It can take hardship to notice inequalities in the world. Many deaf and hard-of-hearing people are acutely aware of this; experiencing discrimination and access challenges make this clear to them. Caring about their rights, and the rights of others who face similar challenges have motivated many deaf & hard of hearing people to fight for change and spread awareness.
Throughout history, people have done this in many different ways. Some explore activism or politics, others invent new ways of communicating. The people on this list were able to express themselves through literature and writing to spread awareness about the deaf experience. Explore these authors that you might not have known were deaf & hard of hearing.
1. Donald Harington
Born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, Donald Harington (1935-2009) lost nearly all of his hearing at age 12 due to meningitis. Despite difficulties with speech and communication, Harington wouldn’t let this setback prevent him from picking up and remembering his extensive vocabulary and perfecting a personal mode of expression; writing. Nor did he allow it to stop him from conducting his teaching career as an adult.
Though he planned to be a novelist from a very early age, his course of study and his teaching career was in art and art history. He taught art history in Millbrook, New York, Putney, Vermont, and South Dakota before returning to the University of Arkansas, his alma mater. He taught there for just over 22 years before retiring.
Harington was named “America’s greatest unknown author” by Entertainment Weekly. He was the recipient of several awards, including the Oxford American Lifetime Award for Contributions to Southern Literature, The Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction, the Arkansas Writers Hall of Fame, and the Porter Prize for Literary Excellence.
All but the first of his novels either take place in or have an important connection to “Stay More,” a fictional town in the Ozark Mountains, somewhat on Drakes Creek, Arkansas, where he spent most of his childhood summers.
A 2013 biopic of Harington titled Stay More: The World of Donald Harington was created by filmmaker Brian Walter based upon interviews with Harington and his wife during 2006–2007, which was released in 2013 and is distributed by the University of Arkansas Press. Some of his best work is:
2. Marlee Matlin
Marlee Matlin (1986-present) is an American actress, author, and activist. Matlin lost all hearing in her right ear and 80% of the hearing in her left ear at the age of 18 months due to illness and fevers. In her autobiography I’ll Scream Later, she suggests that her hearing loss may have been due to a genetically malformed cochlea. While she is the only deaf member of her family, she has never taken herself or her deafness as a barrier for her to overcome.
Matlin made her acting debut playing Sarah Norman in the romantic drama film Children of a Lesser God in 1986. Matlin starred in the police drama series Reasonable Doubts and has made guest appearances on shows like Seinfeld and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. She also played a prominent supporting role in the award-winning film CODA in 2021.
Matlin has always been a strong advocate for the rights of deaf people, accepting television roles only if producers commit to captioning the films, remaining open-minded and respectful of both signed and spoken communication preferences, and promoting telephone equipment specifically designed for deaf persons.
Throughout her career, Matlin has received numerous accolades including an Academy Award, Matlin being the first deaf person to ever receive the award as well as the youngest winner in the Best Actress category. She has also won a Golden Globe Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award, in addition to nominations for a BAFTA Award, and four Primetime Emmy Awards.
Matlin is a prominent member of the National Association of the Deaf and in 2009, she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Matlin has also written other books and memoirs, including:
3. David Wright
David Wright (1920-1994) was an author and an acclaimed South African-born poet. He was born in Johannesburg of normal hearing, but contracted scarlet fever at age 7, leaving him completely deaf. When his family immigrated to England he was enrolled in the Northampton School for the Deaf. His deafness, however, didn’t limit his academic ambitions. He ended up graduating from Oxford in 1942. His first work, a poem entitled Eton Hall, was published a year later in the Oxford Poetry journal.
He became a freelance writer in 1947 after working for the Sunday Times newspaper for five years. He edited the Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse and edited the literary magazine Nimbus from 1955 to 1956. During this time he published 19 poems, written by Patrick Kavanagh, an Irish poet whose career was greatly boosted by Wright. He co-founded the quarterly literary review X magazine which he co-edited from 1959 to 1962.
His work includes three books about Portugal written with Patrick Swift, his co-founder and co-editor of X. He also translated The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf into modern English. He held strong views about translating Beowulf, choosing to represent it in prose rather than modern verse under the banner “better no colours than faked ones”, and criticizing the versions of other poets.
He wrote the biography of fellow South African poet Roy Campbell in 1961 and penned his own in 1969. Wright also edited several publications throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He held the Gregory Fellowship in Poetry at the University of Leads for 2 years.
Wright was not reticent about his deafness, and his autobiography, Deafness: A Personal Account is often used to give hearing people an insight into an experience they might not easily imagine.
Some of his poetry collections include:
4. Cece Bell
Cece Bell (1970-present) is an American children’s book author and illustrator. She lost most of her hearing at age 4 after contracting meningitis. Her parents didn’t realize she couldn’t hear until several days after she returned home from the hospital.
El Deafo is based on Bell’s own childhood growing up deaf. She wanted there to be a handbook for hearing people so they knew how to understand and communicate with deaf people without being disrespectful. It eventually evolved into a graphic novel where children who were deaf could see themselves positively represented in a book.
Bell uses the imagery of everyone illustrated as rabbits as a visual metaphor. When she was growing up, she felt like the only rabbit whose ears didn’t work, and in doing so she shows being deaf as a power. She also shows and talks about how being deaf isn’t something negative. The title comes from the idea that she feels powerful like a superhero with the assistance of her Phonic Ear, the hearing aid she uses to hear her teachers at school. For this book, she won the Newbery Medal Honor and Eisner Award.
El Deafo has recently been turned into a kid’s cartoon show on Apple TV+. She signed on to do this show because it felt like an opportunity to present, on the powerful medium of streaming, a deaf person who uses a hearing aid to help them hear just like her.
When she was a kid watching TV and movies as a kid, and sometimes even as an adult, the few deaf people portrayed, the ones wearing hearing aids, at least, were often objects of ridicule, the butt of the joke. Sometimes, even the hearing aid itself got mocked. Bell sees this show as her chance to share a deaf character who is also a real person, with all of the same ups and downs, hopes, and dreams as everyone else.
Her other children’s books include:
5. Sara Nović
Sara Nović (1987-present) is an American writer, translator, and creative writing professor. She is also a deaf rights activist who has written about the challenges she has faced as a deaf novelist. She was born hearing but started losing her hearing in middle school. At the time, she didn’t know any other deaf people and even tried to hide her hearing loss from her friends. When she met other deaf people and learned ASL as an older teen, she experienced a feeling of great joy and homecoming, as well as a huge relief in terms of the amount of sheer effort and exhaustion that comes from communicating in spoken English.
Nović is a graduate of the MFA program at Columbia University, where she studied fiction and literary translation. She became a fiction editor at Blunderbuss Magazine and serves as the founding editor of the deaf rights blog Redeafined. Nović now also works as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Stockton University.
Nović is most notable for her debut novel, Girl at War, which tells the story of Ana Jurić, a ten-year-old girl whose life is upended by the civil war that resulted in the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The novel was an Alex Awards recipient in 2016. In 2014, Nović was awarded an ALTA Travel Fellowship by the American Literary Translators Association. In addition to publishing her own literary works, Nović has translated poems written by Izet Sarajlić, a renowned Bosnian writer. She was awarded the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize in 2013 for her translation of Sarajlić’s poem “After I Was Wounded.”
Nović’s second book True Biz was released in 2022. This revelatory novel plunges readers into the halls of River Valley School for the Deaf, where they’ll meet Charlie, a rebellious transfer student who’s never met another deaf person before; Austin, the school’s golden boy, whose world is rocked when his baby sister is born hearing; and February, the headmistress, who is fighting to keep her school open and her marriage intact, but might not be able to do both. As a series of crises, both personal and political issues threaten to unravel each of them, Charlie, Austin, and February find their lives inextricable from one another and changed forever.
The book was chosen as a pick for Reese Witherspoon’s book club and was reviewed as moving, fast-paced and spirited, exploring both the inner monologues of the main characters as well as serving as an educational read about the deaf experience.
For book recommendations inspired by Deaf History Month, click here.