A Short Account of the Origins of Deaf History International

by Clifton F. Carbin — A reprint from The DHI Newsletter No. 39 (Summer 2009): 4-5.

"Deaf History is a fascinating subject and interest has grown tremendously…"

Peter W. Jackson, Deaf author and editor of several publications pertaining to British Deaf History.

DEAF HISTORY INTERNATIONAL (DHI) owes its establishment to a group of interested people at the First International Conference on Deaf History, which was held at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. USA (June 20–23, 1991). This conference evolved from a suggestion made by Harlan Lane, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston. In the summer of 1989 at a meeting of professional and amateur historians engaged in the study of Deaf History during The Deaf Way Conference, he urged those attending to consider holding their own international meetings from time to time.

As an upshot, the Department of History at Gallaudet University expressed an interest and took the initiative to establish a planning committee for the First International Conference on Deaf History. Its two professors, John V. Van Cleve (also department head) and John S. Schuchman, stepped up to the plate in a huge way to plan and coordinate such an event. In attendance with them at the first formal meeting on September 6, 1990 were other invited organizers from Gallaudet, including Yerker Andersson (professor of Sociology and president of the World Federation of the Deaf), Clifton F. Carbin (holder of the 1990–1991 Powrie V. Doctor Chair of Deaf Studies), Jack R. Gannon (special assistant to the President for Advocacy), Joseph Kinner (associate professor of History) and Ausma Smits (assistant professor of History). Also, present were Harlan Lane (professor of Psychology and Linguistics, Northeastern University) and Cheri Sussman (Gallaudet interpreter).

A number of conference participants at the First International Conference on Deaf History met and decided that a formal organization with an election of international officers was needed to form an entity to "encourage the study, preservation and dissemination of Deaf people’s history" and to hold subsequent conferences. This vision was accepted with much enthusiasm. As a result, an elected committee was set up to lay the groundwork. Members of this group were Christian Barral (France) and Jack R. Gannon (USA) as co-chairs, Mary Malzkhun (USA) as secretary, Günther List (Germany) as treasurer, Igor A. Abramov (Russia), Serge Briere (Canada), John Hay (Great Britain), Harlan Lane (USA), Hans Roehl (Germany), and Ausma Smits (USA).

The credit for the actual establishment of DEAF HISTORY INTERNATIONAL goes to Ausma Smits (USA), who untiringly did the "plowing and planting" to make it all happen. She called the meeting of historians at The Deaf Way Conference, drafted the Bylaws, set up groundwork committee meetings, and invited some key individuals for consultation and feedback.

DEAF HISTORY INTERNATIONAL was the committee’s choice of a modern name for the newly formed organization, rather than using the common ending "… for/of the Deaf." Its Bylaws were proposed, reviewed, revised and tentatively approved by the committee members who convened while attending the First European Deaf History Conference in Rodez, France (July 6–12, 1992). The DHI Newsletter was first published in 1993 with the Spring/Summer issue and Ausma Smits (USA) was the editor. At that time, its masthead and logo were designed by DawnSign Press, an American company that was owned by a Deaf entrepreneur, Joe Dannis.

The first DHI business meeting was held during the Second Deaf History International Conference in Hamburg, Germany (October 1–4, 1994). It was chaired by Renate Fischer (Germany), who also arranged the use of international visual language interpreters — something for one and all to see and experience. The attendees formally voted to endorse the proposed name of the organization, DEAF HISTORY INTERNATIONAL. They also approved the Bylaws with some modifications. The following individuals elected to the first official DHI Bureau were: John Hay (Great Britain) as president, Ulf Hedberg (USA) as vice-president, Ausma Smits (USA) as secretary, Christian Barral (France) as treasurer, Igor A. Abramov (Russia), Brian Bernal (Australia), Annemieke van Brandenburg (The Netherlands), Renate Fischer (Germany) and Jochen Muhs (Germany). At that time, everyone agreed that their preferred mode of communication would be faxing which is a contrast to today's daily use of high-speed e-mailing.

Since then, DEAF HISTORY INTERNATIONAL has had its Bureau meetings and conferences every three years in different parts of the world: Washington, D.C. USA (1991), Hamburg, Germany (1994), Trondheim, Norway (1997), Washington, D.C. USA (2000), Paris, France (2003), Berlin, Germany (2006), Stockholm, Sweden (2009) and the next one will be in Toronto, Canada (2012). The DHI Newsletter, which is still being published a few times a year, is now available electronically as a PDF download to paid members only.

Any person, academic institution, school, library or organization interested in the history of Deaf people may become a member of DEAF HISTORY INTERNATIONAL. Membership includes subscription to The DHI Newsletter and some available discounts to triennial DHI Conferences. A note of interest — the original (1994) membership fee (in US funds) for an individual was $20 and for an institution/organization was $50. These amounts are unbelievably the same in 2009! Donations welcome!

If you are not yet a member, why not join today?


"Birth of Deaf History International." The DHI Newsletter 1 (no. 1) (Spring/Summer 1993): 1.

"2nd International Conference on Deaf History." The DHI Newsletter 3 (no. 1) (Spring/Summer 1997): 1, 7.

E-mail communications (May/June 2009) with Yerker Andersson, Jack R. Gannon, Ulf Hedberg, Joseph Kinner, Harlan Lane, John S. Schuchman, Ausma Smits and John V. Van Cleve.

Minutes of the Meeting of Historians at The Deaf Way Conference, July 1, 1989. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Archives.

Minutes of the Meeting of the Planning Committee for the First International Conference on Deaf History, September 6, 1990. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Archives.

Van Cleve, John Vickrey (ed.). Deaf History Unveiled: Interpretations from the New Scholarship. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1993.