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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

from Chapter Six

“Conspiracy of Silence”
Contesting Exclusion and Oral Hegemony

The Great Depression brought widespread unemployment to forty thousand deaf adults and continued educational failure to fifteen thousand deaf students in the United States.1 Economic downturn illuminated the inadequacies of vocational programs. Deaf people engaged in frustrating and often unsuccessful negotiations to secure work from either increasingly disinterested private employers or the recalcitrant state and federal officials who managed the era’s governmental work programs. Deaf teachers and community leaders again sought to revamp technical instruction, and the continued determination of oralists to suppress sign language at public schools spurred broad and, in some instances, unprecedented opposition.

Efforts of deaf people to upgrade secondary-level vocational instruction were largely in vain in the 1930s.2 Deaf teachers, although persistent, had little power now that their numbers had been reduced to less than 10 percent of the overall teaching force and less than half of all vocational instructors.3 The frustrations of Iowa’s J. Schuyler Long, one of the nation’s few remaining deaf administrators, underscored this collective powerlessness. At the 1931 convention of school administrators, Long appealed to his hearing peers. “Do you know the world as the deaf man finds it?” he asked. “The place to test the success of an educational system is not in the schoolroom nor in the conversations over the social teacups,” he explained, “but out where men toil and earn their daily bread.”4

In addition to their efforts to upgrade vocational programs, deaf critics praised the few school administrators who successfully expanded instruction. For example, Edmund Boatner, superintendent of the American School for the Deaf, established courses in welding, mechanics, and typewriter repair beginning in 1938, despite severe budget constraints. In two years, school officials helped one hundred students, as well as nonmatriculating adults, find positions at area firms, including some that previously had been closed to deaf workers.5

The national economic downturn also undercut the efforts of deaf teachers to fulfill their long-standing goal of building an advanced institution for technical instruction.6 Throughout the 1930s, scattered activists from across the nation put forward proposals for such a school.7 The efforts of Peter Peterson, an instructor at Minnesota’s residential school, revealed activists’ limited influence. Rather than calling for a national effort as attempted by earlier activists, Peterson proposed that deaf leaders ask Henry Ford to underwrite establishment of a college. “All we need is a Moses to lead us through the wilderness,” he claimed.8

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