Deaf: Cultures and Communication, 1600 to the Present

About Us


This exhibit was curated by Katie Healey and Caroline Lieffers, doctoral students in Yale’s Program for the History of Science and Medicine. Katie earned a BA in Deaf Studies/ASL and history at California State University, Sacramento, where she also earned her MA in history. Her dissertation examines the development of audiology out of American military efforts to rehabilitate soldiers deafened during the world wars.

Caroline studied English and Linguistics at the University of Alberta, where she also earned her MA in History, before coming to Yale. She now focuses on the history of disbility, medical ethics, medical technology, and American nation-making. 

An original portrait of Mason Fitch Cogswell—an American doctor integral to the establishment of the first permanent school for the Deaf in the U.S.—hangs in the entrance to the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library at Yale.  This painting reminds us daily that we are in rather odd positions as Deaf and disability scholars in a history of medicine program. We embrace the cultural and social models of deafness while recognizing the historical significance of the medical model. Our Medical Historical Librarian, Melissa Grafe, was incredibly supportive of our vision to bring the cultural and linguistic side of deafness into such a medical space as the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. We have doctors and medical students passing through the library every day, so we thought an exhibit in the rotunda would be a fabulous opportunity to share the many ways of being d/Deaf.

Why Yale?

Yale currently offers no courses in American Sign Language for credit; unfortunately, we also have no academic program here in Deaf or disability studies yet. However, we are incredibly fortunate to have among Yale’s vast resources some original material of notable alumni such as Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Mason Fitch Cogswell as well as the papers and diary of Laurent Clerc. These three individuals, as we explain on the next page, together founded the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons in nearby Hartford in 1817.

We are very grateful for the outpouring of support and interest in our physical exhibit that we decided to create an online exhibit to reach more people. Our target audience is broad—medical professionals, ASL students, people with little knowledge of Deaf culture, our colleagues who study the history of medicine—but we also hope it may interest deafened or Deaf people as well.

A note on terminology:

You’ll see us use “deaf” with both a lowercase and capitalized D. This convention is attributed to Carol Erting and James Woodward (1979). 

We use “deaf” to indicate the audiological phenomenon that otologists and audiologists study.

We use the capitalized “Deaf” to indicate a combination of cultural identity, community membership, and fluency in a signed language.

Labels like “dumb”, “hearing impaired”, and “mute” are considered outdated and often offensive when ascribed today. However, as historians, we use these terms in their historical context; thus, we do not change the formal names of institutions or titles of works that included these terms.

Language is complicated, fluid, and political.  We understand that people may disagree with our use of terms, and we welcome your comments below. Indeed, we hope visitors will use this site as a forum to discuss topics and debates surrounding deafness and Deaf culture.