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Deafness in America -- the original words

A review by Raymond Luczak

A MIGHTY CHANGE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF DEAF AMERICAN WRITING 1816-1864. Christopher Krentz, Editor. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2000. Paperback, 238 pages, $24.95.

For those interested in examining the gradual shift of attitude toward Deaf people, A Mighty Changemakes an intriguing historical overview. In his introduction, Christopher Krentz, an English and ASL instructor at the University of Virginia, provides a good background, enabling us to ascertain the period and context in which these pieces by deaf writers were composed. It is all the more remarkable to encounter how some of these deaf writers explain their own version of heaven: A place where their hearing would be restored, thereby redeeming them. Today, for much of the deaf community, this concept is pure anathema; they would rather that the world sign, not speak.

To understand how such a complete transformation of attitude was possible in the space of less than a century, unraveling thousands of years of deeply ingrained attitudes towards the "deaf and dumb," we need to examine the historical context of change. Before the nineteenth century, there were no government-sponsored agencies or institutions created to serve the needs of deaf people, so religious charities often took up the slack. Although many of them were well-intentioned, they did not necessarily see their deaf brethren as equal to those who could speak. It had been maintained for many centuries prior that speech was considered a sign of intelligence and civilization; the deaf were therefore considered hopeless causes and useful only for the menial.

But things began to change in Connecticut the spring of 1814. Struck by the inherent intelligence of a deaf eight-year-old girl named Alice Cogswell, the young minister Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was asked by her father to find a way to educate her. She did not know sign or speech, so Gallaudet used paper and pen to communicate, which was visual; over time, Alice learned "other words and simple sentences." Encouraged by Gallaudet's success, Mr. Cogswell was eager to set up a school for deaf children and appointed Gallaudet to go to Europe and learn the methods of teaching deaf children.

It was in London that Gallaudet first met Abbé Sicard, director of the National Institute for the Deaf in Paris, and two of his former students, Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc. It was a revelation to Gallaudet that sign language, not speech or paper and pen, was used. Gallaudet was also impressed by how Massieu and Clerc responded to questions from the hearing audience by writing in French on the blackboard. The very idea of literacy beyond simple sentences was unforgettable, and Gallaudet knew what he had to do.

Eventually, in the year 1816, Clerc and Gallaudet arrived in America. On that voyage, Gallaudet taught Clerc how to write in English, and Clerc taught Gallaudet how to sign. (Excerpts from his journal in which he practiced his English on that trip are included in the book.) The deaf community in America can literally trace the beginning of their own liberation to that year. Clerc's importance as the first deaf teacher in America cannot be overemphasized: He was the first to attempt to standardize the home signs made by his deaf students with the French Sign Language he knew. With American Sign Language thus crystallized, it was not long before deaf people, sharing a common language that they understood with their own eyes, began to feel a nascent political self-awareness of themselves as a people, not some disenfranchised group of "helpless unfortunates." The book even points out that Clerc himself had changed: When he first arrived in America, he was asked whether one deaf person should marry another. He said no, but within a few years, he actually married one of his deaf students!

Some of Clerc's speeches written to raise funds for the establishment of the American Asylum of the Deaf are also reprinted here. It is fascinating to see that Clerc described deaf people as "unfortunate beings" who needed help. He also considered sign language to be universal, now known to be entirely untrue. In the first half of A Mighty Change, called "Individual Authors," excerpts by other deaf writers from the same period are equally interesting: James Nack composed poems like "The Minstrel Boy," in which he laments his hearing loss and beseeches his readers to empathize with these deaf people who do not know the gospel; John Burnet, late-deafened at the age of eight, would write the first manual for hearing parents of deaf children: He advocates the learning and use of sign to communicate. (He did not learn signs until he was 21 years old.) The entirety of his short story "The Orphan Mute" is revealing if only for its perfect melodramatic structure that the girl, once abandoned, eventually learns sign and gets her hearing man!

John Carlin wrote a poem, "The Mute's Lament," in which he confesses his ambivalence about being deaf and wanting to be hearing. He expects that when he arrives in heaven, his hearing would be finally restored. Edmund Booth, with his letters, tries to convince other deaf people to move West, which at the time was still a frontier. Adele M. Jewel, a deaf beggar, wrote a pamphlet called "A Brief Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Adele M. Jewel (Being Deaf and Dumb)," and sold it to support herself and her mother. It is a rare look into the life of a lower-class deaf woman who lived in Michigan before the Civil War. In her writing, we glimpse the fact that black deaf children were being educated. Laura Redden Searing, who lost her hearing at age eleven, eventually became a reporter. She offers some insights with "A Few Words about the Deaf and Dumb."

The second half of the book is called "Events and Issues." One of the best passages in the entire book is the reunion report at the American Asylum of the Deaf on September 26, 1850. This was the first full expression of deaf pride. The contributions of Gallaudet and Clerc, who established the school 33 years earlier, were honored. It is indeed moving to read the speeches made by former students to Gallaudet and Clerc themselves; the spark had been lit for others to fan into flames in the generations ahead.

The book next presents a batch of published letters written back and forth between various deaf people on the idea of establishing a deaf state, not just a deaf community in the middle of a hearing city, a country of their own. The opinions expressed in these letters provide an extraordinary barometer of the times, only some forty years after Clerc's arrival in America. Some wanted secession; others wished for the inclusion of sign-fluent hearing people. But the fact that deaf people had already begun to see themselves as a people with their own newspapers and strong opinions at that time is clear.

The book ends with Clerc's arrival in Washington, DC, for the inauguration of what later became Gallaudet University, and the two speeches that were made on that spectacular day in 1864.

In many ways, this book would be best appreciated by people who are intimately familiar with Deaf culture and the wide varieties of deafness within the community. We need to know our own history, because it is only in looking back that we can gauge the progress we've made and determine how much further we have to go. A Mighty Change is a solid addition to our understanding of a complex and changing community.

Raymond Luczak (www.raymondluczak.com.) is the editor of Eyes Of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader (1993, Alyson) and the author of St. Michael's Fall: Poems (1996, Deaf Life Press). He lives in New York City where he is finishing up his debut feature GHOSTED.

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