The deaf teacher who turned American sign language into literature is honored in a new US postage stamp

Image: Courtesy USPS
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In an April 11 ceremony that began with four deaf students performing the national anthem, the US Postal Service unveiled a new stamp honoring beloved deaf-studies teacher, Robert Panara. The image on the two-ounce stamp—more commonly known as a “forever stamp”—shows Panara signing the word “respect.”

Through his 40-year tenure at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, Panara, who died of cancer at age 94 in 2014, encouraged his students to explore literature through sign language. “Poetry and drama came to life through his unique style of expression,” said David Williams, the US Postal Service’s chief operating officer. “His technique was not so much as to describe, as to enact,” he explained, describing Panera’s graceful signing style.

After becoming the first deaf student to earn a master’s degree from New York University, Panara dedicated his life to spreading his love of literature and the performing arts. The Bronx native wrote poetry and translated several Shakespearean plays into sign language, including Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and Othello. He championed drama clubs and helped establish performance venues for deaf actors such National Theatre of the Deaf, Gallaudet Theater, and a theater named after him at RIT, where the stamp was unveiled.

His son John—who now teaches at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf—spoke about Panera’s lifelong ambition to earn public respect for deaf students. “He would tell people, ‘It’s not the ears but what’s between the ears that counts,'” he said.

Panara is the 16th person to be immortalized in the US Postal Service’s Distinguished Americans series. It’s an elite group that includes abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe and the pioneering African American aviator Charles Alfred Anderson, Sr.

The Panara stamp’s release coincides also with the 200-year anniversary of the American School for the Deaf, the first school to offer formal education for deaf students in the US.