It is said that it is important for children to see and read about positive representations of themselves in popular culture. As books, films and television begin to feature more and more diversity, there is one minority group that seems slower to find itself in the spotlight – Deaf and hard of hearing characters. Thanks to shows like Switched at Birth and movies like Children of a Lesser God and The Family Stone, Deaf children have started to see a representation of themselves on the large and small screens. However, representations of Deaf and hard of hearing characters in children’s and adolescent literature can be more challenging.
If someone who is unacquainted with Deaf culture and deafness was asked to find a book about a deaf person for a child to read, chances are they will immediately think to look for a book on Helen Keller. And it is not surprising — an amazon.com search for “Deaf, biography” in the children’s literature section yields 24 results, 19 of which are about Helen Keller.
My first year teaching high school in a Deaf/Hard of Hearing school, I mentioned Helen Keller to my students as someone they might research a biography about for English class. I was met with a collective eye roll. Growing up as Deaf children among teachers, friends and families for whom deafness and Deaf culture was unfamiliar, my students had been about Helen Keller’d to death.
But there are plenty of Deaf people for children to read about — William “Dummy” Hoy, the baseball player, is referenced in the young adult book about baseball and deafness, Sounds of Silence by Philip Tomosso. Marlee Matlin, actress from Children of a Lesser God, has written Leading Ladies, young adult fiction starring a Deaf character. There is even a predecessor to Helen Keller, a deaf/blind woman from 50 years prior named Laura Bridgman that children can read about in She Touched the World by Sally Hobart Alexander.
They may be harder to find, but books with Deaf and hard of hearing characters are out there — Teachers and other adults working with Deaf students should move beyond Helen Keller when considering books with Deaf or hard of hearing characters.