Deaf in Media: A Legacy of Impact

The University of Cincinnati Libraries and the College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services (CECH) American Sign Language (ASL) Department are partnering in cross-campus exhibits in honor of National Deaf History Month.

On display on the 4th and 5th floor lobbies of the Walter C. Langsam Library, Deaf in Media: A Legacy of Impact chronicles the representation and achievements of people who are Deaf in film, television, social media and theater. The timeline begins in the late 1800s when Deaf theater begins at Gallaudet University and includes key moments in media such as in 1986 when Marlee Matlin was the first, and only, Deaf actress to win an Academy Award; the formation of the first all-male Deaf Dance company, Wild Zappers, in 1989; the creation of the Deaf-owned and operated production company ASL Films in 2005, and Nyle DiMarco, who in 2016, became the first dancer who is Deaf to win Dancing with the Stars. The timeline goes up to 2023 when ASL performer Justina Miles performed for 60,000 spectators at the Super Bowl halftime show with headliner Rihanna. A full timeline, with links to viewable media, is listed below.

The exhibit includes books from the collections of UC Libraries about Deaf representation in media and culture.

Also at the exhibit is a bibliography and QR codes for those who want to know more about Deaf Studies at UC.

cech library exhibit

On display in the CECH Library, the student-curated Deaf Community Pride exhibit highlights Deaf characters and stories in children’s literature. Students in the ASL 2003 course first created a framework for selecting children’s books with Deaf representation. Following this, students of the ASL Club worked with CECH Library staff to select books for the display.

The Deaf in Media: A Legacy of Impact, Deaf Community Pride, and Deaf Poetry exhibits were curated by Katie Foran-Mulcahy, Juanita Hall, Rachel Hoople, Elizabeth Jean-Baptiste, Alice Somers, and Melissa Cox Norris. The Langsam exhibit was designed by UC Libraries design co-op student Francesca Voyten.

This project is a collaboration of the CECH American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf Studies Departments, the ASL Club, and UC Libraries/CECH Library. Funding provided by a 2024 CECH Diversity Grant. Explore the Deaf Studies certificate program to learn more about American Sign Language and Deaf culture at the University of Cincinnati.

Deaf in Media Timeline

Silent film era 


  • In 1913, then president George W. Veditz of the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) utilized the new medium of film to convey an important message: “I hope you all will love and protect our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift god gave to deaf people.”  
  • Entitled Preservation of the Sign Language, Veditz’s 15-minute film, spoken entirely in sign, is considered groundbreaking to this day for its use of technology to defend and celebrate Deaf language and culture. Under Veditz’s leadership NAD created a series of 18 films in sign language, Preservation among them, though not all survive today (McIntosh, 2016; Padden & Humphries, 2005). 
  • At the time of the film’s creation, sign was very much under threat and in danger of becoming a dead language due to the pervasiveness of oralism, a school of thought promoting spoken language and lip reading as superior to sign language. The Second International Conference on the Education of the Deaf in Milan (1880) called for removing sign entirely from educational programs for Deaf people, declaring “the incontestable superiority of speech over signs” (5) and characterizing signs as detrimental to the “precision of ideas” (Gallaudet, 1881, p. 5-6). 
  • Preservation ends on a hopeful tone, with Veditz saying “as long as we have Deaf people on earth, we will have signs” (Padden & Humphries, 2005). 


  • After training at the California School of Design and Academie Julian in Paris, Deaf artist Granville Redmond traveled back to the west coast to audition for roles in the silent film industry. Granville befriended Charlie Chaplin, who cast him in seven films over the next decade and a half, including A Dog’s Life (1918), Sunnyside (1919), A Day’s Pleasure (1919), The Kid (1921), The Idle Class (1921), A Woman of Paris (1923), and City Lights (1931).  
  • In addition to his trailblazing work as a Deaf actor in old Hollywood, Granville also remains well-known for his art, depicting natural California landscapes in an impressionistic style.  

Contemporary Film era 


  • … and Your Name is Jonah is a film about a boy who was misdiagnosed with an intellectual disability and institutionalized. His parents later learn he is Deaf, not disabled. 


  • Love is Never Silent premiered on NBC on December 9, 1985. It is now considered a classic film in Deaf/ASL literature. 


  • Deaf actor Marlee Matlin won the Best Actress Academy Award for Children of a Lesser God. She was the first Deaf performer to win an Academy Award, and the only Deaf performer to win until 2022 when Troy Kotsur won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film CODA
  • In addition to continued work in film, television and on stage, Marlin remains a committed and vocal activist for the Deaf community and well-known for her use of social media. (Ellcessor, 2018). 


  • Sound and Fury brings the cochlear implant controversy to the screen in a raw documentary that follows brothers, one Deaf and one hearing, and their respective families’ experiences with cochlear implants. 


  • First Deaf film festival was held in 2002.  Festival for Cinema of the Deaf ushered in the development of other Deaf film festivals across the country (Durr, 2016). 



  • PBS releases Through Deaf Eyes, a documentary that tells the stories of Deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States spanning more than two hundred years. 


  • Marlee Matlin and Noah Valencia, both Deaf, star with Jeff Daniels in Sweet Nothing in My Ear, a tale that encompasses both sides of the cochlear implant controversy that is told through child custody hearings interspersed with stories. The film was made for TV and released on CBS as a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation.


  • Four Deaf entertainers and their often-difficult journeys bring a light to the inequalities Deaf people experience in the entertainment business in See What I’m Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary


  • Switched at Birth was a well-received drama television series about two girls, one Deaf and one hearing, that were mistakenly switched at birth. The series won awards and was the first television series to have Deaf and hard-of-hearing regulars in the show and scenes shot completely in ASL. One of the episodes, Season 2 Episode 9 (aired March 4, 2013) was dubbed as the silent episode, because there was no sound, other than music, used during the episode. It was done entirely in American Sign Language. 


  • No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie is critically acclaimed for its story about a superhero portrayed in a television series by a Deaf actor. When the actor (played by John Maucere) meets Jacob, a Deaf boy who is experiencing bullying, he becomes determined to help and ends up helping both the boy and himself. The film is applauded for providing a realistic portrayal of the Deaf experience. 


  • Deaf U, a Netflix reality series, follows a group of Deaf students who attend Gallaudet University. Nyle DiMarco, an executive producer of the series, aimed to shed light on the lived experiences of Deaf and hard of hearing people. 


  • Lauren Ridloff, a Deaf actor, portrayed Makkari in The Eternals. Her portrayal of the character represented first deaf superhero in a Marvel film. The role marked Ridloff’s feature film debut; she was previously best known for portraying Connie in The Walking Dead (2018-2022). 
  • Of what the audience might take away from her performance as Makkari, Ridloff said “I’m not the only one. And that’s what it means to have a deaf superhero: A lot more people will see a lot more possibility” (Bahr, 2021). 
  • Though deaf characters may be new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they are not new to the Marvel Metaverse. Other deaf Marvel characters include Maya Lopez (Echo), Clinton Barton (Hawkeye), Benjamin Parker (Kid Carnage), Hailey Parker, and Gustav Krueger (Rattler). (Marvel Comics Database). 


Late 1800s 

  • Deaf theatre begins at Gallaudet University. 


  • Idea for National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) began in 1950s from a Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, but became fully realized in 1967 when the theatre obtained funding from the U.S. Department of Education. Many people came together to make NTD possible, including Broadway set designer David Hays, psychologist Edna Levine, and Deaf actor Bernard Bragg.  
  • The decision to use American Sign Language over pantomime is one of the many ways NTD broke ground for Deaf theater in the United States (Padden & Humphries, 2005). 
  • The NTD has performed in all 50 states, all seven continents, and completed 50 touring seasons. NTD was also awarded a Tony Award for Theatrical Excellence. 
  • Watch performances of Curtain Raiser and Promenade by the National Theatre of the Deaf via Films on Demand.



  • Bruce Hlibok became the first deaf actor to play a deaf character on Broadway in Runaways when he was 17 years old and still in high school. Hlibok was also the “first to use sign language in the rhythm of music on stage” (Bruce Hlibok, Handstone Productions, 2021.)  Hlibok went on to graduate from New York University. He was also an accomplished poet, playwright, director, and Queer activist. 


  • Wild Zappers, the first all-male Deaf dance company founded by Irvine Stewart with Fred Michael Beam and Warren “Wawa” Snipe.  
  • They have toured internationally for both Deaf and hearing audiences and incorporate dancing, gestures, storytelling, and sign-singing into their performances (Rholetter, 2016; Brooks, 2008). 


  • Founded in Los Angeles by Ed Waterstreet, Deaf West Theatre holds the record for most awards of any Deaf theatre in the United States, including The International Fete d’Excellence Gold Medal for Cultural Education in Theatre and Highest Recognition Award by The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Wada, 2003). 


  • After a successful run in its home state of California, Deaf West Theatre took its revival of 2005’s Spring Awakening to Broadway. The production was lauded as a remarkable achievement lauded by critics. Deaf reviewer Rachel Kolb wrote in her review published in The Atlantic: “As a deaf individual, I have rarely encountered performance spaces that are neither deaf nor hearing but open to both… Spring Awakening creates a space for deaf and hearing individuals to enter a relationship that feels two-sided” (Kolb, 2015). 




  • Granville Redmond starred in many of Charlie Chaplin’s silent films and was a good friend of Chapman. Redmond helped Chaplin develop his unique style of visual storytelling.  


  • Deaf characters appeared on television, but were played by hearing actors. (Durr, 2016). 


  • Deaf actor Audree Norton became the first Deaf adult to be cast in a network television series. In Mannix, a police procedural, Norton played a Deaf character whose lip-reading ability helped prevent a criminal plot. Norton was also a founding member of the National Theatre for the Deaf and is widely credited for paving the way for the generations of Deaf actors who succeeded her. 


Sesame Street 

  • In 1971, children’s TV juggernaut Sesame Street introduced “Linda,” a librarian character played by Linda Bove, a Deaf actor from National Theatre of the Deaf. Due the overwhelming positive audience response, she was invited to become a regular cast member and continued in the role until 2002 (Kingsley, 1996; Internet Move Database, n.d.)  Bove is widely credited as having the longest-recurring character on the show (Durr, 2016). 
  • In a 1991 interview, Bove spoke in an interview about how she advocated for her character in the writers room: “When I joined the cast, I found the writers would write about “How does a deaf person do this?” “How does a deaf person do that?” And it just related to deafness and it didn’t feel like they were treating me as a person… I have a sense of humor; why don’t you show that? I can be angry over something. Show that I can have a relationship with another person. Maybe a love relationship” (Harrington & Bove, 1991, p. 16-17). 


  • On the 1977 season premiere, children’s television pioneer Sesame Street introduced a video segment called “The Singing Alphabet,” a collaboration between experimental musician Joan La Barbara and animator Steve Finkin. The animated short uses colorful animations and avant garde music to portray 26 signs in The American Manual Alphabet (AMA). 


  • News magazine television program Deaf Mosaic appeared on PBS and the Discovery Channel and was hosted by deaf actors Gil Eastman and Mary Lou Novitsky. In 1988, “Deaf President Now” (episode 402) presented interviews and other footage documenting the events preceding the appointment of the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, Dr. I. King Jordan. (McIntosh, 2016). 
  • Deaf Mosaic was awarded three Emmy awards and ran through 1995. 


  • Marlee Matlin plays a Deaf attorney in Reasonable Doubts, which ran for only two seasons. 


  • Christy Smith is the first Deaf contestant on Survivor


  • Marlee Matlin was the first Deaf competitor on Dancing with the Stars. 


  • Kurt Ramborger is the first Deaf competitor on Chopped


  • Nyle DiMarco is the first Deaf competitor and winner on America’s Next Top Model. 


  • Nyle DiMarco is the first Deaf winner of Dancing with the Stars. 


  • Artist Christine Sun Kim performed ASL renditions of “America the Beautiful” and the national anthem at Super Bowl LIV. While the ASL performance was presented alongside the singing version within the stadium, the television broadcast only showed a “few seconds” of the performance.  
  • Kim would later pen an Op-Ed in The New York Times, calling the performance a “disappointment,” going on to say “Our rights can easily disappear if we do not continue to show up in places like the Super Bowl.” 


  • The Last of Us actor Keivonn Woodward is the first Black Deaf actor nominated for an Emmy for outstanding guest actor. He’s also the youngest person ever nominated for this category.  


Tasha Stones joined the cast of The Great British Bake Off Season 14, making her the show’s first Deaf contestant. Tasha was joined by her British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter, Daryl. Tasha made it to the 9th round, making her 4th runner up. Her Instagram bio reads “part time baker who happens to be deaf”. 


  • ASL performer Justina Miles performed for 60,000 spectators at the Super Bowl LVII halftime show with the show’s headliner, Rihanna. She was booked for the Super Bowl after going viral on TikTok for performing hip hop songs from Nicki Minaj and Lil Nas X. 
  • Miles was the first female Deaf performer in a Super Bowl halftime show. She was also the first Deaf person to perform the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” at a Super Bowl. 

Social media 


  • Joel Barish founded No Barriers, a Sign Language travelogue. Deaf host Barish has visited more than 100 countries to date to have conversations, try new foods, and have adventures. Barish is also host of Coffee With Joel, a web show in which he has conversations with Deaf people all over the world. 
  • Additionally, Barrish founded DeafNation Expo in 2003, a free-admission conference and trade show that has attracted more than one million attendees in its 20-year history. 


  • Savannah “Savvy” Dahan became the first Deaf Kidz Bop Kid. Kidz Bop is a children’s music group known for creating family-friend popular music covers for children.