They are a staple of modern television, and anyone who has watched political speeches or COVID briefings sees their presence: interpreters for the deaf, standing off to the sidelines to translate important information for non-hearing viewers. Indeed, every September 23rd, as per a U.N. resolution in 2017, the International Day of Sign Language (IDSL) is celebrated world-wide. This precedes the already annually observed International Week of the Deaf, which was established back in 1951 by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). And yes, once again, tutte le strade, portano a Roma (“all roads lead to Rome”): the WDF, which is, according to its website, “an international, non-governmental organization that acts as a peak body for National Associations of Deaf people”, was co-founded in the Eternal City by two Italian doctors: Vittorio Ierella and Cesare Magarotto.
[Note: Magarotto was the WDF’s general secretary from 1951-1987, the same year the organization relocated its headquarters from Rome to Finland.]
It was a fitting and welcome irony, as most deaf people in the classical world were treated as outsiders, often shunned or ostracized. This may be the origin of so many phrases which attach a negative stigma to deafness and other disabilties: “tone deaf”; “falling on deaf ears”; “turning a blind eye”; and “breaking a leg” (which, or course, though suggesting an injury, was turned by theater actors into a phrase of good luck). One early source, however is from the King James Bible itself (Proverbs 28:9): “He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination.”
Nevertheless, there are two other positive Italic connections regarding deafness: In his 1588 book Magiae Naturalis (Natural Magic), the Neapolitan scientist Giambattista della Porta first mentioned horn-shaped devices that improved sound mechanics. Years later, around 1610-1612, Paolo Aproino invented what are considered the first examples of auditory listening devices, aka hearing aids, showing them to his former mentor, Galileo Galilei.
A major leap in deaf awareness was led by no less than inventor Alexander Graham Bell, whose mother and wife were both deaf. In 1880, Bell won the prestigious Volta Prize, created in France by Napoleon III in 1852.
[Pause: I hate to sound like the elderly father in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, always finding Greek greatness under a rock, but please note the further Italic references: Volta is Alessandro Volta, the scientist who harnessed electricity, and Napoleon III was a nephew of the Corsican-born general, whose native tongue was Italian until he moved to Paris as a nine-year-old in 1779. And, of course, to those in the know, Antonio Meucci’s experiments with an early draft of a speaking device in 1871, which preceded Bell’s telephone by five years, are finally being recognized as well.]
With the $50,000 francs he won as a first prize, Bell and a cousin commenced the construction of the Volta Laboratory and Bureau, a magnificent structure that is now both a National Historic Landmark and part of the National Parks Service. Located at 3414 Volta Place in Washington D.C., the Volta Laboratory is a major international research and information hub for the hearing-impaired. The building’s architectural style is neoclassical, a school derived from a renewed appreciation of Greco-Roman culture. If I may mimic the old Greek father again: Neoclassism itself came to prominence in Naples in the 1730s, thanks to architects Luigi Vanvitelli and Ferdinando Fuga. And even that style drew inspiration from the work of Andrea Palladio, the 16th century Venetian builder whose most famous work, the Rotunda in Vicenza, inspired Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia mansion, Montecello (“Little hill” in Italian).
Even before doctors Ierella and Magarotto formed the Ente Nazionale Sordomuti (ENS) – the Italian Deaf Association (which became the impetus behind the World Federation for the Deaf) – people all over the world had already become more sensitive to the plight of the hearing-and-seeing impaired thanks to Helen Keller. Her story became immortalized forever in the famous 1962 film, The Miracle Worker, featuring Patty Duke as Keller and Anne Bancroft (yes, another Italian reference: her birth name was Anna Italiano) as Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan. But, just as Americans of today look to Dr. Anthony Fauci as a steady voice of reason during the current COVID crisis, our fellow citizens back in the day followed another Italian American doctor via deafness: Dr. Robert Panara, a pioneer in deaf education who was honored with his own U.S. postage stamp in 2017 (pictured).
A native of the Bronx, Dr. Panara was no Chazz Palminteri gutter stereotype. The son of Italian immigrants, Panara lost his hearing at 10 year old after a bout of spinal meningitis. This tragedy might have deterred others, but Panara followed the dictum of his Latin ancestors: qui docet discit (“he who teaches, learns”). Panara became a professor, a poet, a co-founder of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and founder of the National Theater of the Deaf. During the 1950s, LIFE Magazine even hired him to read Queen Elizabeth lips from a distance to get her reaction to American football.
On the postage stamp, Dr. Panara isn’t in a posing position; he is, in true Italian fashion, “talking with his hands.” And the specific gesture he is making is the American Sign Language word for “respect.” As America marches on, it continues to expand the umbrella of respect for citizens of all races, religions, and backgrounds – except those of Italian descent. It’s nice that Dr. Panara has a stamp, and that Dr. Fauci now has his own bobble-head doll. And yet, one wonders why the achievements of Americans of Italian heritage continue to “fall on deaf ears” to those in the media and on Madison Avenue. -BDC