The purpose of this report is to take a look at one of the least understood of all American minorities, the deaf. While it has been only recently that some among the deaf have come to consider themselves a minority, they would identify themselves as such not because of their ghandicap.h Instead, they would likely tell you that they belong to a linguistic minority, and the language to which they would refer would undoubtedly be ASL, American Sign Language.
ASL is not English. It is a language with its own grammar and vocabulary, and was created over generations largely by the deaf themselves. ASL (I will use the word gSignsh as gASLh has come into widespread use only recently), as have signed languages everywhere, has had an uneven history. It has only been within the past four centuries that (in Europe in any case) it has been used as a formal learning mechanism for language acquisition. It was not until the 19th century that it began to emerge as a full-fledged language. Moreover, it has only been within the past few decades that it has gained general acceptance as a legitimate language, able to take its place among the spoken languages of the world.
The signed languages which have sprung out of deaf communities throughout the world have also had to compete for legitimacy with other means of communication imposed upon them by the hearing world. The most prevalent alternative has been oralism, the various methods by which the deaf have been taught to voice sounds they cannot hear and learn to read the lips of the persons with whom they are talking. This of course involved not only the arduous task of learning to make the sounds but also of mastering the alien language from which the sounds emanated.
This struggle against oralism was made even more difficult in that it had to be waged against the very people, most of them hearing, who were the benefactors of the deaf. They were also faced with the challenge of countering the notion of deafness as a pathological condition, a ghandicap,h a gdisability,h as opposed to deafness as a social condition which could be best met with education.
Separation and Conformity
I grew up in what one would probably call a typical upper-midwestern American city. In the 1950s, black residents, many of them first or second-generation immigrants from the South, were confined to two areas in the downtown area. At the center of these two areas were two schools, ironically named Lincoln and Roosevelt. There were no black residents in the newly developed subdivision in which we lived. Even a car passing through with black passengers would draw comment from the neighbors. It was not until junior high school that I encountered black students on a routine basis, and this was largely by chance, as my junior high included within its boundaries the predominantly black Roosevelt Elementary. Of the six other junior highs, Lincoln was almost exclusively black, while four of the others were almost exclusively white. Of the two
public high schools in town, one was white; the other was about 20 percent black. This geographical segregation was the norm in most northern cities of that time.
In larger northern cities this ghettoization was even more complete. It was not until the civil rights movement bore fruit in the early 1970s that this system of residential segregation in the north began to break down, while mandated busing led to integration of school systems.
I also remember that a number of white families had moved into our neighborhood from somewhere in the South. The children spoke southern English, but after relentless taunting, quickly learned to speak northern English. However, they were always reluctant to take friends to their homes because their parents still spoke southern English that obviously shamed them.
The gmelting poth we learned about in school was therefore a highly restrictive one. It was for whites, and had a decidedly northern WASPish bias. I addition to the visible though separate black presence were a number of hidden minorities. The small Jewish community was unobtrusive. The synagogue itself was hidden behind a grove of trees. I never knew that a small number of my classmates in high school were Jewish until after they graduated, left town, and grediscoveredh their Jewishness. There was also a sizable Latvian community, who aside from their church and Saturday Latvian schools were almost invisible. There were other hidden minorities, neither racial nor religious. The 1950s and early 1960s was still a time when persons with ghandicaps,h be they mental or physical, were still institutionalized or otherwise separated from everyday society. It was within this group, the ghandicappedh (later the more politically correct gdisabledh), into which the deaf fell, and they too faced the same isolation and the same pressures to conform.
The United States had of course recently endured a long depression and just exited World War II. The Korean War had ended in 1953, but it served as a poignant reminder to most of the population of a Cold War that threatened nuclear destruction or totalitarian communist rule. In any case these external factors helped foster a sense of national unity, and the economic boom of the
1950s fueled a sense of optimism and a myth of national integration, stability and common purpose.
On the other hand, this outward calm masked deep fissures in American society. These were exposed first during the civil rights movement, when there were calls for equal access to the rights and privileges often denied to minorities and others without access to power or representation. Next came the social explosions which came in the wake of the civil rights movement, fueled by the Vietnam War campus revolts, where demands for integration turned to demands for autonomy.
My first exposure to the deaf came not from personal experience
but from a 1986 article in the New York Review of Books by the
neurologist Oliver Sacks (reprinted and revised in Seeing Eyes).
In this article he discussed the deaf experience |what it must
be like to be deaf and the historical struggle waged by the deaf
sought to gain legitimacy for their language and recognition as
an autonomous minority. I was moved by the story of this invisible
and silent minority, and began collecting books written about
and by the deaf. In my English classes I often used the movie
gChildren of a Lesser Godh and the made for television movie gLove
is never Silent,h based on the book In This Sign by Joanne Greenberg.
Over the course of the two-year Hirosaki University Research/Education project in which I have been a participant, we drew compared the world's nationalisms and the different constructions of national identities |languages, histories, cultures, myths. I decided to back to the materials I had gathered on the deaf and have reexamined how their experience was influenced by the American nationalism and the attempt to construct a national identity.
The Rise of Sign
Until recent times becoming deaf was a horrible fate. Being born deaf was catastrophic. In Europe, the deaf were without rights, but more significantly without language. This was especially true for those prelingually deaf, who were most often consigned to a state of permanent semi-retardation and isolation. For, what characterizes the vast majority of the deaf is that they are rarely born to the deaf, which means they cannot bond lingually with their mothers.
There were, however, examples of deaf children born into wealthy households, particularly in 17th century Spain where tutors were brought in to try to help children learn to fingerspell, or in some cases to actually write and speak. Gradually, word of such random efforts spread to other parts of Europe. (Van Cleve & Crouch, 11)
Sign got its institutional start in Paris in the mid-17th century, when a priest noticed the signs being used by bands of the deaf who roamed the streets of the city. He managed to lure some of them to a state-supported school he started. He and others developed a method of teaching by which they combined the sign language of the streets with signed French grammar, enabling many of their deaf pupils to learn to read and write French. (Sacks, 17). It was this school, the National (Paris) Institution for Deaf-Mutes, which became a model for other institutions for the deaf.
Laurent Clerc was born deaf. He was educated at the Paris
Institute and was one of their great successes. When in London,
he met Thomas Gallaudet, an evangelical minister and educator
of the deaf from the United States, who was visiting Europe in
search of better ways to teach the deaf to communicate. He convinced
Clerc to accompany him back across the Atlantic.
Sacks notes that Clerc ghad an immediate and extraordinary impacth in the United States, gfor American teachers up to this point had never been exposed to, never even imagined, a deaf-mute if impressive intelligence and education, had never imagined the possibilities dormant in the deaf.h (Sacks, 21) Clerc and Gallaudet founded a school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. Although several other schools had been established in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this school, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (later changed to the American School for the Deaf), was the first permanent school for the deaf.
Since the school drew from a wide area, most enrollees could not possibly commute from their homes. The school therefore became a residential institution. This had important ramifications, for although taking children from their families at a very early age it also gave them the opportunity to acquire language when they were very young children, the critical time for becoming lingual. These residential schools also provided the critical mass that made it possible for a gstandardh Sign to emerge, and gave the residents a sense of belonging to a wider deaf community.
The American School consciously eschewed oralism for various forms of sign. In addition to written English, a form of sign akin to what would later become signed English, and fingerspelling, special prominence was given to the sign language which had been developed by the deaf themselves. (Van Cleve & Crouch, 44) The sign which developed in these institutions, the sign which eventually evolved into ASL was undoubtedly an eclectic blend of the various gdialectsh brought to Hartford by Clerc himself, other teachers, as well as the students themselves.
The story of one group of students, and the dialect that
contributed most to the birth of ASL, came from a unique bilingual
community in Massachusetts. Nora Ellen Groce in her book, Everyone
Here Spoke Sign Language, found that immigrants who came in the
17th century from western Kent in England to Martha's Vineyard,
an island off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the recessive
gene for deafness. Because of the relative isolation and stability
of the population of the island, this gene manifested and flourished,
and a large percentage of the population of this predominantly
fishing community was born deaf. This forced the hearing to become
bilingual. Indeed, most of the hearing residents learned sign
The deaf in Matha's Vineyard grew up as functioning and integrated members of their community. When the island's deaf children were sent away to the American School after its founding in 1817, they took with them this sense of normalcy, as well as their language which because of their numbers and its richness became a key ingredient in the mix which eventually
According to those who have written about the history of Sign, the 50 or 60 years which followed the founding of the American School were a golden age for Sign and for the deaf. The American School thrived, as did other schools that used Sign. Increasing numbers of deaf teachers were being trained and general education levels rose. Van Cleve and Crouch have also pointed to this as a very active period for other deaf organizations, gof rather than for deaf people.h They found that gin the United States deaf people created their own associations, funded them, and controlled them. In this respect the American deaf experience contrasted dramatically with the experience of deaf people in other nations, where historically most organizations were established for deaf people by hearing people. The paternalism of foreign deaf organizations often meant that, however well-meaning their administrators, their primary focus was on the expectations and needs of hearing people.h (Van Cleve & Crouch, 87) The deaf had newspapers, tended to intermarry, and held an array of conventions. (Baynton, 26)
The Fall of Sign
In the 1880s, the tide began to turn against Sign. As Sacks puts it, gIn the 1870s, a current that had been growing for decades, fed, paradoxically by the immense success of the deaf-mute asylums and their spectacular demonstration of the educability of the deaf, erupted and attempted to eliminate the very instrument of success.h (Sacks, 25)
The gcurrenth to which Sacks referred was the need perceived by some educators to force the deaf outside the deaf community and to integrate with society as a whole. This, it was increasingly felt, could only be accomplished by having the deaf learn to speak and to lip read. This approach, oralism, had always had a number of outspoken advocates. These greformersh maintained that sign language asylums were out of date and that gprogressiveh oralist schools must become the norm. (Sacks, 26)
The most influential advocate of this position was Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, who felt that the deaf should not be allowed to disappear into the confines of their own isolated world. He also was a strong believer in eugenics and feared that the deaf living apart would form ga deaf variety of the human race,h and perpetuate other negative genetic traits as well. (Baynton, 6 & 30) Both Bell's mother and wife were deaf, but this was never acknowledged in public. His grandfather and father were both well-known for their work in correcting speech impediments and Bell was working to perfect and popularize a method of teaching speech to the deaf created by his father, called gVisible Speech.h (Baynton, 103)
Oralism had a long history. In Europe, the prevalent method in Germany was by and large oral. The gFrench methodh was the method developed by the Paris Institution for the Deaf. Institutions in other European countries followed one method or the other. In the United States, one could see the same mix, although the French method was more established because of the influence of Clerk, the Gallaudets and the American School. (Van Cleve & Crouch, 107)
However, the tide began to turn in Europe in the late 1870s when French oralists convinced the French government that sign language had no grammar and that it obstructed the learning of French. The minister of the interior then ordered government-backed schools for the deaf to use oral French. The head of the Paris Institution, who backed the use of sign language, was fired. His replacement was an gotologist, a medical doctor, who had no sympathy for or understanding of signs.h (Van Cleve & Crouch, 108)
With the majority of European institutions firmly in the oralist camp, oralists gradually began to take control of the education of the deaf. 1880 proved to be a turning point. The International Congress for the Improvement of Deaf Mutes was held that year in Milan. The deaf were largely been excluded. Of the 164 delegates, 163 were hearing. Only 5 Americans plus one European delegate voted against a resolution which maintained the superiority of speech (oralism) over the use of signs.
Greatly encouraged and strengthened by this victory, Bell and other oralists move to establish organizations which could compete with and supplant the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf which was dominated by Edward Miner Gallaudet, the son of the founder of the American School, and other advocates of sign. Their efforts began to bear fruit. In 1882, only 7.5% of the 7000 pupils in American schools for the deaf were taught using strictly oral methods. In 1900, this number had reached 47%, then passing the 50% mark in 1905. At oralism's peak in 1919, it was said that 80% of all deaf students in the United States did not use their hands when being taught. (Van Cleve & Crouch, 122)
Bell and other oralists lobbied hard for the removal of Sign and of deaf teachers from the teaching staffs of schools for the deaf. They also urged an end to residential schools and advocated the establishment of day schools from which students could commute from home, thereby preserving the integrity of the family and keeping the deaf from establishing communal ties. (Baynton, 67)
The numbers reflect their success. In 1850, approximately half of the teachers in schools for the deaf were deaf themselves. By 1900 this had dropped to about a quarter and then to around 12% by 1960. Those deaf teachers who remained were often relegated to industrial courses for those students who had not been able to learn speech. Unfortunately for the deaf, oralism never worked. The general literacy level of the deaf dropped considerably. Sacks cites a 1972 Gallaudet College survey which found the reading levels of 18-year-old deaf high school students to be at the fourth grade level. Other studies showed similar results. (Sacks, 27-28)
Although Bell and others challenged and successfully undermined the legitimacy of ASL, ASL was not completely eradicated from deaf schools in the United States, nor did it lose its place within the deaf community. ASL went underground. In addition to the surviving residential schools, the existence of Gallaudet College (later University) in Washington D.C., founded in 1864, provided a place where students could continue to use Sign, even if it had to be done furtively. As a matter of fact, Gallaudet was the only institution of higher learning for the deaf in the world for over 100 years, though women were not routinely admitted until the 1890s.
However, the delegitimization of sign and the attack on residential institutions served to fragment the deaf community, and it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that the deaf community was to emerge with the force it had shown in the mid-1800s. The deaf themselves were in a weak position within the deaf education gestablishment.h Deaf teachers were a minority in deaf schools. There were few deaf principals or superintendents, and few or none on school governing boards. Yet, because of the diversity and the decentralization of policy-making in the United States, where authority extended from the federal government to states and to local bodies such as school boards, and where private philanthropic bodies were more involved in funding deaf-related projects, American institutions serving the deaf were not subjected to the same state directed pressures found in Europe, where policies and funding were more highly concentrated. There was therefore some breathing room for Sign.
Assimilation and National Unity
The victory of oralism over sign was not simply the result of a power struggle between those involved in the education of the deaf, but reflected major transformations in post-Civil War American society. The northern victory had brought on a burst of regionally based nationalistic euphoria, followed by a move towards social conservatism. Industrialization and urbanization were transforming what had been an agrarian society. Populations of cities doubled, trebled, even quadrupled within decades.
These industrial workers were often the sons of farmers, who moved from the farm to the factory in what was to be a century-long migration. It was also fueled by the great migrations from Europe in the late 19th century. Some Europeans, notably from Germany and Scandinavia, headed for parts of the country where farmland was still available, whereas many, notably the Irish and later the Italians and East European Jews, remained where they arrived, in the urban centers in the northeast.
To many WASPs these trends threatened the well being of the nation. In the first place, the Irish and the Italians were Catholic and their numbers and perceived fecundity as well as their alien ways were perceived as a potential menace. These aliens were concentrated in growing urban areas, which were considered to be centers of corruption and vice in the minds of many evangelical Protestants.
It was in these years after the Civil War that one begins to see stepped up efforts to promote social legislation which would greformh these not-yet Americanized arrivals. The growing prohibition movement was one example of the reformism initiated by evangelical Protestants to stamp out the sin and otherness of the new arrivals. The educational reform movement that ultimately led to the legislation that created universal compulsory education also grew out of this effort to assimilate and Americanize the new urban immigrants. That oralism rose to prominence at this time was probably no coincidence. Residential schools for the deaf drew similar expressions of hostility, as did the parochial schools that taught European immigrants in their native languages. (Baynton, 34)
Another factor, particularly relevant to the sign-oralism controversy, was the reformist ideas generated by the rising optimism in technology and science. It was thought that scientific advances and approaches could lead to the solution of many social ills. Thus one sees the determined confidence with which Bell and others tried to engineer the deaf into speakers.
Another factor emerged after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. Although many American Christians refused to accept its implications for Biblical interpretation, they embraced many of the social offshoots. Prior to the Civil War, educating the deaf was largely the enterprise of evangelical Protestants whose purpose was minister to the unsaved. For them, sign was a means to introduce the gospel to the deaf, much as learning the languages of peoples of Africa or native Americans made it possible to proselytize and convert them. But after the Civil War these concerns changed. Evangelicals became more involved with the social ills, which accompanied immigration, industrialization and urban squalor.
The social application of Darwinism reinforced the feelings of racial and cultural superiority held by many Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Caucasian races were found to be more evolved than non-Caucasian races. Northern European cultures were found to be more evolved than those of the south. gLinguistic Darwinismh reflected poorly on the deaf, for whereas in pre-Darwinian days the lack/loss of hearing separated them from God, for which exposure to the Gospel was the remedy, their deafness was now seen as an evolutionary defect which reflected their genetic and evolutionary inferiority. Sign, guilty by association, was an inferior ggesticularh language, a possible indication of subhuman communication, an inferior language that preceded the earliest and most primitive gsavageh languages. (Baynton, 40) Therefore, one can understand Bell's desire to hide his wife and mother and to rely on his technological and scientific know-how to bring them into the realm of the hearing.
The scales were tipped against sign at many different levels. Although one does not see the same state-sponsored attempts to create a national language as in Europe, where minority cultures and their languages were everywhere under attack, similar results were achieved at the local level. Educational efforts increasingly emphasized national myths and identity, and did it by promoting English-language literacy.
The Sixties and Beyond
Sacks and other commentators credit the civil rights movement with the awakening of the deaf community and the beginnings of the revitalization of sign. The empowerment movements of many ethnic, religious and linguistic groups that followed in the late 1960s |1980s also had a profound impact on the deaf community, particularly amongst the young. Black civil rights activists who in the early stages of the civil rights movement demanded integration and equality adopted strategies of self-respect and self-empowerment to mobilize constituencies. These often replaced the original goals of the movement. Many deaf moved in the same direction.
In 1968, the United States Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act, a piece of the Great Society legislation that signified a shift in national policy, recognition of the pluralistic nature of American society. However, the goal of assimilation or integration remained, the idea being that a young person could best access the English language as well as American culture through his or her native. While this legislation had little immediate impact on the deaf, changes were in the air.
In the late 1950s, William Stokoe was hired to teach medieval
studies at Gallaudet University. He developed a fascination for
the Sign he saw being used by students in their informal dealings
with one another and decided to do a systematic study of it. His
research into Sign led him to publish two studies in the 1960s
that showed Sign (ASL) to be a complex and sophisticated language.
Although repudiated by oralists and advocates of signed English,
it raised the status of Sign, particularly amongst its own speakers.
On other campuses across the United States one saw the emergence of courses and majors which recognized and validated cultural diversity: black studies, Hispanic studies, Jewish studies, women's studies being examples. This had an impact on the deaf community as well. In 1986, Gallaudet University offered for the first time a course on the history of the deaf in the United States. However, even at Gallaudet, Sign (ASL) was still restricted and only signed English was allowed. (Sacks, 150)
Growing tensions on the Gallaudet campus came to a head in the spring of 1988, when the president decided to step down. On the short-list of presidential candidates were three hearing and three deaf. Gallaudet had never had a deaf president, and students quickly coalesced and demanded that the board of trustees name one of the deaf candidates president. However, with the backing of the board chair, who was firmly in the oralist, signed English camp, a hearing president was named. The students declared a strike. In the end the students won. Both the president and the chair were forced to resign and a new president, who although hearing, was fluent in Sign, was named.
New approaches to teaching the deaf have also emerged in the 1990s. A total communication approach which combines ASL, speech, English (written and signed), and fingerspelling has gained in popularity. On the other hand, a more assertive approach, championed by author and activist Harlan Lane, has also emerged. Drawing upon the spirit of the Bilingual Education Act and multi-culturalism, Lane and others call for a bilingual and bicultural approach to the education of the deaf, with deaf culture to be grounded in ASL, reaching out to the greater English-speaking community from this base of cultural solidarity. A more conservative, assimilationist approach has also arisen since the 1970s with the popularization of signed English, a direct though cumbersome rendering of English using sign.
Just how far the deaf activism had come was made clear in an article that appeared in the September issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine. Edward Dolnick looked into a controversy that was dividing the deaf community in the United States. He first explored how many deaf have come to reject deafness as a gdisability,h and have come to see themselves as a subculture, drawing parallels with ethnicity, a glinguistich minority with ASL as their defining characteristic.
Part of this controversy was over recent medical and technological advances that have made it possible in some cases to allow the deaf to hear. Activists have called this an invasion of their cultural integrity. Forcing a deaf child to become hearing, they reasoned, was an assault on the child's and the deaf community's cultural identity.
Dolnick also noted how this rejection of the gdisabledh label has also created tensions between the deaf and the gdisabled lobby,h which dwarfs the deaf community in size, is a major lobby and funding-raising powerhouse, and is the source of much of the funding received by deaf organizations.
Another challenge has been posed to activists seeking to maintain the integrity of the deaf community, a liberal integrationist reform which also came out of the civil rights movement | mainstreaming. Mainstreaming programs have taken children with gdisabilitiesh out of institutions and placed them into the public schools. Even though less pernicious than oralism, the results have been much the same. There may be but one deaf child in a class, or in an entire school, isolated from deaf peers and the deaf community in general. Activists have sought to turn back these and other programs that threatened to divide the deaf community. (Baynton, 153)
The backlash against multi-culturalism in general and bilingual education in particular has been building since the 1980s. First of all, many educators have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of bilingualism as a learning tool for preparing a child to succeed in the English-speaking world; arguments not unlike those made by oralists against Sign in the late 1800s.
Professional skepticism and political resentment lie behind the English as official language movement. Proponents maintain that English should be the sole language of government and other public functions and should be given special legal official status. Such legislation has passed in over 20 states. In California, where 40% of all non-English speakers reside, a ballot initiative passed in 1998 eliminating in the schools most instruction in non-English languages.
This backlash is in many ways reminiscent of national integration movements in the late 19th century. Since World War II, large numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants have moved into southern border areas of the United States, as well as into many parts of the north. Immigrants from Southeast Asia, Haiti, Russia and other parts of the world have also swelled the non-English speaking. For many social conservatives, this again threatens national identity, hence the popularity of moves to restrict immigration, attacks on multi-culturalism in public schools and universities, and movements similar to the one to establish English as the official language.
Baynton, Douglas C. Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language (University of Chicago, 1996)
@ Dolnick, Edward. gDeafness as Cultureh The Atlantic Monthly, September 1993, pp 37-53
Groce, Nora Ellen. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard (Harvard University, 1985)
Lane, Harlan. When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (Random House, 1984)
Sacks, Oliver. Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf (HarperCollins, 1990)
Van Cleve, John Vickery and Barry A. Crouch. A Place of their Own: Creating the Deaf Community (Gallaudet University, 1990)