8 Min

Famous Deaf People Who Changed the World

Briefly explore the lives of 13 amazing deaf people and their impact on world history. Click here to learn more about them!

Juana Poareo
Juana Poareo
Famous Deaf People Who Changed the World
Juana Poareo
Juana Poareo

The founder of Being Access-able, an accessibility resource hub for brands and entrepreneurs. She also writes about accessibility and advocacy.

Are you familiar with any famous deaf people who’ve made important contributions to history? From composers to athletes, many overcame the challenges of deafness to achieve success in their lives. 

In this article, we'll explore 13 famous deaf people who have changed the world with their unique accomplishments. The stories behind these incredible people’s lives will show you that disability shouldn’t be a barrier to success. 

1. Helen Keller

Helen Keller
Helen Keller

Helen Keller was the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree, in 1904, from Radcliffe College. She came from a close family who had no idea how to communicate with her after she became blind and deaf at 19 months old, due to a childhood illness.

To aid Keller’s education, her parents hired Annie Sullivan to be her teacher. Annie herself was partially blind and had been educated at the Perkins School for the Blind.

Much of Keller’s and Ms. Sullivan’s story is shared in the film, “The Miracle Worker,” showing the famous breakthrough when Helen first learns what “water” means. 

During college, Keller began writing, which she continued until her death. She published many books, including the famous autobiography, “The Story of My Life,”  and was a frequent contributor to various publications. 

An author and activist, she campaigned for women’s and disability rights. Keller was one of those famous deaf people who thrived through enormous support.

2. Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison was an American inventor who began losing his hearing as a child. By the time he was a teenager, he was deaf. 

Edison was responsible for important inventions of the modern era that we now take for granted, such as the light bulb, phonograph, and motion picture camera. 

So Edison could hear delicate sounds and melodies, he would bite down on his phonograph to feel the sound waves. It’s been said that he enjoyed the silence of being deaf because it prevented distraction while he worked. 

Caption your calls for free

Download Nagish
Nagish app - Caption Your Phone Calls

3. Marlee Matlin

Marlee Matlin is an actress and spokesperson who became deaf at 18 months old. 

Matlin’s first major film role was in “Children of a Lesser God” in 1986, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her leading role in the film. She was the first deaf actress to win the award (and the youngest). 

A member of the National Association for the Deaf (NAD), she has subsequently won many film and TV awards and continues to star in TV and film. 

Born into a hearing family, Matlin is a fierce advocate for deaf rights. She donates her time and money to various charities, such as Easter Seals, Red Cross, and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. 

When Matlin travels for work, she makes a point to visit deaf and hard of hearing children in different countries around the world. She’s one of several famous deaf people who continues to make a positive impact.

4. Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven, born in Germany, was a composer and pianist who is one of the most highly regarded composers in the world. He demonstrated musical talent from a young age, and his father was a tough teacher. 

His hearing began deteriorating when he was 28. By the time he became completely deaf in 1814, he stopped making public appearances. 

But because Beethoven still had such a strong musical memory and talent, he continued to compose, including “Fidelio,” an opera; Symphony No. 9; piano sonatas; and string quartets, including the “Grosse Fuge.”  

5. Charles Shirreff

Charles Shirreff was a Scottish painter who became deaf at age 3 or 4. His wealthy father sent him to school at age 10 so he could learn to write. 

The first deaf school in Britain was started by Thomas Braidwood, who became acquainted with the senior Shirreff. The young Shirreff relied on sign language for communication. 

At age 18, Shirreff left the Braidwood school to attend an art school in London. He started his career painting miniature portraits, then pastels, oil paintings, and pencil drawings. He became so successful that he was able to support his family after his father suffered financially during the Crisis of 1772. 

6. John Goodricke

John Goodricke plaque on a stone wall. Text on the plaque reads, “From a window in Treasurer’s House near this tablet, the young deaf and dumb astronomer, John Goodricke, 1764 - 1786, who was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 21. observed the periodicity of the star ALGOL and discovered the variation of delta CEPHEI and other stars thus laying the foundation of modern measurement of the Universe.” Via Wikimedia Commons.
John Goodricke plaque on a stone wall. Text on the plaque reads, “From a window in Treasurer’s House near this tablet, the young deaf and dumb astronomer, John Goodricke, 1764 - 1786, who was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 21. observed the periodicity of the star ALGOL and discovered the variation of delta CEPHEI and other stars thus laying the foundation of modern measurement of the Universe.

John Goodricke became deaf due to a childhood illness. He attended Thomas Braidwood’s school, the same school that painter Charles Shirreff attended. 

Goodricke’s interest in astronomy began early. He is credited with discovering Algol, a binary star. For this, he was awarded the Copley Medal in 1783. 

Unfortunately, Goodricke never learned of this award, as he died four days later from pneumonia at age 21. 

7. Judith Scott

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Judith Scott was not only deaf but she was also born with Down syndrome. A series of tests had doctors labeling her as “ineducable.” They placed her in institutions from age 7, when she was taken from her parents. 

Scott had a twin sister, and the separation had a profound effect on both of them. After 35 years, Judith’s sister was able to take her out and put her into an art school, the first space of its kind for disabled people. 

After meeting a fellow artist, Sylvia Seventy, who introduced her to fiber art, Scott began creating unique mixed media sculptures. 

With found objects and cord, string, yarn, and other fibers, she created unusual and fascinating art pieces that brought her worldwide recognition after a 1999 art exhibition and a book publication based on her work. 

Scott created over 200 sculptures before her death in 2005. 

8. Douglas Tilden

Douglas Tilden became deaf from scarlet fever at age 4. 

A few years after graduating from a school for the deaf in Berkeley, California, he picked up sculpting; his first art piece was “Tired Wrestler,” in 1885, which immediately brought him recognition. 

Tilden’s art education began at the Academy of Design in New York. Afterwards, he attended art school in Paris, where he had his first exhibition, showing “The National Game,” a sculpture of a baseball pitcher. He won an award for this in 1889. 

After a couple of personal hardships (a stint in a mental hospital and divorce), Tilden stopped creating sculptures and took a job sculpting animals for films. He began isolating himself and scarcely eating while creating sculptures; when a neighbor learned of his predicament, Tilden began receiving a state pension. 

Tilden died in 1935 of a heart attack, at age 75. He had been working on a monument for the city of San Francisco at the time of his death. 

9. Andrew Foster

Andrew Jackson Foster was a teacher who pioneered deaf education in Africa. He became deaf at 11 years old, when he and his brother were stricken with spinal meningitis. 

Foster was born in 1925 in Alabama. His education ended in the sixth grade, due to a state law that disallowed African Americans to receive higher than a sixth-grade education. 

However, Foster was able to continue his education by attending another deaf school in Michigan and completed his high school education through a correspondence school. He applied to Gallaudet University but was turned down because of his race; it was only after receiving a full scholarship that he was able to attend. 

During his stay in Michigan, Foster felt the pull to become a missionary. He was also a mentor to deaf African American children and did fundraising to build schools in Africa. 

When he arrived in Ghana, Foster used a public school to bring deaf children together for education and teaching of the Gospel, which eventually morphed into the Ghana Mission School for the Deaf. 

By the time of his death in 1987 in a plane crash, Foster had built 32 schools and missions for the deaf throughout Africa. 

10. Heather Whitestone

Heather Whitestone was the first deaf Miss America in 1995. She became deaf at 18 months old due to meningitis or influenza. 

Being born in Alabama, Whitestone learned about Helen Keller in elementary school, and Keller became her role model. 

After falling behind in school, Whitestone asked her parents to send her to a deaf school, where she thrived. She eventually earned a university degree. 

Thereafter, she began appearing in beauty pageants; she won Miss Alabama in 1994 before her Miss America win. That year (1995), she spent time with deaf children, showing them the power of positive thinking. 

Whitestone has published four books and is a conservative activist. 

11. Laura Bridgman

Black and white portrait of Laura Bridgman wearing eyeglasses and sewing. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Black and white portrait of Laura Bridgman wearing eyeglasses and sewing.

Laura Bridgman, born in 1829, became deaf and blind at two years old due to scarlet fever. She was the first deaf-blind woman to learn how to read and write using Braille and fingerspelling. 

Bridgman was friends with Annie Sullivan, who was Helen Keller’s teacher. Both Bridgman and Sullivan were students at the Perkins School for the Blind. 

At 12 years old, Bridgman met Charles Dickens while he was touring the U.S. He wrote about her in his book, “American Notes,” noting her education and fingerspelling. 

Bridgman became famous because of Dickens, and the teachers at Perkins noticed she received more favorable attention than the other students. 

Bridgman lived at the Perkins School all her life, spending her time sewing, reading, and writing. She died in 1889. 

12. Phyllis Frelich

Phyllis Frelich, who was born to deaf parents, was the first actor to win a Tony Award (for “Children of a Lesser God”). She attended a school for the deaf in North Dakota before going to Gallaudet University, where she earned a degree in library science. 

Frelich discovered her love for theater during her time at Gallaudet. She was one of the founders of the National Theater of the Deaf (NTD). 

Interestingly, Frelich’s award-winning stage role in “Children of a Lesser God '' was created for her by writer Mark Medoff. She starred in other Medoff plays, and appeared on many TV shows and films. 

She was the first deaf actress to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), paving the way for other deaf actors. She is considered one of the most influential deaf performers.

13. Matt Hamill

Matt Hamill, a former MMA fighter and Olympic wrestler, is the first deaf person to win a national collegiate championship. 

Born deaf, his stepfather taught him the mechanics of wrestling, which Hamill pursued during his years at RIT and Purdue University. 

Hamill has won championships in both MMA and the Olympics, and continues to fight professionally. A 2010 film, “The Hammer,” is based on Hamill’s life and fighting career. 


These 13 famous deaf people have had a major impact on history, proving that deafness is no barrier to success. With accomplishments in different fields, from music to science, these 13 will continue to inspire deaf and hard of hearing people for generations to come. 

Share on:
By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.