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Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America

Jack R. Gannon

Preface 2012
About This Book and a Changing Deaf America

In the late 1970s, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and Gallaudet College (now University) jointly sponsored a project to develop a book that would recognize the many accomplishments of the NAD (founded in 1880) as it approached its centennial. Today, Deaf Heritage is considered one of the most comprehensive histories of Deaf people in the United States. It is frequently described as the Roots of Deaf America, and it is credited with initiating Deaf Studies classes in the United States. In 1981 the American Library Association selected Deaf Heritage as one of twenty-one international books written by a disabled (in this case, Deaf) writer. Now, after thirty years with the NAD, and well established as a classic, Deaf Heritage has “come home” to Gallaudet University where it was researched and written.

During the three decades since Deaf Heritage was published, many changes have taken place in Deaf America. The foremost positive change has been the recognition and acceptance of American Sign Language (ASL) as a legitimate language in the United States. Deaf America truly began to change when ASL received its due, thanks to the pioneering work of Dr. William C. Stokoe. American Sign Language is now being taught in more high schools and postsecondary programs than ever before, an idea proposed and pushed by Deaf leaders back in the nineteenth century, but which very unfortunately (and, pardon the pun) fell on “deaf” ears. The widespread recognition and acceptance of ASL, along with the presence of more visual information, education, public consciousness and knowledge, and the skills of professional sign interpreters, have given Deaf people access to American society.

Recognition of American Sign Language as a legitimate language led to the growth of more and better awareness of all types of deaf and hard of hearing people. With the publication of Carol Padden and Tom Humphries’ book, Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), ASL users learned that all along they had their own culture, which became known as Deaf culture. This eventually led scholars and deaf people to make a distinction between Deaf people (those people who use ASL as their primary language) and deaf people (those people who have a hearing loss but do not sign or identify with Deaf culture). Some people move back and forth between these two groups and still consider themselves deaf.

  Achievements in American Society

Deaf people have made tremendous gains in civil rights and access to American life. The historic, peaceful, Deaf President Now protest in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1988 taught much of the world what being deaf in a world dominated by sound is all about. The weeklong protest by students, faculty, and staff at Gallaudet University in March 1988 not only gave Gallaudet University its first Deaf president (Dr. I. King Jordan) but it set an outstanding precedent for all people with disabilities. The protesters shut down the university after the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees overlooked more qualified Deaf candidates to select a hearing administrator with no experience in deaf education as the university’s seventh president. The protesters and members of the Deaf community strongly believed that it was time for a Deaf president. The successful outcome of Deaf President Now gave many deaf persons a new self-image and renewed their pride in American Sign Language, Deaf culture, and Deaf history.

Not surprisingly, the Deaf President Now protest influenced the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law in 1990. This law protects the civil rights of individuals with disabilities in all aspects of employment and ensures access to state and local government services, private businesses and organizations, and telecommunications. Under this law, Deaf people may request a sign language interpreter for a job interview, a visit to a medical doctor, and a government or business meeting, as well as other accommodations to ensure accessibility.

As a result of the ADA, much new technology of benefit to deaf and hard of hearing individuals is arriving on the scene and providing tremendous accessibility to the deaf and hard of hearing community. Deaf America has come a long way since the old Western Union tele- typewriter (TTY) days. Today, deaf people can use voice relay or video relay interpreters to place calls to hearing people. They can also use videophone technology to make face-to-face calls to each other and other signers. All televisions with screens  thirteen inches or larger are required to contain decoders for closed captions. And some movie theaters are using technology that allows deaf and hard of hearing patrons to see closed captions.

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