Forbidden Signs

Forbidden Signs by Douglas C. Baynton is a book that traces the history of sign language in the United States and how and why oralism attempted to obliterate signing and replace it with lip reading and speech. As the author himself notes, the history is quite complex and even though he takes a detailed look at various aspects of it, there are many other strands. However, he blew my socks off with the detailed discussion of those aspects he chose to focus on.

Forbidden Signs fills in a good deal of information about the early years of deaf education in this country. It is filled with very interesting facts about the original schools, the original aims, and the original methods.

Prior to the American Civil War, education tended to be a matter of refinement, of classical and liberal (that is to say, broad ranging) education. It was intended to broadly develop the mind, not to practically develop any particular skills. Men with such education took on the project of educating the deaf, as a means of bringing religion to those “afflicted” by not having received the Good Word. Despite the dubious underlying motivations, this meant that sign language was seen as no particular obstacle — God would understand sign language. At this time it was also thought that pantomime and such were quite well regarded in Roman times (thus giving a pedigree of antiquity to sign language) which resulted in a favorable environment of educating the deaf in sign language. In any case, such education was rigorous and quite taxing; deaf children were not sent away to be educated until they were at least ten and preferably twelve years old. But in this climate, there was no reason that deaf people could not also become teachers, and they did so. The ratio of deaf to hearing teachers approached 50% in mid century.

In the latter half of the century, however, a profound shift in thinking occurred, with the emphasis turning toward practical, standardized education, the regarding of “progression” in a Darwinian sense (in a stunning example of one of the worst ways in which to interpret and then apply Darwin’s theories) resulting in the view of sign language as a primitive and debased means of communication, as clearly the evolution of communication went from signs to speech. In this way, the drive toward oralism began. The oral approach demanded teaching of much younger children, and almost constant supervision by hearing adults to prevent the use of sign. At the same time, women were more commonly employed. Students were both younger and in need of far more intensive one on one education with oral methods. Women were considered more suitable to teach such young children and they were cheaper to hire in the greater numbers needed, as oralism shifted student:teacher ratios from 30:1 to 10:1 or less. In this way the teachers shifted from the more classically educated men, frequently themselves deaf, to vocationally trained hearing women. This in a sense was part of a larger shift in the view of the role of education: to prepare children as good worker bees in the industrial age. Not only that, but with the considerable time spent simply on learning how to form and make sounds replacing time spent on actual learning, the quality of education for the deaf took a nosedive that can still be seen today.

This book manages to examine many different threads going on during these times; I cannot hope to do them justice with a cursory overview. However, one topic that has always fascinated me is that of comparative cultures: as an exchange student in a foreign land, I have been long acutely aware of the issues surrounding different cultural viewpoints. And one of the things that clearly happened in the 19th century was a profound shift in cultural thinking within this country. The chapters explaining the differences in how “natural” became replaced with “normal” just gave me goosebumps. I can just see all these people talking right past each other. The manualists considered signing to be a perfectly natural thing to do; the oralists wanted to normalize everyone to the same standard.

I cannot express what it is like to read things like this

In a letter to an organization conducting research into what it called “the hearing impaired community,” a deaf woman expressed her reluctance to respond to a questionnaire. “I do not want to cooperate with the research,” she wrote, “because hearing politicians and hearing authorities listen to the hearing researchers and hearing parents. They listen to people who do not know the Deaf culture and seek cures for deaf children, ignoring the Deaf community. I was at the Philadelphia Zoo recently and came across the Hippo exhibit. There was a sign which explained different facts related to the social habits of the Hippo. The zoo’s social scientists conducted a study which revealed that if the hippo was isolated, its emotional and behavioral health was affected. The study showed that the hippo required other animals for company and emotional health. That made me so sad, because it seems the researchers and social scientists study the welfare of hippos more carefully than they study the welfare of deaf children!”

and to realize that not only have all the objections and warnings that continue to this day sound exactly the same, it is also a history no one knows about. No one! I had no concept of all this going on at all. As a deaf child mainstreamed with only other hearing children, hearing history, I was aware of none of this. In your typical hearing school, absolutely none of this will show up in history classes. At “best,” Alexander Bell gets a nod as the inventor of the telephone, the wonderful man, him. And it makes me furious. Because it means, as the author puts it so well:

The deaf community finds itself endlessly on the defensive, trying to find hearing educators willing to listen to them. It is difficult to fathom why the delegates to the 1904 convention of the National Association of the Deaf would have to craft a resolution asserting that deaf people “feel that it is their privilege to discuss and pass upon questions of educational methods, inasmuch as they are the results of these methods, and that their opinions therefore should have the weight of authority.” Given the wealth of experience that deaf adults have to draw on, it is a constant source of both puzzlement and pain how little their advice is heeded. Only deaf people are able to deal with deafness per se rather than with the shadows of things that at a distance might resemble or remind one of deafness. Yet the education of each generation of deaf children operates almost entirely in ignorance of, or in conscious opposition to, what deaf adults themselves advise. When a generation of deaf children grow up to become deaf adults and attempt to bear witness to the strengths and faults of their education, they are ignored. Today’s deaf children will, if history is any guide, grow up with resentment and sometimes open contempt for the way they were raised and educated. They will wonder why their parents and educators did not heed what deaf adults told them. They themselves will try to improve the lot of the next generation. If nothing has changed, they will also be ignored.

The obliteration of deaf history makes women’s history look like an open book. As a nation, we are more aware of what we have done to Native Americans and African Americans than what we have done to our own deaf population. It is beyond infuriating.

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