Amos Kendall donated two acres of land and a house to found a school for the deaf, dumb, and the blind. 

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1864 Gallaudet University was founded when President Lincoln signed an act that allowed for the establishment of a school of the Deaf, which remains the world’s only liberal arts university for deaf and hard of hearing students.

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1860s Deaf schools for black children opened in the 1860s. The segregation of early residential schools and then the segregation in dorms and classrooms later led to two sign languages in America--American Sign Language and Black American Sign Language. Both have tremendous cultural significance and identity. Gallaudet University did not admit Black Deaf students until 1950. 

1873 The Empire State Association of the Deaf was formed. It was the first state association of the Deaf.


1872 Alexander Graham Bell founded an oralist school. During his lifetime, Alexander Graham Bell widely promoted both eugenics and oralism, the belief that Deaf individuals should be taught speech and lip-reading over sign language. AGB actively worked to pass laws to prevent intermarriage within the Deaf community in a desire to eradicate deafness, and he worked to close thriving residential schools for the Deaf and to eradicate the use of American Sign Language. Hisi work and that of those who joined him caused a great deal of harm to the Deaf community. Both Bell's mother and wife were deaf, but Bell's wife did not use sign language and did not want people to know she was deaf.  was deaf. His father, Melville Bell, created ‘Visible Speech,’ a system of symbols meant to assist people in speaking languages they could not hear, and in 1872, Alexander Graham Bell was invited to the Clarke School to present on Visible Speech. Soon after, he returned to Massachusetts to open his own private school for the Deaf in Boston. Later, Bell abandoned the Visible Speech method but maintained his insistence that Deaf individuals needed to learn to speak in order to be professionally and socially integrated. Eventually, Bell’s name became synonymous with oralism in the Deaf community.

1873  George Wallis published his book; “Language of Touch – a narrative illustrating the instruction of the Blind and Deaf Mute” based on a deafblind woman called Mary Bradley.

1875  The Deaf Mutes’ Journal was established. It continues operation as a popular newspaper of the Deaf until 1951. DMJ is renamed the New York Journal in the 1930s.

1876 Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. He also used his influence to support the practice of oralism, thus restricting communication for deaf people.

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1880 Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Stricken by an illness at the age of 2, Keller was left blind and deaf. Despite encouragement to institutionalize Helen, her family continued to seek resources for her Beginning in 1887, Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan, helped her make tremendous progress with her ability to communicate, and Keller went on to college, graduating in 1904. During her lifetime, she received many honors in recognition of her accomplishments, including tackling social and political issues, including women's suffrage, pacifism, birth control, socialism, and helping co-found the ACLU. 

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1880 The Milan conference convened and stressed Oralism, banning sign language. At the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf, Deaf educators from around the world gathered to discuss oral versus manual (signed) education. After deliberation, the congress endorsed oralism and passed a resolution banning the use of sign language in schools. At the congress, Alexander Graham Bell spoke for three days while advocates of American Sign Language were only given three hours to argue against oralism.


1880  The National Association of the Deaf was founded. 

1883  Bell readd 'Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race' at the American Academy of Sciences in New Haven, CT and to the Conference of Principals of American Schools for the Deaf in 1884. Bell was concerned about intermarriage amongst the deaf and stated that they shouldn’t marry because this would isolate the deaf from hearing society and encourage births of deaf children. This sparked debate for prohibition of marriage amongst the deaf and many attempts to pass laws making such marriages illegal for fear of the formation of "a Deaf race."

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1886  William "Dummy" Hoy began his 15 year career in professional baseball. He is widely attributed to for developing the hand count for umpires and signals used by coaches in baseball.

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1901  The first electric hearing aid was invented by Miller Reese Hutchinson. 

1893  Agatha Tiegel Hanson was the first Deaf woman to graduate with a four year degree, a Bachelor of Arts.

1894  The National Deaf Mute College was renamed to Gallaudet College in honor of Thomas H. Gallaudet.


1907  Indiana passed the first sterilization law based on eugenics. The Deaf community were one of the groups targeted for forced, barbaric sterilization. By the late 1930s, half the states had forced sterilization laws based on the eugenics of Bell and others. California's compulsory sterilization law became a model for Nazi Germany. 

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1910s  Charlie Chaplin met Granville Redmond, a Deaf artist also working in silent film.  Their friendship greatly influences Chaplin. Granville began teaching Chaplin sign language, finger-spelling, pantomime routines and the communication techniques that Chaplin went on to use so successfully in his films. Such was his respect for Granville that Chaplin went on to use him in several of his films as well as sponsoring him in other silent acting roles.


1912  Juliette Gordon Low, a late deafened woman, founded the Girl Scouts of America in Savannah, Georgia.

1914  Edwin Nies was the first deaf person to earn a Doctor of Dental Sciences. He earns the degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

1921  Earl C. Hanson patented the first vacuum-tube hearing aid.


1924  The International Committee of Silent Sports (CISS) was founded on August 16 by E. Rubens Alcais of France and Antoine Dresse of Belgium following the first International Games for the Deaf which were held in Pershing Stadium in Paris.  The Deaflympcs continue.

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1927  Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing was founded by Margaret Lane Washington.  After learning she was losing her hearing, this young, Middle Tennessee mother, with no services available to her locally, moved to Washington, D.C. where she became a certified lip reading teacher.  In 1927, she taught her first speech reading class at the Watkins Institute in downtown Nashville.  That first class of thirteen students was the genesis of Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and Ms. Washington remained involved with Bridges until her death in 1991, seeing the organization evolve through different names and services. Today, we are a comprehensive service organization with programs and services for birth through senior years.  From our Nashville office, we serve Middle Tennessee, southern Kentucky, and northern Alabama. From our Memphis office, BridgesWEST, we serve Shelby and surrounding counties as well as parts of Mississippi and Arkansas. ​


1928  Nellie Zabel Willhite, believed to be the first deaf pilot in the world, soloed.

1945  The American Athletic Association of the Deaf was established in Akron, Ohio.

1950  The behind-the-ear hearing aid became available.

1952  The last deaf individual from Martha’s Vineyard that knew MVSL, Katie West, passed away, effectively making MVSL an extinct language.


1954  Andrew Foster was the first African American graduate of Gallaudet College. He went on to found thirty-one schools and two centers for the Deaf in Africa.

1960  The Junior National Association of the Deaf was established for deaf youths.


1960  Stokoe published his findings about sign language as a legit language. His publication did not attract much attention until it is republished in 1965 with Casterline and Croneberg as Dictionary of ASL on Linguistic Principles. His publication leads to the return of ASL to Deaf schools. The Deaf community had been denied their native and natural language for decades due to the work of Alexander Graham Bell. Deaf children who signed sometimes experienced abuse, including having hands tied to chairs, hands struck, being forced to kneel on broomsticks, etc. Painful tools were used in and on the mouth to teach speech.  

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1961   Dr. William House implanted three patients in 1961, all of whom received some level of hearing stimulation from the implants. The first documented attempt at using electricity to stimulate hearing dates back to 1790. In 1957, scientists enabled a patient to hear background noise. There were major advancements in the 1970s, and in 1985, the cochlear implant was no longer deemed experimental. Implantation has become more common. There is a lot of confusion about CIs. Not all deaf people are candidates. CIs do not work the same for everyone. Some people can ear conversation clearly. Others cannot. Any residual hearing a deaf or hard of hearing person may have is lost permanently during the surgery. CIs must be taken off for showering, swimming, sleeping, etc., and when off (or when broken or when batteries die, the wearer is profoundly deaf. After implantation, wearers undergo years of training to use the implants successfully. Because the medical establishment viewed deafness as something to be "cured" or "fixed," there was a significant controversy and divide between CI wearers and the culturally Deaf community. This divide was heightened by doctors telling parents not to let children with CIs learn sign language despite studies dating back to the 1960s showing that ASL actually supported development of spoken language. Some of this controversy still exists, but much of it has been resolved. The community served at BridgesTN is inclusive and respectful of all informed choices and believe all deaf children should have ASL. 

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1964  Robert Weitbrecht, a deaf inventor, invented the acoustic coupler which is similar to the American textphone. The coupler allowed people to use typewriters to send messages over the telephone. His invention became the TTY. Though rarely used today, the TTY revolutionized communication for the Deaf community. 


1964  The first public demonstration of a one-way videophone occurred on April 7, 1927, between Herbert Hoover (then U.S. secretary of commerce) in Washington, D.C., and officials of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) in New York. One of the first demonstrations of the ability for telecommunications to help sign language users communicate with each other occurred when AT&T's videophone (trademarked as the 'Picturephone') was introduced to the public at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Two deaf users were able to freely communicate with each other between the fair and another city. Videophones grew into Video Relay Service, which expanded rapidly in the 21st Century. Through VRS, Deaf users may call directly to another VRS user or call a hearing user through an interpreter. The Deaf person has a video call with an interpreter who voices to the hearing user on a phone. 


1965  The National Technical Institute for the Deaf. NTID, a federally-funded institution located on the campus of the Rochester Institute of Technology, is the first technological college for deaf students in the world.


1968  Three, Black Deaf sanitation workers, Mr. William Stewart, Mr. Jesse Moore, and Mr. Woodly Hunt, joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Sanitation Workers' Strike March in Memphis. Pictured here is the late Mr. William Stewart with his wife, Renonia Stewart. 


1972  After the first testing in 1970, open captioning regularly began appearing on broadcasts of The French Chef on PBS in 1972. Shortly after, other stations such as WGBH began following suit. Open captioning eventually led to the technical development of the closed captioning system. It was first displayed at a conference for the Deaf and hard of hearing that took place in 1971 in Nashville, Tennessee.  In 1982, The National Captioning Institute developed a process for real time captioning, which could be used to caption a live broadcast. Captioning reporters were trained to write more than 200 words per minute, allowing viewers almost instant access to live shows. The National Captioning Institute was founded in 1979 with the intention of getting commercial television networks to cooperate with each other with respect to the implementation of the new technology. With the help of The National Captioning Institute, American television began full scale use of closed captioning. Some of the first programs to be seen with closed captioning were Masterpiece Theater on PBS, and Disney’s Wonderful World: Son of Flubber on NBC.

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1973  Bonnie Sloan, who had been a standout at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN, became the first Deaf football player in the NFL, a 10th round draft pick for the St. Louis Cardinals. 

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1973  The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is the federal law that approves grants to states  for vocational rehabilitation services, supported employment, independent living, and client assistance.  The Rehabilitation Act authorizes research activities that are administered by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the work of the National Council on Disability.  The Rehabilitation Act also includes a set of rules focused on rights, advocacy, and protections for people with disabilities.  The Act required the recruitment and hiring of individuals with disabilities and guaranteed effective communication for the D/deaf and hard of hearing. 

1976  The first Deaf women’s conference is held in Washington, DC at Gallaudet College.

1977  The Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf is established. The Alliance is for Deaf Gays and Lesbians.

1979  The American Association of Deaf and Blind, Inc forms.

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1987  Marlee Matlin won the Oscar for her extraordinary performance in Children of a Lesser God

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1988  Gallaudet had yet to have a Deaf president since its induction in 1864, and students demanded a Deaf president to represent them. The week-long protest not only led to the inauguration of a Deaf president at Gallaudet, I. King Jordan, but also spurred legislative and social change for years to come.


1990  The Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, prohibiting discrimination based on disability.  The ADA is the first, federal Civil Rights protection for the D/deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind communities. Its importance cannot be overstated. Individuals are guaranteed effective communication. 

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2012  The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act mandates that all televised material be captioned, including its online distribution.  

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2013  Sony and Regal Cinemas introduced caption glasses. These glasses allow viewers to watch the screen while captions appear on the glasses. Caption glasses were a huge step for the D/deaf and hard of hearing community. Unfortunately, theaters frequently do not have enough glasses to accommodate viewers. Batteries die because glasses have not been maintained, or the glasses break. Glasses also do not fit children and adults comfortably and are difficult to wear over prescription glasses. The community much prefers open captions where captions appear on the screen visible ot all. 

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2017  In the fall 2017, Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing hosted its first Town Hall, launching its systems-change advocacy program. The Town Hall on Law Enforcement brought together law enforcement throughout Middle Tennessee with members of the D/deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind communities. The open dialogue birthed the idea for the Deaf Driver Safety Database, which became law in April 2018. 

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2018 Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing began recruiting theaters to offer regular showings of new release movies with open captions, ensuring equal access for all. 


2019  Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing introduced a bill to change the terms "hearing impaired" and "hearing impairment" in the Tennessee Annotated Code to "deaf or hard of hearing" and "hearing loss." These changes, excluding the education section of the TAC, became law in May 2019. 


2019  In the Spring of 2019, he Deaf community in and around Memphis, TN, approached BridgesTN and asked us to open an office in Memphis to serve southwest Tennessee and parts of Mississippi and Arkansas. After the community's advocacy, BridgesWEST opened in September 2019, building new relationships and opening new doors for service. 


2020  In the wake of many incidents of violence created by racism, and specifically the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, the Black community across the country began protesting for racial justice. The Black Deaf community in and around Memphis, joined by allies and organized by Kiera McGhee and Tawanna Whalum, two Black Deaf women, had a March for Justice and Equality in June 2020, proclaiming to the world that audism and racism must end because Black Deaf LIves Matter. 


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