ragged edge magazine online

ABOUT US   |   SUBSCRIBE    |   E-MAIL EDITOR   |   HOME      




EDITOR'S NOTE: There's a shelf in the stacks of the library at the University of California at Berkeley that I think of as "the crip shelf": it's there that I've found many of the "Lost Classics" that have been run in the Ragged Edge. I gave no more than a glance, however, to a slim book with a battered cover entitled Deafness and Cheerfulness. When I did finally pick it up, I discovered that A.W. Jackson was not only a delightful writer, but one who clearly saw that people with disabilities suffered from social barriers and mistreatment. He could not imagine a way out of this, couldn't see the possibilities of the disability rights movement. The solution he proferred was individual adjustment. And yet, at the same time he said that our oppression is "hard, -- never admit that it is right; at the same time take home the fact that it is hardly worth while for us to bruise ourselves by resenting it. . . . If railing would avail, why, I would say, rail on. Cull from your dictionary the choicest vocabulary of denunciation and fling it forth. . . ."

Rail on, sisters and brothers. And when you're done railing, cull and fling that choice vocabulary of denunciation.

-- Anne Finger, Poetry/Fiction Editor



Deafness & Cheerfulness

by A. W. Jackson

A Prefatory Word

I have a mind to write to my fellow-sufferers, the deaf. Some may think it dubious enterprise to turn infirmity into literature; and they may fling in my face the dictum of Emerson, "Beware how you unmuzzle a valetudinarian." And it may well be confessed that were it to become the vogue of letters to deal with the ills that flesh is heir to, the result could not be a happy one. Think of the books that would be thrust upon us: "To my Consumptive Friend," " The Consolations of Liver Complaint," "Reveries of a Dyspeptic." Physicians would be cross-examined and hospital records would be explored for the telling illustration of the chosen malady. In our reading hours we should have constantly to do with the nurse and the doctor -- our literary acquaintances would be men and women of the bent form, the sunken eye, the hollow cheek, the saffron hue. All of which I say in order to say that not even to the extent of this slight volume would I offend in this direction. The noblest dealing with misfortune is in manly silence to bear it; the next to the meanest is in feebleness to weep over it; the wholly unpardonable is to ask others to weep also. And I should feel that I was committing this unpardonable sin if I were to write of deafness simply to make literature of its sufferings.

The purpose, indeed, for which I address my fellow-sufferers is to brace them, cheer them, reconcile them. I aim not to tell a tale or to paint a picture, but to preach a sermon. To be sure, it will be an extremely unconventional sermon, somewhat of the nature of a prayer-meeting experience supplemented with an exhortation. From long experience of deafness, I cannot doubt that I know the outer sufferings, the inner griefs, of those who are smitten with it; and though I may not have followed, I am sure I have seen, and can trust myself to point out, the way of wisdom in dealing with it. For a very great number of the incurably deaf the chief help is in a large sense moral, and with this I would reach them. I shall indulge little in pity, -- that I reserve for children, not proffer men; but I shall appeal to courage and faith and fortitude. The experience of the deaf is hard, far harder than any but a fellow-sufferer can know; I would bear in upon them the thought once borne in upon me by a beloved physician: "This is bad, very bad indeed, and not unlikely it will become worse; but has the thought occurred to you that it is a very poor bushel under which to hide your candle?"

And one thing more will be undertaken in these pages. The deaf have not only griefs, but also grievances; they suffer directly from their infirmity, and scarcely less from the treatment of those about them. This treatment, however mistaken, is almost never the offspring of unkindly purpose; yet no innocence of intent quite neutralizes its pang. Accordingly, while speaking to the deaf I shall also speak for them. Shifting here and there the point of view, I shall seek to show to those who meet them in their walk the way of dealing that shall spare them wounds and shed a brightness on their path.

Business Embarrassments

0f course an infirmity from which one suffers socially must be a business disability, since so much of business is social in its requirement. I use the word "business" in a large sense, embracing in it all the many avocations by which a livelihood is won. A lawyer is a business man when he puts his knowledge or acumen in exchange for the money of his client; and the minister, the physician, the teacher, the employee on a railway or in a manufactory, in the like sense.

I have more especially in mind, however, that touch with human life through which a calling is fulfilled and an honorable maintenance won. It is in being wrenched away from this that the deaf man is likely to be made most keenly sensible of his misfortune. . . .

In the presence of this embarrassment, especially on the part of those who have others depending on them, my word is necessarily a sober one. I can treat lightly of social embarrassments; I can commend the cheerful view of them, I can even laugh at them, and often do so. But in the presence of one who, capable of doing so, is yet denied the sacred privilege of providing a dignified maintenance for those who are dependent on him, I cannot laugh. The gravity of his situation draws from me rather the sympathy that is due to sorrow or an appeal to the fortitude that can bear a cross. And if he complains that society treats him hardly, however willing I may be to extenuate society, I cannot deny his fact. For while the source of his grief is in part in himself, it is also in part, and that no meagre part, in the social dislike of which his affliction is the occasion. There are many services for which deafness radically disqualifies; but there are others for which this particular deaf man is disqualified only because he cannot be endured. That is to say, the disqualification is rather moral in others than physical in him. He has need of a little patience, but

"Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun."

You are effusive in pity for his infirmity, and afflict him with a far weightier burden. Mere deafness he might bear with equanimity, but a needy family is a penetrating sorrow. His intellect is at its best, his physical vigor is equal to the calls upon it, to the world he wears a cheerful front, and not unlikely the consciousness of his infirmity may stimulate him to a more strenuous fidelity. But there all the same is the infirmity, which certainly does not add to his attractiveness, and a considerate and gentle dealing with which is witness to a grace of spirit, alas ! so rare. So the range of remunerative employment which deafness has necessarily narrowed, is still further narrowed by intolerance of deafness, until the sufferer, unless favored by exceptional fortune, is practically driven from the field.

There is said to be a great demand for farm-labor; but that deafness would be a serious obstacle to an applicant for this I am not without evidence. The deaf laborer might plough as straight a furrow, plant and cultivate and harvest as well as if possessed of the best possible hearing; but there is the necessary effort to make him hear to which even farmer patience could not too confidently be judged equal. The qualifications for a coachman would seem to be wise care of horses, skilful driving, and ever courteous behavior; but these with deafness for accessory would ordinarily need to look long for employment. The porter is temperate and good-natured, and he carries trunks valiantly; but the chances are that he would lose his job if overtaken by deafness. The baker seems to have no great use for ears in kneading bread; but, unless a master whom others served, I fear he would be an unprosperous baker if his ears were to fail him. The printer at his case seems to bring into exercise hardly more than a quick eye and trained fingers; but, if a journeyman, I suspect he would have to journey speedily if deafness were to come upon him, and far before another position was offered him.

Of course very pleasant exceptions can be quoted, but thus surely stands the rule in what it is our wont to regard as the lower ranges of employment, while in the higher we should doubtless find it enforced with increased severity. Here is a man active in church and benevolent in society; he gives to missions, helps to build an asylum, contributes to the library; in a generous meaning of the word, he visits the fatherless and the widow in their affliction and keeps himself unspotted from the world. Yet it is to be feared that even he, in whom the Christian graces are so abounding, would dismiss from his counting-room the book-keeper overtaken by this misfortune. Indeed, this picture is drawn very nearly to the life of one whom I have known.

The book-keeper might be as faithful and efficient as ever, yet in need of that tolerance for which deafness must always plead. Many a woman who goes the rounds of charity in some city, is familiar with hospital wards and the garrets and cellars of the slums, would shun the counter behind which a deaf salesman is standing. He would serve her with every possible care; but because of this impediment to communication she will not approach him. A little while ago she was tender towards squalid vice; she now turns her back upon cleanly and well-mannered infirmity. He is struggling to maintain a foothold in the industrial world, well knowing that if he loses it, it will be scarce possible for him to gain another; she pursues a course that is simply sure to shake him from it. On the one side she is asked the special effort which his thickened eardrums make necessary, -- a second statement of her want with special care as to her utterance, which at the distant intervals of her infrequent visits would imply no serious burden; on the other, a wife's dignity and children's education are put in jeopardy by her refusal.

These illustrations will do for wide tracts of experience; and certainly the minister or the moralist may here remark on the expense to others by which many spare themselves; and may very seriously ask if such conduct is in accord with the standard of virtue they profess. I know that instances to a contrary tenor can be quoted, and I am glad to recognize them. I have certainly known a porter who was deaf; very likely there are farmers who may consistently exact a qualification of my statement; the deaf coachman or printer may be found; the deaf salesman is not an impossibility. In a Massachusetts university there toils a professor whose hearing is very imperfect, yet through lengthening years kept at his post, revered, beloved, and successful. In a Massachusetts village there toils a minister, and for more than a quarter of a century has toiled, though his deafness is so extreme that speech with him is scarcely possible, who once told me that in all these years no unpleasant reminder of his infirmity, either by act or word, had ever come to him from his people.*

Others in our clerical rank -- a noble minister in Rochester, N. Y., a noble minister in Minneapolis, both sorely afflicted with deafness -- come before me as I write. In a professor's chair at Oxford sits one who could hardly be deafer and hear at all, permitted to render his priceless service through the Christian consideration that is shown him. One of his pupils once said to me, "It is very important that we hear him; it is not so important that he hear us."**

Supported, too, by the like consideration, Professor Mulford was enabled to do his noble work in Cambridge. Other examples most likely any reader may supply, -- men like these whom I have mentioned, who through especially high service or special grace of character have won and held an interest and appreciation in spite of their infirmity; others, too, less endowed, but capable of being faithful. Such examples, however, are only striking and impressive as exceptions to the hard rule on which we have lingered.

On this point I must disclaim all bitterness of feeling, though I cannot deny that my feeling is intense; and when I meet bitterness in others, though I cannot approve, I do not wonder. But what can be done about it ? This question, fellow sufferers, I address to you. The grievance is real; is there a remedy ?

*I cannot think I need hesitate to say that my reference here is to Rev. Joshua Young, of Groton. With this testimony before them, all deaf people should pray for the prosperity of his church.

**My reference is to Charles B. Upton, certainly one of the best philosophical minds in England. Some may think it doubtful if an institution is entitled to much praise for the prudence that abstains from chopping its own head off.

A.W. Jackson (1843-1911), a native of Maine and graduate of Colby College and Harvard Divinity School, was a Unitarian minister and a teacher at the Meadville Theological School. Deafness and Cheerfulness was published by Little, Brown and Co. in 1901.

WHAT DO YOU THINK of what you've just read? Send us an email.

Back to table of contents

© Copyright 2003 by The Advocado Press

This Website produced by Cliffwood Organic Works