Knowing Your Disability - The History of Deafness

History has not always been kind to those born deaf; early historical accounts tell us that the ancient Greeks thought deaf people incapable of education and early religious accounts viewed children afflicted with deafness as evidence of God’s anger; however, in the 1600s, the Benedictine monk Pedro Ponce de Leon thought differently. He developed a means to teach deaf people to speak. At about the same time in Italy, Geronimo Cardano, a physician, successfully taught his deaf son to communicate using a variety of symbols.

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Hearing Loss Causes

Hearing loss can be congenital, meaning from birth, or occur as a result of a disease or accident. Some of the diseases that affect hearing include Scarlet Fever, Meningitis, Mumps and Measles. Traumatic skull or ear injuries, exposure to loud sounds, ear pressure problems incurred while scuba diving and more can lead to permanent full or partial hearing loss.

Hearing loss occurs in one of two areas: a conductive hearing loss, which is due to a mechanical problem within the outer or inner ear known as CHL, or sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), which has to do with the tiny nerve cells in the ear experiencing injury, disease or malfunction.

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Living with Deafness

More than 20 million people in the United States identify themselves as hard of hearing, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Hearing assistive technology has helped helps bridge any communication gap as a result of hearing loss. For the hearing-impaired, most auditory devices, such as phones, doorbells, alarms are equipped with flashing lights or some kind of visual signal to alert them, and further technology to allow them to communicate. Cars outfitted with special equipment that alerts the deaf driver to ambulance, police or fire truck sirens allow the deaf to own and drive vehicles. Other assistance comes in the form of cochlear implants, hearing aids and the use of specially trained assistance dogs.

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Hearing Aids

In 1892, the first electrical hearing aid was invented and powered by large batteries, allowing many hearing-impaired people heard for the first time. Technology continued to develop and new assistive technology became available. One of the most notable advances is the cochlear implant. Approved for testing in 1985, cochlear implants are available to those whose medical condition warrants them. These implants can help deaf persons gain the ability to understand speech and may help deaf children speak more effectively and clearly. Cochlear implants use advanced technology, including an electronic element surgically implanted into the ear, a small, exterior microphone (usually fitted around the ear), a speech processor, a transmitter and a sender/receiver.

Research is ongoing for help those who are deaf and, according to the Deafness Research Foundation, scientists are now researching deafness at the cellular level.

American Sign Language

Society has tried a variety of means to communicate with the deaf, mostly widely recognized is American Sign Language. American Sign Language has its beginnings in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, which, with a large deaf community, developed its own alternative language.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the namesake for Gallaudet University, formed the first school for the deaf in the U.S., the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut; which led to the development of other schools for the deaf throughout the country. Thomas’ son, Edward, establishes the first college for the deaf, the National College for the Deaf and Dumb in 1864 with a charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

American Sign Language grew out of the combination of the French Sign Language, the sign language used by those at Martha’s Vineyard and the signs developed by Abbé de l’Épée at the Royal Institution for the Deaf. ASL morphed from all of these variations combined together and used at Thomas Gallaudet’s school.

Famous Deaf People

Deafness does not need to define a person or dictate one’s life path. There have been many notable deaf individuals throughout history who have positively impacted the deaf community and society as a whole.

Learn More About Famous Deaf People