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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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Near the close of World War II, deaf leaders debated the issues that had influenced deaf employment for the previous fifty years. They rejected proposals to require government and private employers to hire deaf employees because they believed such legislation violated their long-standing code of individual responsibility and was appropriate only for “handicapped” individuals, from whom they sought to disassociate themselves. With the majority of adults employed in mid-level factory positions at the close of World War II, however, deaf working men and women faced an uncertain future.

Chapter 1 examines academic and vocational instruction before oralist thought and practices became preeminent. Chapter 2 interprets the educational, vocational, and ideological conflicts between oralists and deaf and hearing opponents during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chapter 3 traces the successful efforts of deaf and hearing activists to reverse a turn-of-the-century ruling by federal administrators to block deaf workers from government employment. Chapter 4 examines the influential but incomplete efforts of deaf activists to harness the power of the government to oversee the status of deaf students and workers in Minnesota. Chapter 5 traces the influx of deaf women and men into the industrial workforce during the early decades of the twentieth century. Chapter 6 considers the efforts of deaf activists to reverse oralist rule at selected residential schools as well as the efforts of workers to enter New Deal work programs during the Depression. Chapter 7 centers on the movement of deaf workers into industry during World War II and their efforts to prepare for employment after the conflict. A brief epilogue sketches the status of deaf workers and the deaf community from the close of World War II to the contemporary era.

Although the geographic boundary of this book ranges across the United States, it is not a comprehensive national study, nor does it fully consider the experiences of all deaf workers in the diverse deaf community. Because primarily based upon the records of organized state and national associations, this study focuses on the most highly educated and professionally successful white males, who dominated leadership positions in most deaf associations. Although I attempt to show the ways that economic-, race-, and gender-biased assumptions influenced these leaders, this study is not centered upon deaf women, deaf individuals of color, or marginally schooled and employed deaf adults. I look forward to additional studies that will illuminate their important but neglected history.3

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