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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Illusions of Equality: Deaf Americans in School and Factory 1850-1950

Robert M. Buchanan


This historical study considers the working lives of deaf men and women in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the establishment of an industrial-based class during World War II. It examines the strategies deaf adults used to prepare for, enter, and advance through the nation’s mainstream workforce. In doing this, deaf workers are portrayed, to the extent possible, as they saw themselves. In the working world, they typically sought to de-emphasize their identity as sign language-using deaf persons and to be integrated into the mainstream work force. In their schools, however, they usually favored a bilingual approach, celebrating the centrality of American Sign Language and recognizing the value of English. In fact, as early as the latter half of the nineteenth century, deaf people defined themselves socially as members of a distinct community with shared formative experiences and language as well as full members of hearing society.1 Outside the workplace, deaf adults have long defined themselves as bicultural, bilingual Americans.2

This study also demonstrates that the accomplishments and failures of deaf workers are inextricably linked to the language, identity, schooling, and general status of deaf adults. In addition, the position of deaf workers has been influenced by the changing relationship between the dominant able-bodied hearing culture and other minority communities and marginalized groups in this country.

Consequently, this book attempts to explain the varied factors within the deaf community and U.S. society at large that have alternately restrained and advanced the fortunes of deaf workers. I argue first that sign language-based educational methods have been of particular importance in shaping the identity, intellectual growth, and vocational success of this nation’s deaf citizens. Indeed, the nineteenth century’s greatest advance was the development of an incomplete but extended national system of sign language-based vocational and academic instruction for deaf students. Through the efforts of hearing and deaf leaders, education thus was recast from the privilege of the few to a right of the majority, and deaf people in the United States were brought into close association.

Second, I claim that the most intractable obstacles restraining deaf workers were centered not in the workplace as, one might expect, but in the classroom. By the late nineteenth century, a powerful constituency of hearing educators, parents, and professionals—oralists—opposed the creation of a signing deaf community and sought to assimilate deaf children and adults into mainstream society. Oralists gained control of the nation’s schools where they forced deaf adults from the classroom and administrative positions, undermined vocational instruction, and replaced instruction in sign language with marginally useful oral-based approaches dependent upon speech and speechreading to convey information. My research indicates that the reduction or suppression of sign language restrained the academic, vocational, and intellectual progress of many, if not most, deaf students.

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