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March 13th - April 15th

This century Ithaca, and Tompkins County more broadly does not boast as many resources and inclusive spaces to support the Deaf and hearing-impaired community as our neighboring cities of Syracuse and Rochester. In the early part of the twentieth century however, Ithaca was on the forefront of combatting hearing loss in children, offering monthly programs for the Deaf community, and through work at Cornell University developing technology to assist the hearing impaired. 

In 1896, Matilda Arnold married Calvin H. Brown in an all-sign language wedding ceremony in Newfield NY, an absolute rare occurrence for the time period. Some thirty years later, Dr. Frederick Bedell of Cornell University invented a bone conduction hearing device, allowing deaf and hard of hearing individuals to experience sound through vibrations of the teeth and skull. In 1934 Tompkins County was the first county in the United States to fully test school children in rural America for hearing loss. Also in the 1930's the 'Ithaca League for the Hard of Hearing' supported weekly lip-reading classes, fundraisers, and community events across Tompkins County. These stories, and others yet to be uncovered share the history and impacts of Deaf community members throughout Tompkins County. 

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) first introduced National Deaf History Month in 1997. Beginning in 2006 the American Library Association partnered with NAD in supporting and spreading awareness of this celebration. Deaf History Month is celebrated at this time of year because of three main events in the history of deaf education:

  • On March 13, 1988, Gallaudet University hired its first deaf president.
  • On April 8, 1864, Gallaudet University (the first institution of higher education for the deaf and hard of hearing) was officially founded.
  • On April 15, 1817, America’s first public school for the deaf was opened.

    Clip from The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, NY) · 18 Sep 1934, Tue · Pg 3

    Clip from The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca NY) 24 April 1931 Pg 5

    Research for this web page was compiled by History Center intern Leanza Kopa during the fall of 2021 as part of their Masters studies program. We are eager to add to our archival collections on Deaf and hard of hearing history in Tompkins County.

    Please reach out to to contribute materials, stories and research to these collections. 

    The History Center in Tompkins County has been pursuing active efforts to make our exhibits and learning materials more accessible for the Deaf and hearing-impaired community. Written transcripts for most of our Oral History interviews are now available in the Archives (with many more in progress), and closed-captions have been completed for more than 90% of our YouTube videos and local history lectures and presentations. Please contact with requests about making specific presentations and exhibits accessible and we will prioritize processing those.


    Clip from The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, NY) · 1 August 1931

    Matilda "Tilly" Arnold Brown lived in Newfield NY from 1853-1940. Tilly was born Deaf and completed her education at the Central New York Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Rome New York. She and her sister Katie (also born deaf) supported themselves as dressmakers. Tilly married Calvin Brown in 1896, Calvin was also deaf and the newspapers noted their marriage ceremony was conducted entirely in sign language. Story from 'Women as Bright As Stars' researched and published by former Newfield Historian Rosemary Rowland.

    Ithaca League for the Hard of Hearing 
    The Ithaca League for the Hard of Hearing was founded on April 27th 1931 by members of a local lip-reading class for the hearing impaired. The object of the League was to organize a committee that would take keen interests in the needs for those that experienced deafness or hearing loss. The club provided classes to practice lip reading, educated members on the latest hearing devices, and worked to improve the economic status of those who were deaf or hard of hearing in the community. They organized dinners, parties, book clubs, knitting clubs, and all kinds of activities for those in the Ithaca Deaf Community to get together weekly. The League was featured prominently in the Ithaca Journal from 1931 to the late 1930s. Unfortunately the league altogether vanished by 1939, leaving questions as to why members stopped advertising meetings.

    Hearing Tests for all Rural Tompkins County School Children - 1934 Tompkins County is the first county in the United States to complete a thorough Hearing-Test of its rural pupils. This feat was accomplished in the early summer of 1935. The Tompkins County Development Association tested 3,266 children throughout the county. Testing which began in the winter of 1934 was the result of the TCDA visiting each school district in the county, and testing the students’ hearing with an audiometer. An audiometer is a device that plays numerous sounds, or words at various volumes. The goal of the patient being tested is to acknowledge they have heard the sound or word. This can be done by repeating the word back to the audiologist, pressing a button when the sound occurs. Or in the case of the students in 1935 writing down the numbers as they heard them. If a student did not score a 100 percent on the test, they were individually re-tested. Out of the 260 students re-tested, 124 were found to have significant hearing-loss. Treatments included removal of tonsils, removal of adenoids, and/or ear wax removal. Another less invasive treatment placed these students in special lip-reading classes. 

      American Sign Language Chat Ithaca (ASLCI)

      ASLCI was founded in 2015 by Aurora Golden Appleton, a local middle-schooler. From 2015-2019 the group met weekly at Barnes & Noble on Route 13 to practice sign language. Signers of all skill levels were welcome, and in a few short years the group amassed over 50 members. 

      The group has been hosting weekly meetings since 2015.

      - IthacaWeek Article 2016


      Dr. Bedell’s Mechanical Ear: The Deaf-Speaker 

      On April 26th, 1932, Dr. Frederick Bedell debuted his Mechanical Ear device in front of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. The “Deaf-Speaker” which was developed in the Rockefeller Hall Physical Sciences Laboratory at Cornell University would allow for those with hearing loss to experience sound once again. By picking up sound waves through a microphone, the device sends the vibration codes through an electrical tube, which then ends at the wooden device held between a person’s teeth or a device that would attach to a person’s cheek or forehead. By doing this the device bypassed the traditional ear drum, using the vibrations to send messages to the brain and nerves, allowing the individual to experience the vibrations of sound.

      Frederick Bedell Papers, 1891-1984. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

      Dr. Bedell gave multiple lectures in the Ithaca community during the 1930's presenting his research and inventions. Many of these lectures were organized in coordination with the Ithaca League for the Hard of Hearing.

      Ithaca Journal, November 7th 1936

      Dr. Frederick Bedell developed the“Deaf-Speaker” in the Rockefeller Hall Physical Sciences Laboratory at Cornell University allowed those with hearing loss to experience sound once again.


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