The Challenges and Triumphs of Deaf Genealogy

If you’re interested in the world of genealogy and preserving your family history, then you know it is a world full of challenges big and small. Whether you have an aunt who refuses to lend you the recipe card for that incredible apple pie your grandmother used to make or a brother who can’t remember where he put your parents’ wedding photo, you know what’s it’s like to hit a wall with your research and to be discouraged.

There are some among us, though, who face challenges specific to their identity on top of typical family squabbles. For a Deaf or Hard of Hearing (HoH) person and those with Deaf/HoH people in their family tree, researching and recording family history comes with its own unique circumstances.

As a Hard of Hearing person myself, new to the world of genealogical research and family history preservation, I wanted to better understand what it means to explore your family under this lens. Over the past several weeks I flipped through U.S. Censuses, revisited my Intro to American Sign Language (ASL) syllabus from college, and dove into countless blogs written by Deaf/HoH genealogists and genealogists with Deaf/HoH people in their family.

Here’s what I found.

Challenges Facing Deaf/HoH Genealogists

Shame Surrounding Deaf Family History

Often the first step in building a family history, whether you’re hearing, Deaf, or HoH, is to simply ask questions of your oldest living family members. Reluctance is fairly common in all demographics, of course, but the difference here is that even when the relative is ready and willing to tell you all about your family’s history, they may not even know what members of the family were Deaf. If they do, they may not know much about the person apart from their deafness. It really wasn’t that long ago that being Deaf wasn’t celebrated or embraced by one’s family and community. Much of this attitude can be attributed to mass spread misinformation from a source who was thought to be reputable.

We all know that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but he also did some serious damage to the Deaf/HoH community. He worked hard at erasing their culture, discouraging them from communicating with one another and procreating, as he saw deafness as a ‘curse’ or ‘weakness.’ Throughout his lifetime he did a lot of work that seemed good on the surface, but which was deeply rooted in ableism (prejudice against people living with disabilities) and a profound misunderstanding of deafness.

As Bell was wildly influential in the late 1800s, his belief spread like wildfire, covering the Deaf with a shroud of shame, alienating the Deaf from their hearing families, and ultimately delaying the development of ASL and Deaf culture as a whole. Unsurprisingly, this has had a long-lasting impact and isn’t something people are particularly excited to talk about. There are, of course, cases in which the family tree is perfectly supportive of their Deaf/HoH branches, but those harmful beliefs still linger in the leaves of our nation’s past.

Upsetting and Offensive Documentation

These widespread and harmful ideas about Deafness and disability are memorialized in historical documentation regarding the Deaf members of society. In my research, I found a number of censuses regarding Deafness, muteness, and other disability available to the public online. These documents are full of ableist and upsetting language which can be significantly triggering or traumatizing for members of the Deaf/HoH community.

To see thousands of people casually referred to with language that we know is wrong is absolutely heartbreaking. This casual disrespect is particularly true for the records of Deaf/HoH people of color, whose histories are almost entirely wiped out and grossly misrepresented. When we, as genealogists, dig into our families’ pasts, we can expect to find some uncomfortable truths, but many of us are privileged enough not to expect to be overwhelmed with uncomfortable lies and misinterpretations of our own histories.

Inaccessibility in Research Communities

Perhaps it is the very fact so much of Deaf history has been written by the hearing that has fostered the growth of an active community of Deaf/HoH genealogists. Unfortunately, it seems that the larger community of genealogy enthusiasts and researchers still have some catching up to do when it comes to being inclusive of and accessible to their Deaf/HoH members.

James Tanner, regular contributor to the blog Genealogy’s Star discusses the challenges he’s observed and experienced as a HoH person attending family history expos and lectures. He describes the lack of interpreters and asks his audience if anyone else has felt that their Deafness or other disability has been a roadblock to their genealogical research. Of course, it’s not really the disability or Deafness that is the roadblock, but the public’s lack of knowledge and failure to provide resources like interpreters or transcripts. As a person living with disabilities, I know how exhausting it can be to have to constantly advocate for yourself.

If you’re a hearing person you have a wonderful opportunity to step up and advocate for the Deaf/HoH people in your community and demand accessibility. Request interpreters, captioning devices, transcripts, or assistive listening devices. This is one challenge to a Deaf/HoH person’s research that we can certainly eliminate.

Recent Triumphs in Deaf Genealogy

Deaf Pride Wiping Out Shame

For every challenge facing the Deaf/HoH genealogist, there is an equally powerful triumph. In the past, society threw a shroud of shame over deafness. Today, we throw off that shroud; we spell Deaf with a capital D. There are rich, beautiful communities of Deaf/HoH folks who are proud of their identities. There is an active online community of Deaf/HoH people who are taking their history back, working together to create a more reliable, respectful, and real history for the next generation.

If you’re Deaf/HoH, passionate about genealogy, and want to be a part of this community online, you can check out @AmericanDeafHistory on Facebook or join the Deaf Ancestry group.

Documentation Galore

I want to revisit the topic of documentation of deafness and disability again briefly. There are a lot of things wrong with the way the documentation I mentioned earlier is written. Written by hearing people, it's separated from the group about which it documents, it's stigmatizing and alienating, and it's inconsistent in the way it categorizes people and in how much information is available person to person.

All of that being said, the censuses on the Deaf and those with disabilities and the academic documentation from the schools for Deaf children, in some cases, predate the standardization of civil records in the United States. Some schools were quite thorough in record keeping and didn’t just keep the student’s information, but the entire family, sometimes even keeping record of the student’s life after they left the institution! Because of this, having a Deaf family member in your family tree just might make your research easier!

Aesthetically Pleasing Accessibility

As I mentioned before, making things accessible to all people is essential, but it is the bare minimum. Inaccessibility alienates and excludes, where accessibility allows, yet does not always invite and encourage. As such, there is something infinitely more exciting about a space, event, or method that says “This is for you,” than one which says “This isn’t for you, but we can bend it a little.”

That's why spaces like the Facebook group “Deaf Ancestry,” are so important and so exciting! It's also why it’s important for Deaf/HoH people alike to have the opportunity to share their hard-earned genealogical finds, their fun family stories, and their long-since-forgotten recipes in a way that is equally accessible and aesthetically delightful.

StoryCombs lives in that overlap, allowing its users to pair photos and documents with a video to create what’s called a “narrated photo.” If you’ve ever communicated using ASL then you know how vivid and full of passion the language is. A photo and a caption explaining what the photo portrays conveys information. However, a photo accompanied by a video of the user giving context in ASL tells the whole story.

Wrapping Up and Resources

I did a lot of research for this project and I know that I didn’t cover even half of the tip of the iceberg of this capacious topic. If you’d like to learn more about the Deaf/HoH community and its relationship with identity, history and genealogy or if you’d just like a starting point for your own research into your Deaf/HoH family tree, please check out the resources below.

Gallaudet Archives

The History of Sign Language

Alexander Graham Bell – Friend or Foe?

Silencing the Deaf