Deaf History Month in the past has run from March 13th-April 15th, in honor of three momentous dates for the deaf community. These include; April 15th, 1817, when the first school for deaf students was opened, April 8, 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the charter for Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. (the only university in the world where students live and learn using American Sign Language (ASL) and English), and in March 1988 Gallaudet appointed their first deaf president. Starting in 2022, Deaf History Month will now be held from April 1-30 based on feedback from the NAD Deaf Culture and History Section (DCHS), as well as from organizations representing marginalized communities within the Deaf Community.
Today, over 5% (around 432 million adults and 34 million children) need some sort of rehabilitation to address their ‘disabling’ hearing loss. The WHO predicts that by 2050, there will be around 700 million people that have some form of disabling hearing loss. Around 11.5 million Americans or around 3.5% of the population also have hearing impairments. ‘Disabling’ hearing loss refers to hearing loss greater than 35 decibels (dB) in the better hearing ear, while impairments can range from difficulty in hearing conversations to complete hearing loss. There are three basic types of hearing loss, conductive, sensorineural, and mixed, and all can either occur at birth or during one’s lifetime. Conductive hearing loss occurs when sounds cannot get to the inner ear due to problems in the middle or outer ear, sensorineural hearing loss is when there is inner ear damage; and mixed is of course when both are occurring at the same time.
The earliest evidence of deafness in the written record can be traced back to the Ebers Papyrus from Ancient Egypt that date to 1550 B.C.E. The Ebers Papyrus is a medical document, with a collection of diverse medical texts that hold a large record of Egyptian medicine. From burns to dentistry, and even and quite accurate description of the circulatory system, the text holds much information on health and medical ailments. Amongst its many remedies, it offers one for an ‘Ear-That-Hears-Badly.’ This remedy instructs that injecting olive oil, red lead, ant eggs, bat wings, and goat urine be injected into the ears.
Monks in Burgundy in the early 10th-century created hand signals to communicate while under their vows of silence. Cluniac sign language also grew to influence monastic life in Europe and is thought to be the inspiration behind the creation of the first formal sign language by 16th-century Spanish Benedictine monk, Pedro Ponce de Leon.
When it comes to hearing aids themselves, a text titled Magiae Naturalis from 1588, written by Neapolitan polymath Giambattista Della Porta, mentions wooden horns shaped like the ears of animals with good hearing. Ear trumpets were developed by a pupil of Galileo’s in the early 17th century, Pablo Aproino, with Frederick Rein of London in the very early 19th century being credited with being the first full scale manufacturers of hearing aids.
Sensorineural hearing loss will leave no evidence on skeletal remains after and therefore hearing loss can only be observed on the skeletal remains of those who have conductive hearing loss that also resulted in bony changes. A Neanderthal skeleton from 50,000 years ago known as Shanidar 1 was discovered in Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan. The skeleton had bony growths in the ear canals, which would have produced hearing loss.
In honor of Deaf History Month, let’s also highlight Amelia Dall, a 30-year-old deaf archaeologist who is making history by making archaeology more accessible to those that use sign language. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Art History from Gallaudet University and after graduating realized that she wanted to delve more into archaeology. To gain experience she traveled to Belize for a summer with the Maya Research Program, spent a year with AmeriCorps VISTA in Washington State, and volunteered at a local museum before applying to, attending, and eventually receiving her Master of Arts in Archaeology from Texas State University.
Although she found success, she encountered difficulties due to the limited numbers of ASL signs that are not present for certain archaeology terms. She therefore decided to start her own website:
This website allows her to translate exhibits into American Sign Language, create Archaeology in ASL kits for conferences and workshop, and even customize, create, and sell ASL merch.
Dall also has a YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8sEPA8he7aqcE4zlCXt9Tg/videos
She currently works as a field technician for PaleoWest in Colorado, but for the past seven years she has found herself in the American Southwest, the Great Plains, and even the Rocky Mountains.
The past most certainly consisted of more deaf individuals than skeletal, archaeological, and even written records lead us to believe. Today, we must encourage and strive for an inclusive field in the archaeological world that is more accessible to deaf individuals.