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Prominent Deaf People in Society & Culture

Actors | Artists | Athletes & Coaches | Musicians | Politicians | Scientists, Inventors, & Mathematicians | Writers & Storytellers | Other

Actors

Michelle Banks (born 1968)
American actress and founder of the Onyx Theatre Company, the first Deaf theater company in the United States for people of color. Banks has appeared in the television shows Girlfriendse, Soul Food, and Strong Medicine. Learn more...
Sean Berdy Sean Berdy (born 1993)
American actor and comedian. Berdy was born Deaf and currently plays one of the two main Deaf characters on the hit television series Switched at Birth. In 2011, he was nominated for TV Breakout Star for the Teen Choice Awards. Learn more...
Bernard Bragg (born 1928)
American performer, writer, director, and artist. Bragg studied theater at Gallaudet College (now University) and the art of mime under Marcel Marceau in France. In 1967, he co-founded the National Theatre for the Deaf (NTD). That same year, NBC offered the NTD a one-hour time slot for a show with all Deaf performers. As a result, Bragg and other members of the group made history by having the first show ever to air on television using signed language. Learn more...
MarleeMatlinMay09 Marlee Matlin (born 1965)
American actress who at age 21 became the youngest and first Deaf recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, which she won for playing Sarah Norman in the 1986 film Children of a Lesser God. Deaf from the age of 18 months, Matlin has authored a New York Times Best Selling autobiography and is a prominent member of the National Association for the Deaf. Learn more...
Shoshannah Stern (born 1980)
American actress honored as one of the Seven Fresh Faces in Film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 for her role in Adventures of Power (2008). Stern has appeared in the television series Weeds and Jericho and alongside Matthew Broderick in the film The Last Shot. She is a member of a fourth-generation Deaf family. Learn more...

Artists

Chuck Baird (1947 - 2012)
American artist and a founder of the De’VIA (Deaf View Image Art) genre, which seeks to express the Deaf experience. Baird was born Deaf. Many of his works are images of his own hands using American Sign Language (ASL). He established the Chuck Baird Foundation to support emerging Deaf artists. Learn more...
John Brewster, Jr. (1766 - 1854)
American painter known for his portraits of New England families, especially their children. Brewster was a prolific itinerant portraitist, often traveling great distances for his clients. He was born Deaf and some critics suggest his deafness accounts for his ability to differentiate between subtle facial expressions and his emphasis on the gaze of his sitters. Learn more...
John Louis Clarke John Louis Clarke (1881 - 1970)
Blackfoot artist best known for his woodcarvings of Blackfoot themes and wildlife of East Glacier National Park in Montana. Clarke’s Blackfoot name was Cutapuis, meaning “man who talks not.” His work was exhibited in galleries across America and England and purchased by many notable people, including John D. Rockefeller. Clarke became deaf in early childhood. Learn more...
Francisco de Goya Francisco de Goya (1746 - 1828)
Spanish romantic painter and printmaker considered the most important Spanish artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1789, Goya was promoted to court painter under Charles IV. After losing his hearing in 1792, his style became bolder and freer. He is known for creating works that criticized the social and political problems of his day. Learn more...
Olof Hanson Olof Hanson (1862 - 1933)
Swedish-born American architect and President of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) from 1910 to 1913. Early in his career, Hanson contributed to plans for the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf buildings. He later opened his own office in Faribault, Minnesota. Buildings erected from his plans include The North Dakota School for the Deaf; a boys’ dormitory at Kendall school in Washington, D.C.; and several residences, stores, and business blocks. Hanson lost his hearing around 1875. Learn more...
David Hockney (born 1937)
Painter considered one of the most influential British artists of the twentieth century. Hockney was an important contributor to the Pop art movement of the 1960s. He is best known for his photo collages and swimming pool paintings. Hockney began going deaf in his early 40s. Learn more...
Regina Olson Hughes (1895 - 1993)
American artist and botanical illustrator who created works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, later, the Smithsonian’s Department of Botany. Hughes is known for her intricate watercolors and pen-and-ink illustrations. Her work appears in plant manuals, museums, pesticide labels, and more. A species of Brazilian bromeliads and a genus of the aster family were named in her honor. Throughout her life, Hughes traveled extensively and was able to speak four languages by lipreading. She began losing her hearing at age 10 and became deaf by age 14. Learn more...
Granville Redmond (1871 - 1935)
American painter considered one of California’s most notable Impressionists. Redmont is known for his floral landscapes and Tonalist style. He studied at the California School of Design, received the W.E. Brown Medal of Excellence, and won a scholarship to study in Paris at the Académie Julian. One of his paintings was accepted for the Paris Salon in 1895. Redmont lost his hearing around age 3. Learn more...
Will J. Quinlan (1877 - 1963)
American artist born in Brooklyn, New York. Quinlan was an accomplished etcher known for his architectural city scenes. He has permanent collections in the New York Public Library, New York Historical Society, Oakland Museum, Hudson River Museum, and John H. Vanderpoel Art Gallery of Chicago. Quinlan lost his hearing as a child. Learn more...
Slava Raškaj Slava Raškaj (1877 - 1906)
Croatian painter considered by many to be the greatest Croatian watercolorist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her paintings were exhibited around Europe throughout the 1890s, including the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris, France. Raškaj was born Deaf. Learn more...
Douglas Tilden (1860 - 1935)
American sculptor best known for his works featuring young athletic men. Tilden studied in Paris under Paul Chopin, another deaf sculptor. Many of his statutes sit in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. Tilden lost his hearing during childhood. Learn more...

Athletes & Coaches

Shelley Beattie (1967 - 2008)
American professional bodybuilder who reached the top-three at the prestigious Ms. International and Ms. Olympia contests. After her retirement from bodybuilding, Beattie competed as a grinder on the America sailing team and performed in 44 episodes of the television show American Gladiators. She lost her hearing at age 3. Learn more...
Gertrude Ederle Gertrude Ederle (1905 - 2003)
American swimmer who at age 20 became the first woman to swim across the English Channel, accomplished in a record-breaking 14 hours and 39 minutes. In 1924, Ederle won an Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay. Hard of hearing since childhood, Ederle became almost completely Deaf by the 1940s. Learn more...
Ashley Fiolek (born 1990)
American motocross racer who was the 2008 Women’s Motocross Association Pro National champion. Deaf since birth, Fiolek began racing at age 7. She won her first X-Games gold medal in Women’s Moto X Super X in 2009. Learn more...
Jeff Float (born 1960)
American swimmer and the first legally Deaf athlete from the United States to win an Olympic gold medal. Float lost most of his hearing when he was 13 months old. During the 1984 Olympic Games, he shattered the world record while swimming the third leg for the American 4x200 freestyle relay. Learn more...
Kevin Frost (born 1967)
Canadian speed skater making a bid to get deaf-blind speed skating to be recognized as a Paralympic sport. Frost lost his hearing as a child and his sight as an adult. It was at this point in his life that Frost gave speed skating a try and discovered that his talent on the ice, built up over many years refereeing hockey games, had not diminished. With the help of his coach, a former World Champion, Frost hopes to realize his dream of becoming a winning Olympic speed skater. Learn more...
Matt ‘The Hammer’ Hamill Matt ‘The Hammer’ Hamill (born 1976)
American wrestler and mixed martial artist. Hamill was a three-time NCAA Wrestling Division III National Champion. At the 2001 Deaflympics, he took home the silver medal in Greco-Roman wrestling and the gold in freestyle. His appearance as a contestant on the third season of the reality television show The Ultimate Fighter launched his six-year career in the UFC. He is the subject of the biographical film The Hammer (2010). Hamill was born Deaf. Learn more...
William 'Dummy' Hoy baseball card William 'Dummy' Hoy (1862 - 1961)
American center fielder in Major League Baseball from 1888 to 1902. Deaf since age 3, Hoy was the third Deaf player in the major leagues. He held the major league record for games played in center field and was known for being an excellent baserunner. In 2003, he was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. The baseball field at Gallaudet University was named in his honor. Learn more...
Ildikó Újlaky-Rejto (born 1937)
Hungarian foil fencer considered one of the greatest female fencers in Olympic history. Újlaky-Rejto participated in every Olympics from 1960 to 1976, winning a total of 7 Olympic medals (2 gold, 3 silver, and 2 bronze). In 1995, she was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Still competing as late as 1999, Újlaky-Rejto won the women’s foil title at the World Veterans Championships. Learn more...
Jim Kyte (born 1964)
Canadian professional ice hockey player and the first legally Deaf National Hockey League (NHL) player. From 1983 to his retirement in 1997, Kyte played defense for the Winnipeg Jets, Pittsburgh Penguins, Calgary Flames, Ottawa Senators, and San Jose Sharks, for a total of 598 games played in the NHL. Legally Deaf since age 3, Kyte co-founded the Canadian Hearing Impaired Hockey Association. Learn more...
Mike Murphy Mike Murphy (1860 - 1913)
American athletic trainer and coach credited with revolutionizing methods of training athletes. Credited with establishing many innovative techniques, such as the crouching start for sprinters, Murphy has been called “the father of American track athletics.” He trained athletes at several universities and athletic clubs, where he developed a reputation for finding and training individual champions. Murphy was selected as the coach and trainer of the American teams at the Olympics in 1900, 1908, and 1912. Learn more...

Musicians

Ludwig van Beethoven Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 [baptized] - 1827)
German composer and pianist widely considered one of the most influential composers of all time. Beethoven began losing his hearing in his late twenties and eventually became completely Deaf. Some of his most important works were composed after he lost his hearing. Learn more...
Evelyn Glennie Evelyn Glennie (born 1965)
Scottish percussionist credited as the first full-time solo percussionist in 20th-century western society. Deaf since age 11, Glennie regularly plays barefoot to “feel” the music better. She was awarded the DBE in 2007 and inducted into the Percussive Art Society Hall of Fame in 2008. Learn more...
Johnnie Ray Johnnie Ray (1927 - 1990)
American singer, songwriter, and pianist who had more than twenty hits from 1951 to 1958. Many consider Ray a major precursor to rock and roll. He sold over two million copies of his double-sided hit single “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud That Cried,” which prompted his swift rise to the status of teen idol. Ray lost his hearing in one ear at age 13 and later in life became almost completely Deaf in both ears. Learn more...
Signmark Signmark (born Marko Vuoriheimo 1978)
Finnish rap artist and the first Deaf person to receive a record deal. Signmark uses the bass line to follow the music and time his rhymes, which he signs by ensuring they have the same types of hand forms. He incorporates facial expressions and freeform signing into his performances and many of his songs deal with Deaf culture and rights. Signmark released the first sign language hip-hop DVD in 2006. Learn more...
Bedrich Smetana Bedrich Smetana (1824 - 1884)
Czech composer widely regarded in his own country as the father of Czech music. Internationally, Smetana is best known for his opera The Bartered Bride and his symphonic cycle Má vlast (“My Fatherland”). He began writing nationalistic music during the 1848 Prague uprising, and later became principal conductor at Prague’s Provisional Theatre. By the end of 1874, Smetana had lost his hearing. It was around this time that he embarked on a period of sustained composition that continued until his death a decade later. Learn more...

Politicians

Mojo Mathers Mojo Mathers (born 1966)
New Zealand politician who became the country’s first Deaf Member of Parliament when elected in 2011. Known for her interest in political environmentalism, Mathers has been a senior policy advisor to the Green Party since 2006. Her areas of policy interest include rural issues, biodiversity, forestry and water, animal welfare, disability rights, and women’s rights. Mathers became Deaf as a newborn. Learn more...
Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen
South African who in 1999 became the first Deaf person elected to the South African Parliament. As a Member of Parliament, Newhoudt-Druchen chaired the Joint Monitoring Committee on the Improvement of Quality of Life and Status of Children, Youth, and Disabled Persons. More recently, she was elected vice president of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). Deaf since age 3, Newhoudt-Druchen studied at Gallaudet University. Learn more...

Scientists, Inventors, & Mathematicians

Guillaume Amontons (1663 - 1705)
French physicist and inventor of scientific instruments. Amontons improved the barometer, hygrometer, and thermometer, and he is credited as the first researcher to discuss the concept of an absolute zero of temperature. Amontons lost his hearing at a young age. Learn more...
John Cornforth (born 1917)
Australian scientist awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1975 for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions. Cornforth began experiencing signs of hearing loss around age 10 and became completed Deaf by age 20. Cornforth won a scholarship to work at Oxford University, where he studied steroid synthesis. During WWII, he joined the chemical effort on penicillin and helped write The Chemistry of Penicillin (Princeton University Press, 1949). Among his many awards are Australian of the Year (1977), British Knighthood (1977), and the Royal Society’s Copley Medal (1982). Learn more...
Thomas Edison Thomas Edison (1847 - 1931)
American inventor and businessman who developed the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the transmitter for the telephone speaker, and an improved light bulb. Edison is also credited with creating the world’s first industrial research laboratory. He developed hearing problems at an early age, and his deafness is said to have provided the motivation for many of his inventions. Learn more...
Leo Lesquereux Leo Lesquereux (1806 - 1889)
Swiss bryologist and a pioneer of American paleobotany. Lesquereux studied the development of peat deposits in Europe. He traveled to the United States in 1847, where he studied mosses in the eastern part of the country and performed pioneer investigations of Paleozoic flora. Lesquereux began losing his hearing in childhood and eventually became completely Deaf. Learn more...
Kathleen Ollerenshaw Kathleen Ollerenshaw (born 1912)
British mathematician best known for her contribution to most-perfect pandiagonal magic squares. Ollerenshaw studied at Somerville College at Oxford University and went on to publish at least 26 mathematical papers in her career. Ollerenshaw was also a politician. She served as a Conservative Councillor for 26 years and Lord Mayor of Manchester from 1975 to 1976. In 1970, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to education. Ollerenshaw became deaf at age 8. Learn more...

Writers & Storytellers

Peter Cook
American performing artist who incorporates American Sign Language (ASL), pantomime, storytelling, acting, and movement. Since 1986, Cook has traveled around the world with Flying Words Project promoting ASL literature. He appeared in the PBS documentary United States of Poetry. Cook has been featured in storytelling festivals across the nation, and was invited to the White House to join the National Book Festival in 2003. Cook teaches in the ASL-English Interpretation Department at Columbia College. Learn more...
Pierre Desloges (1747 - 1799?)
French bookbinder who in 1779 wrote what may be the first book published by a Deaf person. The book advocated sign language (now referred to as Old French Sign Language) and Deaf education. Desloges lost his hearing at age 7 and began learning sign language at age 27. He also wrote several political books around the time of the French Revolution. Learn more...
Colin Dexter (born 1930)
English crime writer known for his Inspector Morse novels, written from 1975 to 1999 and adapted for television from 1987 to 2000. Late-deafened, Dexter lost his hearing in 1966. He began writing mysteries in 1973. Two years later, Last Bus to Woodstock was published, introducing the world to the fictional Inspector Morse, many of whose passions mirror Dexter’s own. Over the years, Dexter has received several Crime Writers’ Association awards. In 2000, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to literature. Learn more...
Helen Keller21 Helen Keller (1880 - 1968)
American author, political activist, lecturer, and the first Deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, which she received from Radcliffe College in 1904. Blind and Deaf since the age of 19 months, Keller became a prominent women’s suffragist, radical socialist, pacifist, and advocate for people with disabilities. She wrote 12 published books and helped found the ACLU. In 1964, Keller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor and, the following year, inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Learn more...
Raymond Luczak (born 1965)
American writer who has written plays, poems, novels, short stories, and essays. Luczak won a place in the Jenny McKean Moore Fiction Workshop at George Washington University. His play Snooty won first place in the New York Deaf Theater’s 1990 Samuel Edwards Deaf Playwrights Competition. His is author and editor of over ten books, including Assembly Required: Notes from a Deaf Gay Life and Men with Their Hands: A Novel. Learn more...
Harriet Martineau Harriet Martineau (1802 - 1876)
English social and economics theorist and writer sometimes credited as the first female sociologist. Martineau began to lose her hearing at a young age. Able to support herself entirely by her writing, she wrote 35 books and many essays during her lifetime. Learn more...
Dorothy ‘Dot’ Miles (1931 - 1993)
Welsh-born poet credited with laying the foundations of modern sign language poetry in the United States and the United Kingdom. Miles lost her hearing in 1939. In 1967, she joined the National Theatre of the Deaf and began to create poetry in English, British Sign Language, and American Sign Language. In 1977, after 20 years in the U.S., she returned to England, where she became involved in the television programs Open Door and See Hear, compiled the first teaching manual for BSL tutors, and helped set up the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP). Learn more...
Pierre de Ronsard Pierre de Ronsard (1524 - 1585)
French poet and the leader of La Pléiade, a group of French Renaissance poets who sought to ennoble the French vernacular by emulating the Ancients. Called the “prince of poets” by his contemporaries, Ronsard was popular during his lifetime. He received royal patronage from the King of France, earning him violent disdain from the Huguenot faction. One of Ronsard’s most famous works is the sonnet “Quant vous serez bien vieille.” Learn more...
Laura Redden Searing Laura Redden Searing (pen name “Howard Glyndon”) (1839 - 1923)
American poet and journalist. As an editorialist for the St. Louis Republican, Searing covered the American Civil War and wrote poems about the battlefield. After the war, she was a correspondent for the New York Times and a staff writer for the New York Evening Mail. Searing lost her hearing at age 11. The town of Glyndon, Minnesota was named in her honor. Learn more...
Clayton Valli (1951 - 2003)
American linguist and American Sign Language (ASL) poet who raised awareness of and appreciation for the richness of ASL literature. Valli used sophisticated handshape, movement, space, repetition, and facial expression in his work, often choosing nature imagery to provide insight into the Deaf experience. He taught in the Linguistics Department at Gallaudet University and gave workshops and presentations across the country. Learn more...

Other

Ferdinand Berthier Ferdinand Berthier (1803 - 1886)
French educator and the first Deaf person to receive the French Legion of Honor. Born Deaf, Berthier became one of the earliest advocates for Deaf identity. In 1838, he founded the world's first organization dedicated to representing the interests of the Deaf community, Société Centrale des Sourds-muets. Learn more...
Laura Bridgman Laura Bridgman (1829 - 1889)
The first Deaf-blind American to receive a significant education in the English language. Bridgman lost her hearing and sight at age 2. In 1837, she entered the Perkins Institution for the Blind, where she learned to communicate using tactile sign and progressed in her education. Bridgman’s case inspired Helen Keller’s mother, Kate Keller, to seek advice that led to her hiring Anne Sullivan, a teacher at Perkins who had learned the manual alphabet from Bridgman. Learn more...
Laurent Clerc Laurent Clerc (1785 - 1869)
French educator and co-founder of the first permanent school for the Deaf in North America, the Hartford Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (later renamed the American School for the Deaf). As head teacher, Clerc used French signs to instruct his students. As a result, about two-thirds of today’s American Sign Language signs have French origins. Clerc became Deaf when he was about 1 year old. He is known by many as the “Apostle of the deaf in America." Learn more...
Juliette Gordon Low Juliette Gordon Low (1860 - 1927)
American youth leader and the founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA. Low, nicknamed “Daisy,” lost most of her hearing in one ear at age 26 and experienced limited hearing for the rest of her life. She established the first troop of American Girl Guides (later renamed Girl Scouts) in 1912. Among her many posthumous honors are the designation of her childhood home as a registered National Historic Landmark (1965) and her induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame (1979). Learn more...
Kate Harvey (? - 1946)
British suffragist active for the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). Harvey mounted a lengthy tax resistance strike, and was eventually imprisoned for her actions. She became the WFL’s international representative and organized the International Suffrage Fair in 1912. She also wrote several plays in her lifetime. Learn more...
Kitty O’Neil (born 1946)
American racer and stuntwoman. In 1977, O’Neil made auto history when she piloted a hydrogen peroxide powered rocket dragster (banned in the U.S. since the 1980s) and reached a top speed of over 600 mph with a two-way average speed of 512.710 mph, breaking the official land-speed record. As a stuntwoman in Hollywood, her credits include the television shows Quincy, Baretta and The Bionic Woman and the movies Smokey and the Bandit, The Blues Brothers and Airport '77. She broke the record for the highest stunt fall by a woman (105 feet). O’Neil lost her hearing when she was 4 months old. She was the subject of a biographical movie Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story, which premiered in 1979. Learn more...
Sue Thomas (born 1950)
American woman who became the first Deaf person to work as an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Thomas was working as a fingerprint examiner when an FBI agent discovered her expert lip-reading ability, prompting her promotion to lip-reader for an undercover surveillance team. Her autobiography Silent Night (1990) became the basis for the television series Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye (2002-2005). Thomas became Deaf at the age of 18 months. Learn more...
Georges Veditz George Veditz (1861 - 1937)
American teacher elected president of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) in 1904 and again in 1907. During his time as President, sign language was being threatened by oralist proposals. Veditz therefore dedicated NAD to financing cinematic recordings of speeches in sign language. The project began in 1910 and the resulting 1913 film, The Preservation of Sign Language, became the first registry done of sign languages in the world and has since been selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry. In the film, Veditz provides an enthusiastic defense of sign language. He lost his hearing at age 8. Learn more...
Heather Whitestone Heather Whitestone (born 1973)
American beauty queen and the first Deaf person to hold the title of Miss America. Whitestone lost most of her hearing at the age of 18 months. After winning the title of Miss America in 1995, she wrote three books, made public service announcements, became a motivational speaker, and was appointed to the National Council on Disability and the National Institute of Health on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Learn more...
Julius Wiggins (1928 - 2001)
Canadian who in 1969 founded the first newspaper for the Deaf, Silent News. The newspaper was based in New Jersey and, for a time, New York. Throughout his life, Wiggins was a member of a number of Deaf organizations and actively promoted organizations to the Deaf community. Learn more...
Nellie Zabel Willhite (1892 - 1991)
American who was the first Deaf woman to earn a pilot’s license and South Dakota’s first female pilot. Deaf since age 2, Willhite earned her pilot's license in 1928. She worked as a commercial pilot and a barnstormer, and she was a founding member of the Ninety-Nines, an organization dedicated to advancing aviation and supporting women in aviation. Shortly before her death, Willhite was inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame. Her plane, named Pard in honor of her father, is on display at the Southern Museum of Flight in Alabama. Learn more...
Frances Woods (born Esther Richina Thomas 1907 - 2000)
American dancer who performed all across the nation with her dance partner, Billy Bray. Woods and Bray were famously called “The Wonder Dancers” by Robert L. Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” and received the Governor’s Award. Throughout her dance career, Woods designed and created her own costumes. She was born deaf. Learn more...

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