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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

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These developments, in conjunction with the limited years of schooling available to most students, left them ill-prepared to assume anything more than marginal positions in agriculture, industry, and commerce. In particular, my research strongly suggests that the ascendancy of oral-based methods was a hollow, even illusory victory. Even as they were dispersed across the nation, deaf adults vigorously and passionately advocated for sign language and opposed any efforts to ban their beloved language or impose methods that relied exclusively on oral-based approaches. This record of sustained resistance through shared linguistic and cultural identification is remarkable, if not unique, in American history.

Furthermore, I argue that compromise on these pedagogical differences was never reached, as these debates were linked to a broader intractable struggle over the very existence of the developing deaf community. Throughout the period of this study, the pervasive racist, ethnocentric, and assimilationist practices and values of the dominant culture restricted the rights and standing of all minority communities—including, of course, deaf adults.

Although distinguished by its American Sign Language-based communication system and its own cultural identity, the deaf community nonetheless internalized the dominant gender, racial, and economic prejudices of hearing society. Consequently, racial, class, and gender divisions influenced the choices made by white, male, middle-class deaf leaders regarding appropriate strategies to enter and advance through the economy, and they weakened leaders’ commitment to aiding employment rights for all deaf people.

The formative institutions in the deaf community re-created these divisions. School administrators, whether deaf or hearing, established vocational programs that favored male students while slighting women. The majority of African American students attended inferior, segregated schools and were excluded from deaf organizations. Sharp economic divisions resulted from widely disparate educational and vocational opportunities. Although most deaf students never advanced beyond primary-level instruction, a small but influential elite completed secondary programs, graduated from Gallaudet College, found well-paying jobs, and assumed prominent positions in the deaf community.

In contrast to their pathbreaking efforts to define and defend their right to use sign language, deaf leaders and adults were typically cautious, even deferential, regarding their status and rights as workers. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, male deaf leaders had promulgated an influential gender-based code that influenced employment strategies used by deaf workers through the close of World War II. These leaders insisted that states provide academic and vocational instruction, especially to male deaf students, who in turn were expected to become successful workers and respected representatives of their community. This code failed to address the communication difficulties and widespread discrimination most deaf people confronted when they entered the mainstream economy.

Deaf leaders and workers debated and proposed additional employment strategies, but these strategies augmented rather than overturned this conservative precept. Most leaders sought to educate employers about the capabilities of deaf workers, believing that they lacked the power to directly challenge entrenched habits. The first four decades of the twentieth century brought only intermittent advances to the nation’s deaf workers, and no development did more to hinder them than the continued dominance of oralist educational practices. The influence of federal and state agencies on deaf employment was mixed. In some situations, deaf workers were assisted by government efforts; in others they were discouraged or excluded from programs. It was only during World Wars I and II that deaf adults were offered considerable short-term success as industrial employees, especially when employers encouraged the use of writing and American Sign Language in the workplace.


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