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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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Despite their continued inability to spur the establishment of accessible, advanced vocational instruction, deaf activists in several cities secured limited federal support for community-based programs where deaf adults studied basic vocational and general academic subjects. Between 1934 and 1937, for example, William Marra, a recent graduate of Gallaudet College, helped more than 2,500 of Kansas City’s working adults strengthen their skills. One single mother enrolled after being fired from her factory position because of her poor writing skills, and was rehired after attending classes. These efforts, although limited in reach, underscored the unmet need for instruction for countless other deaf adults.9

Few deaf students of either gender received up-to-date instruction, but the situation of female deaf students was most troubling. Reiterating charges first put forward in the nineteenth century, deaf critics claimed that administrators continued to use female students to perform institutional tasks and reduce school expenses but did little to prepare them for employment.10 Margaret McKellar, a Gallaudet College student, warned that without proper instruction most deaf women would be confined to “the vast army of unskilled laborers, doing household work, scrubbing floors, working in factories and laundries with small chances of ever advancing their standard of living.”11 These criticisms were confirmed in a 1933 survey of some 250 alumni from three dozen schools. Although the majority of respondents wanted to enter the paid workforce, they left school ill prepared because most never graduated.12

Deaf women found their employment restricted by formidable gender, economic, and racial barriers as well as by inadequate training.13 Surveys consistently revealed that deaf women were usually segregated in marginal industrial positions. One study of former pupils of Indiana’s residential school, for example, noted that most women were employed in menial positions at machine and laundry work.14 Across the South, educational facilities for African American deaf students were poorly funded, if available at all. In Louisiana, for example, there was no school for deaf African Americans until 1938. The situation was even more perilous for African American women, whose status was scarcely acknowledged by educators. Given these constraints, most African American deaf women were consigned to work as domestic helpers or unskilled laborers.15

Ultimately, the status of vocational programs could not be separated from the ongoing conflict over communication methods. As the national economic downturn forced administrators to reduce their budgets, deaf leaders charged that oralist practices dangerously undercut vital vocational programs and the very standing of students. Warren Smaltz, the leader of the Pennsylvania Society for the Advancement of the Deaf, claimed that oralist administrators engaged in a “conspiracy of silence” regarding their failures.16 Norman Scarvie, a vocational instructor at Iowa’s residential school, was equally adamant. He charged that school officials neglected the “70 percent of our boys and girls who graduate out the back door.”17

Irreconcilable differences continued to separate oralist administrators and deaf adults. Among the deaf community’s activists, Roy Conkling, publisher of the independent newspaper American Deaf Citizen, may have been the decade’s most persistent and prescient critic of oralist practices.18 A graduate of the Ohio School for the Deaf and an alumnus of Gallaudet College, the undaunted Conkling wrote under the pen name Surdus Junius or “deaf warrior,” to directly challenge the state’s right to suppress sign language and mandate pure oral methods. The suppression of sign language, the ouster of deaf teachers, and the imposition of oral methods, he charged, had created “slave conditions” from which deaf adults would eventually liberate themselves.19

As in previous decades, deaf leaders challenged oralist practices and administrators at schools across the country. In Texas, Idaho, Virginia, Georgia, and Montana, the efforts of activists to defend sign language and combined methods or to halt the summary dismissal of deaf teachers met with limited success.20 The Texas campaign merits examination for its successes as well as its failures. On the one hand, Lone Star activists gained widespread, perhaps unprecedented, support from both hearing and deaf adults in their politically sophisticated drive against the coercive superintendent of the state residential school. On the other hand, they were unable to muster broad support for their more compelling claim that the suppression of sign language undercut the intellectual development of children and often required coercive measures to be enforced.21

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