DeafBlind People in History

See also DeafBlind/Disability Community History, and Frequently Asked Questions about DeafBlindness.

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Sanzan Tani (1802-1867)

Sanzan Tani became deaf as a child while growing up in Japan, and devoted most of his time to reading the great books. The more he learned, the more curious he became about the world. As an adult, Tani was known for his excellent knowledge and was awarded a prestigious teaching position by the government of Japan. He began to lose his eyesight, and became deafblind. Tani continued to teach about the great books, and communicated with his students through touch.

Source: Carroll, Cathryn & Mather, Susan M. (1997). Movers & Shakers: Deaf People Who Changed the World. San Diego: DawnSignPress.

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Julia Brace (1807-1884)

  • Laura Bridgman and Julia Brace
    Description: "Before Helen Keller, there [were] …deafblind children - who had also managed to accomplish quite a bit at a time when the odds were seemingly against them."
  • Julia Brace
    Description: Biographical article about Julia Brace. Here is an excerpt:
    The name of Laura Bridgman is remembered today as Dr. Howe's greatest teaching success, as well as for the indirect role her accomplishments played in opening the doors of education for the twentieth-century deaf-blind humanitarian, Helen Keller. That of Julia Brace is all but forgotten. Yet it was because of a visit to the Hartford Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf), where Dr. Howe met Julia Brace, that he conceived a plan for the education of the deaf-blind and undertook the training of Laura Bridgman, Oliver Caswell, and eventually Julia Brace herself.

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Laura Bridgman (1829-1889)

  • profile on Laura Bridgman
    Description: A brief paragraph. Bridgman is known as the first deafblind person to be successfully educated, a accomplishment that lead to the education of Helen Keller.
  • Book: Child of the Silent Night
    Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company; ISBN: 0395068355; (September 1963, with several recent reprints)
    Description: Written for people who read on a 4th-6th grade reading level. This book is much more accessible to children and non-native readers of English than the following books, which are more academic/adult-level.
  • Book: The Education of Laura Bridgman : First Deaf and Blind Person to Learn Language
    Publisher: Harvard University Press; ISBN: 0674005899; (May 2001)
    Description: "Laura's education became an experiment that [her teacher, Samuel Howe,] hoped would prove his own controversial ideas about the body, mind, and soul… [This book] is both a success story of how a sightless and soundless girl gained contact with an ever-widening world, and also a cautionary tale about the way moral crusades and scientific progress can compromise each other."
  • Book: The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl
    Publisher: Publisher: Picador USA; ISBN: 0312420293; (August 2002)
    Description: "The resurrected story of a deaf-blind girl and the man who brought her out of silence. In 1837, Samuel Gridley Howe, director of Boston's Perkins Institution for the Blind, heard about a bright, deaf-blind seven-year-old, the daughter of New Hampshire farmers. At once he resolved to rescue her from the "darkness and silence of the tomb." And indeed, thanks to Howe and an extraordinary group of female teachers, Laura Bridgman learned to finger spell, to read raised letters, and to write legibly and even eloquently… [This book] retrieves Laura Bridgman's forgotten life, placing it in the context of nineteenth-century American social, intellectual, and cultural history."

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Helen Keller (1880-1968)

  • Braille Bug Helen Keller Biography
    Description: A short, illustrated biography written for kids. From American Foundation for the Blind, an organization to which Keller devoted over 40 years of her life.
  • Helen Keller Archival Collection
    Description: In her will, Helen Keller bequeathed her papers and memorabilia to the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). The Helen Keller Archival Collection contains The Helen Keller Papers, The Helen Keller Artifacts and Memorabilia Collection, The Helen Keller Photograph Collection, and Books from Helen Keller's Library. All except the books are available online at no charge.
  • profile on Helen Keller
    Description: A brief summary of Keller's life.
  • The Truth About Helen Keller
    Description: "Children's books about Helen Keller distort her life." A review of several popular children's books about Keller, most of which leave out her long and empassioned adulthood as an activist for women and the poor. Includes a list of recommended resources.
  • The Socialist Legacy of Helen Keller
    Description: An introduction to Helen's adult political life, this document is the first part of the Helen Keller Reference Archive, maintained by the Marxists Internet Archive. The Reference Archive web site also includes a copy of Helen Keller's FBI file [in PDF file format].

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Robert (1925- ) and Michelle (1947- ) Smithdas

Robert Smithdas was born on June 7th in 1925. He became the first deaf-blind person in America to receive a master's degree, fifty years after another renowned deaf-blind advocate, Helen Keller, became the first deaf-blind person to receive a bachelor's degree. Smithdas ran Services for the Deaf-Blind at the Industrial Home for the Blind in New York as a director. He also published two works: Life at My Fingertips, an autobiography and City of the Heart, a collection of poetry. Smithdas went on to earn three honorary degrees, one from Gallaudet College, one from Western Michigan University and one from John Hopkins University in 1980.

Source: Gannon, Jack R. (1981). Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America. Maryland: National Association of the Deaf.

  • 20/20 Interview of Bob and Michelle Smithdas
    Description: Barbara Walters' "most memorable interview was "'a man I interviewed more than 25 years ago. He was a teacher and a poet, and the most inspirational person I have ever met. His name is Robert Smithdas.' Now, more than 30 years later, Walters revisits Smithdas, who is now married to a woman who, like him, is deaf and blind. She reports how they manage to live independently; cooking by touch, using teletype-style phones and computers, wearing pagers that vibrate to signal the ringing of the telephone or the doorbell."
  • Bob and Michelle Smithdas, Both Blind and Deaf, Lead Lives Full of Love, Work, Hobbies and Humor
    Description: The history and current lives of Robert and Michelle Smithdas.
  • Deafblind-related articles by Robert Smithdas
    Description: On this page you can search the DB-LINK Database for materials written by Robert and/or Michelle Smithdas.
  • Mystery of the Senses: Hearing
    Description: A NOVA program "explores what it is like to hear again after decades of deafness, as it follows Michelle Smithdas of the Helen Keller National Center, undergoing a cochlear implant to restore hearing." Video available for purchase from WGBH.

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Georgia Griffith (1931-)

Born during the Great Depression, Georgia Griffith was at first blind, then later became deaf. After a time at the Ohio School for the Blind, she graduated cum laude in 1954 from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio with a degree in music education. Griffith was the first blind student at that university, her graduation with Phi Beta Kappa honors.

She returned home to Lancaster, teaching blind students in public school in addition to giving private music lessons. By the 1960's her hearing had deteriorated enough to cause Griffith to consider a second career. In 1970, she began proofreading Braille music for the Library of Congress, earning the top certification. In her spare time during that period, she also proofread all nine Beethoven symphonies, because, according to an account, she felt blind people needed to have the experience of playing Beethoven.

While working for the Library of Congress, Griffith taught herself ten different languages (German, French, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Danish, Slovak, and Greek) as she corresponded with people from different countries. This feat bloomed out of a small venture helping one of her friends write a Braille music dictionary. Funding for her proofreading job was cut in 1981, bringing her to the Internet.

A year earlier, Georgia Griffith had discovered the (no longer manufactured) VersaBraille machine. Friends in the music world raised money to help cover the $5000 cost of the text-to-Braille machine, and an eager Griffith soon appeared in cyberspace.

In 1982, CompuServe, then one of the largest internet service providers, hired Griffith as a systems operator/independent contractor to moderate several forums, providing information to users. The forums include: Issues, IBM Special Needs, Political Debate, and White House, in addition to three religion forums, Religion, Religious Issues, and Christian Fellowship. CompuServe's decision to hire her as a Wizard came after executives realized how often they and subscribers asked Griffith to help. The forums had over 200,000 users, and internet chats sponsored by her forums would appear with the byline, "A Georgia Griffith Presentation."

Griffith worked out a small office in her home. In 2000 her setup involved two desks and a variety of equipment furnishing the room. Main features included two PCs, one laptop, and a Blazie Engineering Versapoint embosser. Telesensory's ScreenPower for Windows 95, the only Windows product developed for braille first, speech second, was her first choice for accessing a Windows environment at that time. Griffith's main screen reader then was Henter-Joyce's JAWS for Windows, the backup Syntha-Voice's Window Bridge.

The home where Georgia Griffith lives was built on land that her parents owned when she was born. The house itself came up after her father's death. The walls are decorated with awards, letters from notables such as President Reagan and Clinton, and photographs of Georgia with people like Colin Powell, a former governor of Ohio, and Senator Mike DeWine.She lived with her mother for many years until her mother's death. Currently her sister, neighbors, and friends lend their services, enabling her to live independently.

Her interpersonal communication methods include having speakers write the alphabet in her hands, speaking for herself, and using a Versa-Braille printer nicknamed the "Versy." She does not read American Sign Language tactually. Interviews with the media usually come through e-mail. Griffith has been described as a quick wit and as having a plain-spoken manner.

She has been given several notable recognitions. In 1991 she recieved the Fred L. Sinclair award from the California Transcribers and Educators of the Visually Handicapped. The Ohio Women's Hall of Fame inducted her in 1994 under the achievement category of Arts, Music, and Journalism. Colin Powell gave the keynote address at a 1996 luncheon where Griffith received the Great Communicators award from the Columbus Speech and Hearing Center.

Griffith has also served on the Board of Directors for the National Braille Association. A display on her life and achievements now resides in the Smithsonian Museum of American History among others who have contributed to the advancement of information technology in the Permanent Research Collection on Information Technology. In addition to the display, the Smithsonian Innovation Network honored Georgia Griffith with a medal in 1997.

Griffith has self-published a book about her life through Xulon Press, titled Running Around in Family Circles With Friends in Pursuit. She runs her own business: GG Technical Services is found online at

Her VersaBraille now retired in favor of a Telesensory Power Braille 40, Georgia Griffith, the New York Times' "Net Queen," continues to roam the internet world.

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John J. Boyer (1936- )

  • History of John J. Boyer and his company, Computers to Help People (CHPI)
    Description: "The founder and Executive Director, John J. Boyer, is himself both deaf and blind. He started the company in 1981 after earning a master's degree in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His main duties are writing special software for people with disabilities, especially for the Technical Braille Center, business development and fundraising." This page chronicles Boyer's life and career.
  • Godtouches Internet Ministry
    Description: John J. Boyer is not only a computer programmer and business owner, but also a lay minister. This page describes his life, religion, and avocation.

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Danny Delcambre (1959- )

The deaf-blind community in Seattle is extraordinarily vibrant, with a strong sense of pride and independence. That is why Danny Delcambre moved there. Deaf from birth and steadily losing his sight, Danny suffers from Usher syndrome. The region in Louisiana he left behind has the highest concentration of Usher syndrome in the world. This program takes a sensitive look at this degenerative condition, as neurologist/author Oliver Sacks and Danny explore the nature of deaf culture and the marvelous richness of American Sign Language, which includes a sophisticated touch-based variation called tactile signing.

Source: "The Ragin’ Cajun: Usher Syndrome" Video, available from Films for the Humanities and Sciences.

  • DELCAMBRE'S Ragin Cajun Restaurant
    Description: The official web site of Delcambre's restaurant. (It recently closed, but this link fully describes the restaurant and its owner.)
    Description: Delcambre's personal web site Includes information about his services as a motivational speaker.
  • Danny Delcambre - If I Can, You Can
    Description: An article from DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking & Technology) at the University of Washington. "Danny Delcambre, the first Deaf-Blind founder and operator of a Seattle restaurant, gave an inspirational speech on his accomplishments… All of Danny's stories made for a very entertaining hour and a half… Danny made his fantastic speech in American Sign Language where most of the people in the room could only understand him through a voice interpreter."

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Khaled Alvi (1963- )

Khaled Alvi was born in Lucknow, India, in 1963, but moved to London, England in 1965 with his parents. During their stay in London, Alvi's hearing loss and tunnel vision was discovered, so his family remained instead of returning to India.

Alvi attributes a visiting teacher from Arizona in the United States with "changing my life." He was learning to draw and paint in his senior year at school when the teacher saw his talent and encouraged him to become a painter. Alvi's subsequent education included a stint at City Lit College at Holborn learning art history, print making and landscape painting.

Khaled Alvi's favorite mediums include oil, acrylic, watercolors, pencil, black chalk, pastel, and felt-tip markers. His work ranges across modern life, landscapes, wildlife, cubism, and still life, with Alvi's favorite artists being Leonardo Da Vinci, Picasso, Monet, and Van Gogh.

His first oil painting entitled "Fruit and Glass Tumbler," created in 1992, sold to Sheridan Russell gallery in 1998. His first solo exhibition of eighty drawings and paintings in 1995 at Kanpur, India, gave him leverage for convicing a public library in London to display forty-five paintings later that same year.

Alvi's work has been shown at many exhibitions and locations, including the Haringey Hospital in North London and the Diorama Gallery. The Royal National Institute compiled a collection of work by six artists, including Alvi.


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Thomas Lafferty (- )

Thomas Lafferty builds models from visual and tactile memory. Each model he builds has a story behind it, such as his 'Bygone Days' double-decker bus sculpture. Lafferty says it represents the number 17 bus he used to ride to work on before going blind.

Lafferty did not pursue model-making until after retirement. His first model was a ship, made from the memory of when he was 18 years old and saw a big ship. Another fairly recent model is 'Country Cottage,' a combination of his grandmother's home and the current home he lives in.

Born deaf, Lafferty lost his sight by age 32. His current communication mode involves using the deafblind manual alphabet or having block letters traced on the palm. He has had his work displayed in local libraries and at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. The British Empire Medal was given to him in 1983, recognizing Thomas Lafferty's achievements.

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