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Hear Life’s Story™

Changing the World Forever

A few days ago, I had to replace a light bulb in my kitchen. As I was climbing up on my step stool and unscrewing the dead bulb, I got to thinking what life would be like without the electric light, and exactly how it came to be. I decided to do some research on the scientist who was responsible for creating this life-changing invention: Thomas Alva Edison.

To my surprise one of the most famous scientists in history was deaf. The man who invented the incandescent light bulb, the telegraph, the phonograph and the motion picture camera couldn’t hear at all out of one ear and could barely hear out of the other. But he didn’t let that stop him from pursuing his dreams. In fact, Edison believed his deafness was a benefit. All communications had to be written, so there were no misunderstandings, he said, and all conversations were short, giving him more time to work. While he was an engineering genius, he knew little about hearing loss. He blamed his deafness on being picked up by his ears!

After learning about Edison’s deafness, I decided to investigate other famous historical figures who suffered hearing loss. One that most people know is Ludwig Van Beethoven, one of the world’s greatest composers. Beethoven began losing his hearing at the age of 26. No one knows for sure what caused the loss, but there are theories that he had syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus. Some even think it may have come from his habit of plunging his head into cold water to keep himself awake. By the age of 52 he was profoundly deaf, however, this is when he produced some of his most important works. His Ninth Symphony, composed after he lost his hearing, is considered one of the greatest classical pieces of all time. Other well-known works include Fur Elise, the Fifth Symphony and Moonlight Sonata.

As his hearing got worse Beethoven struggled to communicate with people. His biggest challenge was conducting and performing in concerts, since he couldn’t hear when the music stopped, and the audience applauded.

Besides science and music, the field of education had its share of deaf pioneers as well. Helen Keller is perhaps the best known. She contracted an illness at 18 months called ‘Brain Fever’ that left her blind, deaf and mute. She developed a limited way of communicating and created a basic form of sign language. She began a relationship with Anne Sullivan, who became her guide and mentor, teaching her finger spelling and other ways of communicating.

Keller was the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She became a writer, communicating with millions of people across the globe and was the founding member of the first organization to support blind adults. She regularly visited and gave hope to war veterans and blind soldiers. Keller will be remembered for the endless work she did around the world for people with disabilities. She single-handedly changed the lives of many disabled people through her empathy and activism.

Helen Keller wasn’t alone in her pursuit of educating deaf people. Thomas Gallaudet, who was hearing, along with Laurent Clerc, who was deaf, founded Gallaudet University for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. It was the first such institution in the US.

At a young age, Gallaudet, a Yale graduate, became aware of the lack of educational opportunities for disadvantaged children. While a traveling salesman in Kentucky and Ohio, he taught poor rural children history, geography, and the Bible. Gallaudet's future changed when he met Alice Cogswell, a young deaf mute. He became determined to help her, heading to Europe to learn educational methods for teaching the deaf.

Dr. Mason Cogswell and others had offered Gallaudet the opportunity to open and become principal of the first deaf school in the United States. When he returned from Europe, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opened in Hartford.

Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, a European teacher he had recruited, began teaching students. The school's success brought the attention of President James Monroe, and subsequent government funding for large lands and a big facility for the growing institution. It is now located in Washington, DC.

Thomas Gallaudet's work was instrumental because it enabled society to understand that those who are deaf could be educated. His school was one of the country's early grass roots efforts that diversified education and brought it to the disadvantaged. Also, his work helped develop the American Sign Language, the most widely used form of communication for the deaf community in the world.

These are only four of the deaf people who were game changers because of their genius. As I write this, in a well-lit room, these four are seem to me to be perfect proof that deafness is no barrier to changing the world. These individuals nurtured their brains, which stoked curiosity and creativity. They were able to achieve greatness in their lives, despite their disabilities.

After writing their stories, I had to ask myself, “How can I change the world today?” I’m hoping my little blog will inspire others, with disabilities or not, to do exactly that.


Claudia Hensen's Blog Series