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Hear Life’s Story™

Opening Doors: A Career in Teaching and Writing to Inspire Young Deaf Students

By Dr. Harry Lang

I was a young pupil at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, near Pittsburgh, in 1963 when I began thinking about how much I wanted to go to college and study science. At that time, I could find nothing published on scientists who had overcome deafness. Local libraries had no books or articles. I had no models to emulate.

I nevertheless went on to earn a degree in physics and began teaching at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York in 1970. Soon after, Public Law 94-142 was passed and there was an explosion of interest in science education for children with disabilities. I was invited to participate in many projects sponsored by organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s there were national conferences and workshops that opened doors for students with disabilities and many identified the barriers that made it difficult for these children to pursue science. Parents and school counselors were especially doubtful about the potential of deaf and disabled young people to become scientists.

It was in 1984 that an experience turned me to writing to address this need. My teaching and writing soon became intimately related in my career as an educator. The AAAS had invited the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking to a reception. At the time I was serving as president of an organization for science educators of students with disabilities and was honored to be able to meet one-on-one with Dr. Hawking. A motor neuron disease prevented him from speaking, and a special graduate assistant would listen to his whispering and repeat what he said. The discussion we had was quite interesting. I would ask him a question or make a comment. He would respond, and his assistant would repeat what he said. My sign language interpreter would then translate into American Sign Language for me. This went on for a good half hour. There was one comment he made that struck me particularly. I had just explained something to him and he looked up from his wheelchair and said, “Dr. Lang, it must be difficult to be deaf.”

I was stunned that this man, nearly completely paralyzed and in a wheelchair for life, would perceive deafness as “difficult.” It began my thinking a lot more about attitudes toward deaf people and about deafness. I started my search all over again for stories about deaf scientists.  But by this time, I had two more degrees and a lot more experience with libraries. Over the next few years, one by one, I identified hundreds of deaf men and women in many fields of science, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Some were honored by having craters on the moon, Mars, and Venus named for them. Some had received Nobel Prizes. In 1994, I published my first book, titled Silence of the Spheres: The Deaf Experience in the History of Science. And in 1995, I coauthored with my wife. Dr. Bonnie Meath-Lang, Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. Finally, there were some references for parents and teachers to use to motivate young deaf men and women to consider science as a career.

I traveled to many schools to talk to children. I gave presentations to parents and teachers. And I continued to do historical and biographical research to uncover more facts and stories. At times, I focused on specific disciplines, in science, such as my detailed article with Dr. Jorge Santiago-Blay on “Contributions of Deaf People to Entomology: A Hidden Legacy.”  At other times, I wrote books about how deaf people collaborated with hearing people to develop technologies that greatly enhanced the lives of deaf people through improved access. One focused on access to the telephone through the visual “TTY” device designed by a deaf physicist (A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell, 2000). The second book, recently published, is titled Turn on the Words! Deaf Audiences, Captions, and the Long Struggle for Access.

Having these resources available has certainly helped educate not only young deaf students but they have enriched preparation of teachers. After years of teaching physics, I accepted a position as professor in NTID’s Master of Science in Secondary Education program. My graduate students, future teachers, were in many disciplines.

Again, I saw a problem with resources outside my special interest in science. For example, for social studies teachers, there was nearly a complete absence of readings on how Deaf people lived during the American Civil War. Did they participate in this critical event? After several years of research, I published a thick volume titled Fighting in the Shadows: Untold Stories of Deaf People in the American Civil War. Forty years of researching the “Deaf Experience” in history had taken me through personal diaries, family correspondence, and a variety of other sources. There were numerous surprises along the way. Who would have known, for example, that about the time John Wilkes Booth was planning to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, he was learning American Sign Language from a deaf woman poet, Laura Redden, who was teaching him to write love sonnets? Who would have known that while most schools for deaf children in the southern states were either closed, destroyed, or used as hospitals? Who knew that in n Raleigh, North Carolina, the children were supporting the Confederacy by manufacturing tens of thousands of bullets and printing Confederate currency. The stories were indeed revealing. Deaf people were very much a part of mainstream history,

Three other books I have published are biographies of distinguished deaf individuals who were highly respected for their accomplishments. Edmund Booth: Deaf Pioneer is about a Deaf newspaper editor in the 19th century. He taught school in Hartford, CT, then followed his wife-to-be Mary Ann Walworth west to Anamosa, Iowa, where in 1840 he built the area’s first frame house. Booth pulled up stakes nine years later to travel the Overland Trail on his way to join the California Gold Rush. After he returned to Iowa in 1854, he became the editor of the Anamosa Eureka, the local newspaper. Among his many battles were those for the rights of women and African Americans.

In a second biography, Teaching From the Heart and Soul: The Robert F Panara Story, I show how this man’s genius resides in the people he inspired with his vivacious teaching style. He believed ardently in involving students, that they should “be the book.” Former students tell story after story about his fabulous interpretations of drama and poetry,

The third biography is titled Moments of Truth: Robert R. Davila, The Story of a Deaf Leader. Withstanding childhood poverty in a migrant farming family and an illness in 1943 at age 11 that left him profoundly deaf, Davila persevered to become one of the first deaf persons in history to earn a doctorate. Davila worked unfailingly to achieve positions of stature as president of Gallaudet University, and the seeming culmination of his career as the highest appointed deaf official ever in the U.S. government at the Department of Education. Moments of Truth summarizes a series of defining experiences that enabled Davila to rise to the pinnacle of his profession as an educator. This book is an inspiring tale of self-discovery and resilience appealing to all who face overwhelming odds, especially deaf children who will hopefully be encouraged by his pioneering legacy.

Collectively, these biographies have revealed the qualities of deaf persons who have overcome the barriers of profound deafness to achieve great things. Uncovering these stories has helped me leave a paper trail that will hopefully enrich teaching over the years to come.

Dr. Harry Lang grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At 15 he contracted meningitis and as a result became profoundly deaf. He graduated from the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in 1965, and earned a Bachelor’s in Physics from Bethany College in West Virginia. He became a physics teacher at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where he worked for 20 years.  While working at RIT, he earned his Master’s in Electrical Engineering at RIT and his Doctorate on Education in Science Curriculum from the University of Rochester.

Dr. Lang has been married for 48 years to his wife, Bonny, who is hearing and fluent in American Sign Language. She was a professor and artistic director in the Performing Arts Program at NTID, where they met. They both retired in 2011.