Deaf: Cultures and Communication, 1600 to the Present


For centuries, deaf people have popularly been depicted as either pitiable victims—often simple-minded and mute, like Jane Wyman’s character in the 1948 film Johnny Belinda—or extraordinary superhumans who overcome deafness through sensory compensation or heightened intuition. These stereotypical tropes continue today and shape hearing people’s assumptions of deaf people’s limitations or abilities. The use of deaf actors with exceptional speech (or even hearing actors feigning deafness) on television or film, for example, disseminates unrealistic expectations of deaf people’s speaking and speechreading skills. The Deaf community actively challenges these tropes to argue that deafness is neither deficiency nor invincibility.


The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell

Duncan Campbell (c. 1680-1730) was a Scottish “deaf-mute” who professed skill in conjuring and soothsaying. Based in London, Campbell entertained an endless stream of visitors by seeming to know their names and fortunes at first sight. “The blind Tiresias was not more famous in Greece than this dumb artist has been for some years last past in the cities of London and Westminster,” gushed the Spectator. Campbell met the King in 1720 and later used his fame to sell miracle medicines. Several biographies were published during his life including this text, attributed to Daniel Defoe.

The Story of My Life

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Helen Keller was a well-known American scholar and socialist political activist. After a fever at about eighteen months old, she was unable to see or hear, but because she did not use American Sign Language or actively participate in the Deaf community, she might be considered audiologically deaf but not culturally Deaf. In addition to writing and reading Braille, Keller communicated by fingerspelling into people’s hands or feeling their lips as they spoke. Keller is often idolized, but many Deaf advocates find her positions problematic. She dedicated her autobiography to her close friend A.G. Bell, who advocated oralism.


D/Deaf and D/Dumb: A Portrait of a Deaf Kid as a Young Superhero

In this auto-ethnography, Joseph Michael Valente shares his experiences growing up as a Deaf child in a hearing world. Young red-caped Joey aspires to be a superhero, but he is constantly mocked and laughed at by other kids because of his deafness, and his confidence falters. After discovering a love for writing, he realizes he can defend himself with witty comebacks, write heroic tales of overcoming obstacles and fighting villains, and powerfully assert his own voice, concluding that “words are superpowers.”

T-Mobile Sidekick

 What's a hero without her trusty sidekick? In 2002, T-Mobile released the Sidekick cellular device. With internet access, a flip-out screen, and a full keyboard, it became widely popular among the Deaf. Students and activists credited the Sidekick for keeping them updated and connected during the Unity for Gallaudet Protest of 2006. T-Mobile was the first cellular company to offer Deaf subscribers a no-voice, data-only plan at a significantly reduced cost. Other providers now offer comparable plans, such as AT&T’s Text Accessibility Plan, which became available for the iPhone in 2008. Today, smartphones with cameras and video chat capabilities facilitate real-time ASL communication.

Iron Man: Sound Effects, custom edition no. 1

In 2012, Marvel Comics introduced Blue Ear, a superhero with hearing aids who assists Hawkeye of the Avengers team. “Thanks to [his] listening device,” Blue Ear exclaims, he “can hear someone in trouble!” Two years later, Marvel teamed up with the Children’s Hearing Institute to release a custom issue of the Iron Man series featuring Samantha, a young girl with a cochlear implant, who transforms into Avenger sidekick Sepheara. Together, Sepheara and Blue Ear help Iron Man defeat the evil Blackout. While these Deaf characters increase the diversity of superheroes and provide Deaf children with relatable heroes, they also glamorize the medical technologies of hearing aids and cochlear implants, which not all Deaf children use.


Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye, season 1

Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye was a crime series that aired on PAX from 2002 to 2005. Actress Deanne Bray played the title character Sue Thomas, a Deaf FBI surveillance specialist highly skilled in speechreading. Profoundly deaf, Thomas uses a hearing-ear dog named Levi. While the show depicts an educated, professional Deaf crime fighter, it faced criticism for disseminating expectations of speaking and speechreading skills that are unrealistic for most Deaf people.


No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie

No Ordinary Hero follows the story of Tony Kane, an actor who plays SuperDeafy, a Deaf superhero, on a children’s television show. Third-grader Jacob, who is caught between his father’s demand for pure oralism and his mother’s push for ASL-based education, is SuperDeafy’s biggest fan. After reluctantly participating in a skit depicting SuperDeafy as the silly butt of hearing people’s jokes, Tony quits the show. But armed with the creative rights to his character, he returns to fire his insensitive producers and replaces them with Oscar-winning Deaf actress Marlee Matlin. The new and improved SuperDeafy is an intelligent character. By celebrating his differences and unique strengths, Tony resolves to be the hero that Deaf kids like Jacob deserve.

Sign Language Barbie

In 1999, Mattel, Inc. and the National Center on Deafness at California State University, Northridge collaborated to add Teacher of the Deaf to Barbie’s extensive list of professions. Initial designs proposed a deaf Barbie with tiny hearing aids, but a hearing, signing model was ultimately selected in order to appeal to both deaf and hearing children. These popular dolls were sold in Toys “R” Us stores nationwide and are now available online. Barbie signs "I love you", which is made by combining the letters I, L, and Y.