Skip to main content

Beyond Words

Preserving deaf women’s narratives in American Sign Language.

For many years, the Deaf community’s history has largely been written by individuals who are not part of the community, but that’s about to change. Recent graduate Amanda Reece (History and Global Women’s Studies ’23) founded the Utah Deaf LDS Women’s Signed History Project to record deaf history from an insider's perspective, amplify voices from the Deaf community, and uncover the untold stories of deaf women.

The Project

Reece dedicated her final semester at BYU to recording videos of the personal histories of deaf women in their native language, American Sign language (ASL). She says, “English is not the language of the American Deaf community, but most of the history that we have written about them is in English. The majority of the history we have written about the American Deaf community is inaccessible to parts of the Deaf community.”

Reece became aware of this issue while doing research for a previous project where she examined the role of women in “Deaf President Now,” a protest that acted as a catalyst for the Americans with Disabilities Act. As part of her research, she interviewed Adjunct Faculty Member Nanette Hix (ASL), who was involved with the protest. Learning more about the impact that deaf women had on important historical events made Reece realize how often people outside of the Deaf community overlook their contributions or don’t allow them to tell their own stories. She says, “I wanted to hear their stories. I wanted to know in their own words what their life experiences were like.”

Working with Associate Professor Leslie Hadfield, an expert in oral history, Reece created interview questions to prompt interviewees to share their stories in ASL. She filmed each interview, beginning with Hix, and worked with a translator to create subtitles for the videos so that everyone can understand the important stories these women share. As she conducted the interviews, Reece realized she needed more than one semester to do the project justice. Despite the work she has done so far, there are still many deaf women with important stories to uncover. Reece says, “This is just scratching the surface of how much there is in this community; there are so many more women to include.”

The Stories

Throughout her work Reece discovered numerous ways that deaf women have affected Utah’s history and culture. For example, in one interview, Nanette Hix and Marlene Malm described the Deaf Mentor Program, which deaf women founded as a resource for hearing families with deaf children. Raising a deaf child can be daunting, especially since, as Reece explains, “Ninety percent of deaf children are born to hearing families. For most of these hearing families, the first deaf person they ever meet is their own child.” Deaf mentors in this program help families learn ASL, understand options for education, and become part of the Deaf community. Increased exposure to ASL prevents language deprivation in deaf children and ensures that their brains develop in a healthy way. Deaf mentors, like Hix and Malm, continue to provide this crucial support to hearing parents and deaf children across the state.

In addition to activism and social programs, Reece was also interested in the experiences of deaf women within the context of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unfortunately, their experiences aren’t always positive. One deaf woman shared a story about her experience with wanting to serve a mission for the Church. When she asked the bishop in her parent’s ward for the missionary application, he told her it would take a while to get the paperwork. She waited and waited, but he never gave her the papers.

One day, at a branch activity in her college town, she felt prompted to talk to the branch president about her desire to go on a mission. He handed her the papers right then. Later, she discovered that her parents and bishop at home had decided that she shouldn’t serve a mission because she was disabled, and had intentionally delayed her application in the hopes that she would give up on her goal. She eventually received her call and served an ASL mission in California.

Moving Forward

Reece’s love and respect for the Deaf community grew stronger over the course of the project as she interviewed these women. While Reece believes that it’s essential to amplify deaf women’s voices, she also believes that her project can help everyone better understand Utah’s history as a whole. She says, “We look back on the past, and we are missing so many core parts of what our own history looks likes because we’re leaving out demographics like deaf people.” She plans to continue collecting these histories and making them available to the public through BYU Special Collections.

The histories are given in ASL, the language of the American Deaf community; however, the videos include subtitles and voice translations to make these stories accessible to a broad audience. Watch the histories of deaf women here.

woman makes the ASL sign for 'help.'
Photo by Kevin Malik Via Pexels