Yale students reflect on 25th anniversary of National Deaf History Month
25 years after the first National Deaf History Month, Yalies celebrate the history of the deaf community and share their hopes for the future of the month’s recognition.
This Friday will mark the 25th anniversary of the first annual, nationally recognized Deaf History Month, and Yalies are recognizing the occasion in a variety of ways.
Events celebrating Deaf History Month include a local screening of Sound of Metal, a mixed volleyball tournament put on by the Connecticut Association of the Deaf and workshops teaching basic ASL and ways to interact with deaf people. “DeafGain” is a term used to describe efforts to reframe the experience of being d/Deaf as more than the negative experience commonly-used terms like “hearing loss” or “hearing-impaired” imply.
“I didn’t have contact with the Deaf community at all before I came to Yale, so this is the first time that I’m learning about Deaf History Month,” Alexis Sye ’25, a hard-of-hearing student, told the News. “This year, I spent most of it learning about DeafGain and attending Deaf/ASL events.”
Unlike the other national history months, like African American or Asian American and Pacific Islander History Months, Deaf History Month does not begin in and end in the same month. The dates run from March 13 to April 15 to commemorate three important dates in Deaf history: the founding of the American School for the Deaf on April 15, 1817; the founding of the first higher education institution for the hard-of-hearing, Gallaudet University, on April 8, 1864; and the election of Gallaudet University’s first Deaf president, I. King Jordan, on March 13, 1988.
While the landmark dates may be unknown to many in the Yale community, to members of the d/Deaf community they are very important.
“I think Yale should acknowledge Deaf History Month because it is a celebration of the progress d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have made,” Chisom Ofomata ’25 said.
As president of Disability Empowerment for Yale, the University’s only undergraduate advocacy and affinity organization for students with disabilities, Ofomata shared that the month serves as a constant reminder of the progress that still needs to be made to include those who are hard-of-hearing on Yale’s campus and in the larger world.
“Yale has the power to spread greater awareness of concepts such as Deaf pride through its acknowledgment of the month,” Ofomata said. “In addition, I believe that deaf and hard-of-hearing students will feel more adequately recognized on campus.”
While there may be more work to be done, students like Sye feel like Yale has been a place to learn and grow in their disability identity.
Sye said she hopes to celebrate the month more moving forward, as she continues to explore her own identity within the Deaf community.
“Prior to coming to Yale, I had not interacted with the Deaf community at all, even though I am hard-of-hearing, so I didn’t even know that the month existed before coming here,” Sye said.
Sye also works as a student organizer with DEFY and said that “recognizing and embracing” intersectionality is a big part of her work in disability advocacy. She added that if intersectionality is not acknowledged, activist efforts to create change may reproduce “oppressive societal structures.”
In an interview with the News, lecturer in American Sign Language Frances Conlin explained how the intersections of different marginalized identities make months like Deaf History Month special.
With Women’s History Month preceding Deaf History Month, Conlin said that women are often expected to fulfill roles in society that limit and prevent them from reaching their full potential, and that it overlaps with the oppression she and other deaf and hard of hearing people face as they aim to live their lives and achieve their goals.
“Having experience with pressures and setbacks within both these identities of mine has offered me insight and empathy in how other identities experience injustice and oppression,” Conlin said.
Ofomata, who is a deaf and Black woman, shared similar sentiments and included her perspective as a person of color and woman in STEM. She said she can feel discouraged by the barriers to her education as a result of her intersecting identities in the often high-intensity world of STEM, and the lack of representation of people of color and persons with disabilities is a reminder of how “isolating” a career in STEM can be for people like her.
She discussed the difference between the celebration of Black and Women’s History Months and Deaf History Month at Yale, and how recognition of the latter is largely limited to Yale’s sign language community.
“I hope in the future that there is a more general awareness of Deaf History Month, so that people can see it celebrated,” Ofomata said.
Yale’s ties to the Deaf community run deep. Thomas Gallaudet, class of 1805 and Divinity School class of 1808, founded the first school for the deaf in the United States and is the namesake of the institution.
Other notable University alumni who made contributions to the deaf community include Frederick Barnard, class of 1809, and Roger Demosthenes O’Kelly, Law School class of 1910. Barnard became deaf later in his life and went on to work at the American School for the Deaf and the New York School for the Deaf before becoming the tenth president of Columbia University in 1864, while O’Kelly, who was deaf from nine years old and blind in one eye, became the first Black Deaf graduate of Yale University and a licensed attorney in North Carolina, serving the Black community in the Raleigh area.
“These are the examples of deaf excellence we should be learning more about,” said Zeamanuel Zeweldu ’25, a student interested in Yale’s American Sign Language program.
Yale’s ASL program, which has been offered as part of the University curriculum for five years, was first only offered as an independent study. When Yale recognized ASL as a world language and then approved ASL courses to be used for language study requirements, the program grew rapidly and has since expanded to include three Deaf professors, a Deaf instructional support fellow and more than a hundred applicants each semester for level one through four courses.
While many of the students applying for the courses are deaf and hard-of-hearing, many others, including Zeweldu, simply enjoy the opportunity to learn the language and participate in the community.
“I think it’s always helpful to learn how to communicate with more people,” Zeweldu said. “[ASL] seems like a cool skill to have and would definitely be nice to use in my day-to-day life.”
As part of their program of study, all students learn about Deaf history and cultural values and participate in a service project to develop their awareness and appreciation of the language and history of Deaf people.
But while the ASL curriculum includes history lessons about Gallaudet, ASL Program Coordinator Julia Silvestri said the program has “barely begun to scratch the surface of Yale’s rich connection with the Deaf community.”
“This is a journey we look forward to exploring over the next few years as the ASL program continues to grow, both within the University and together with our Deaf community partners,” Silvestri said.
The 25th anniversary of National Deaf History Month marks a milestone for a month that remains largely obscure to many in the Yale community, but deaf activist leaders like Sye hope that, 25 years from now, the month will be more widely recognized and celebrated inside and outside of Yale.
“I hope to see it in the mainstream so that young deaf and hard of hearing kids can know that they are a part of a rich culture with a rich history and do not have to be ashamed of their hearing status,” Sye said.
ASL I and III will be offered in Fall 2022.
Correction, April 29: This piece has been updated to correct capitalization of the word d/Deaf.