Skip to main content
facts & arguments

Dorothy Ellen Beam

Deaf community advocate, mother, poet. Born on March 3, 1918, in Ottawa; died on April 1, 2015, in Ottawa, of natural causes, aged 97.

Every deaf person in Canada today has benefited in some way from Dorothy Beam's dedicated efforts on their behalf, but that she would become such a leader was not at all a foregone conclusion.

She was born deaf in Ottawa during the First World War, to an unwed mother. Dorothy was cared for first by her grandmother and then by her aunt and uncle, Molly and Joseph Ouellette, who adopted her as a toddler. Tragically, Dorothy's adoptive father, to whom she was close, was killed by a drunk driver when she was 10.

At 14, she moved into residence at the Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville, Ont., where she said she spent "my happiest years, learning the beautiful sign language, communicating well with my peers and teachers."

After graduation, Dorothy moved to Toronto in 1937 and found work as a typist and office clerk. She held various clerical positions, including at Revenue Canada, where she was employed from 1969 until her retirement in 1983. Decades before the advent of teletypewriters and telephone relay services, she proved that deaf people could work effectively in office jobs.

In 1940, a daughter, Mary, was born to Dorothy and her first husband, Jack Angus. She left Jack after Harold Beam came into her life. With Harold, she had two children, Tim and Bonnie, but it wasn't until much later, after his first wife finally granted him a divorce, that she and Harold were able to marry and settle in Pickering, Ont. Ultimately, their marriage ended in divorce.

Although the dictates of her deep Christian faith caused contradictions and tensions for Dorothy in the course of her personal life, her unconventional path also cultivated her open-minded and nonjudgmental nature. In midlife, unattached and with a new sense of independence, she grew into her natural role as a deaf community leader and advocate.

In 1976, she became the second woman to be elected president of the Toronto-based Ontario Association of the Deaf. During her five-year tenure, she lobbied for sign language and deaf teachers in the education system, for captioning of television news, and for employment opportunities for deaf people.

She was involved with the Evangelical Church for the Deaf in Toronto and led its sign-language choir into her 90s. Dearest to her heart was her volunteer work every summer at the Ontario Camp of the Deaf in Parry Sound. She also volunteered at various times with the Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf in Toronto and the Ottawa-based Canadian Association of the Deaf.

Her decades of community service and leadership were recognized with many awards, culminating with the Order of Ontario in 1989.

In her 70s she moved in with her daughter, Bonnie, in Pickering and four years ago returned to the city in which she was born. Usher syndrome diminished her sight, although her characteristic optimism prevailed.

A gifted writer, one of her poems, To a Little Deaf Child, contains the lines: "But, that your lack of hearing bars not your active mind/ From absorbing all true knowledge, and giving out in kind." From her own difficult childhood, Dorothy built a life of giving.

Kelly Duffin and Kristin Snoddon are admiring colleagues of Dorothy.