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Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America
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Another positive change has been the increased number of Deaf people who hold doctoral degrees. Many Deaf Americans have received grants from the Graduate Fellowship Fund, a permanent endowment established by the Gallaudet College Alumni Association. The contributions received from Gallaudet alumni, their friends, co-workers, and colleagues led to the fund’s creation, which has made it possible for more deaf scholars to earn their doctorates than at any time in history. Most of these individuals, in turn, have provided genuine leadership and have given something back to the Deaf community as well as American society.

The National Fraternal Society of the Deaf (NFSD) continues to be a strong supporter of the Deaf community. Founded at the Michigan School for the Deaf in 1902, NFSD sold life insurance coverage to deaf persons in the United States because commercial insurers considered them bad risks and refused to cover them. NFSD ended its 109-year history on March 6, 2010, with a clever “Succeeding Ourselves Out of Business” program at the Peikoff Alumni House on the Gallaudet University campus. The organization sold its remaining insurance policies to the Catholic Order of Foresters and used the funds left in the treasury to establish two permanent foundations—one in honor of Frank B. Sullivan and one in honor of Al Van Nevel, both former presidents. Income from these foundations will provide funds to deaf and hard of hearing undergraduate and graduate students interested in obtaining degrees in accounting and business and for seminars and workshops in business. The Van Nevel Foundation supports scholastic and athletic excellence, as well as leadership programs and training seminars for entrepreneurs. NFSD also donated $20,000 to the Gallaudet University Archives, where NFSD records will be preserved.

History Through Deaf Eyes, a traveling social history exhibition developed at Gallaudet University, spanned nearly 200 years of United States history and traveled to twelve sites in the United States from 2001 to 2006. It focused on deaf Americans’ experiences, particularly on how Deaf people formed a cultural, linguistic community that spread across the country, maintained connections to each other, and shared common experiences related to education, language use, and employment. The exhibition fostered respect for plurality and diversity through greater understanding of community and encouraged students and visitors to examine the historic struggles of deaf people as individuals and as a Deaf community. An estimated total of 415,000 people visited the exhibit at the various sites. The exhibition led to the film, Through Deaf Eyes, a two-hour PBS documentary that explored nearly 200 years of Deaf life in America. The film, which aired on PBS stations nationwide, was a joint production of WETA Washington, DC, and Florentine Films/Hott Productions, Inc., in association with Gallaudet University. A companion book entitled Through Deaf Eyes: A Photographic History of an American Community, written by Douglas C. Baynton, Jack R. Gannon, and Jean Lindquist Bergey, was published by Gallaudet University Press in 2007.

  Achievements in Entertainment and Public Life

Since 1980, deaf people have become much more visible in American life and have gained recognition  for their contributions in entertainment, education, and government. Phyllis Frelich won the 1980 Tony Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sarah, the deaf lead character in Children of a Lesser God. In 1986, Marlee Matlin won an Oscar for her performance as Sarah in the movie version of Children of a Lesser God. Frelich and Matlin are just two of many deaf actors and actresses who have appeared in plays, films, and television programs. In 1994, Heather Whitestone became the first deaf woman to win the Miss America crown.

Dr. Robert R. Davila served as Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the U.S. Department of Education from 1989 to 1993. He was the first deaf chief executive officer of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (1996–2004), and the ninth president of Gallaudet University (2007–2009). He was succeeded in both of these positions by Dr. T. Alan Hurwitz. Dr. Roslyn Rosen, a former professor and vice president of academic affairs at Gallaudet University, became the director of the National Center on Deafness at California State University, Northridge, in 2006. Since the Gallaudet Deaf President Now protest and Dr. I. King Jordan’s appointment as Gallaudet’s first Deaf president, approximately fifteen Deaf school administrators have become superintendents of schools for the deaf.

Dr. Yerker Andersson, the first Deaf American to be elected president of the World Federation of the Deaf, addressed the United Nations General Assembly in sign language in 1991. He told the Assembly about the federation’s work with some of the world’s estimated 70 million deaf people.

Dr. Carol Padden, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, and author, was named one of the 2010 MacArthur Fellows by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for her work and publications. She is the first Deaf person to receive that award.

The reissue of this history of the very special population of deaf and hard of hearing people who communicate with their hands will help new generations of readers gain a better understanding of the struggles and successes Deaf people have encountered living in a world of sound. These struggles are not finished, however. Deaf people must persist in educating their fellow Americans about deafness and deaf people. Sharing this very unique history of Deaf America is what Deaf Heritage is all about.

—JRG

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