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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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Deeply upset after meeting with students at the Texas School for the Deaf in the winter of 1937, leaders of the Texas Association of the Deaf initiated a campaign against Superintendent T. M. Scott. Scott was a political appointee who had presided over the Texas School for some fifteen years. Leo Lewis, president of the Texas Association, explained that he had visited with students in several classes and asked them if they understood the spoken communication of their teacher. “Not one knew. They are making mummies out of children, not educating them,” he charged in an independent newspaper.22

Texas Association leaders knew that legislative support was vital if they were to oust Scott. After interviewing employees, former students, and parents, activists forwarded charges to members of the Texas House Eleemosynary Committee who monitored the school. The charges accused Scott of dozens of violations, including refusing to meet with deaf parents, arbitrarily firing instructors, improperly expelling students, and allowing staff members to beat students.23 “We are convinced our school is not fulfilling the purpose for which it is created,” the Texas Association charged, “that instead it is confusing our heads, breaking our hearts, and tying our hands.”24

State officials responded favorably. Alarmed by the breadth and severity of these accusations—especially the charges of physical punishment—members of the oversight committee began investigating Scott’s efforts in 1938. State representatives interviewed Scott, Lewis, students, and parents, collecting hundreds of pages of testimony.25 Brushing away the criticism, Scott assured state officials that 80 percent of his students could read lips.26 “The sign language means nothing in the world to a deaf person, if they are taught the lipreading,” he maintained.27

As Scott’s fate hung in the balance, Texas Association leaders worked to strengthen their momentum. To this end, they held an emergency convention to enlist the support of former students, parents, and adults, and they circulated a petition calling for the removal of the superintendent.28 Lewis also criticized school policies in the Modern Silents, the newspaper he published. Charging that widespread student resistance to oralism and the suppression of sign language forced supervisors to use physical force to maintain order, he asked pointedly: “Why the need for this doubled staff of nursemaids or whip wielders or whatever you choose to call them?” Texas Association leaders also presented the State Board of Control—the agency responsible for oversight of the school—with an extraordinary, even unprecedented document: a petition, with more than 7,500 names, demanding Scott’s resignation. There was no doubt that the state’s deaf citizens, joined by deaf and hearing supporters from outside the state, were united in their resolve to change the situation.29

This determined and well-documented drive had revealed Scott as an expendable embarrassment. In December 1938, the state’s House Eleemosynary Committee held new hearings in which parents and students once again criticized school management.30 Students at the Texas School for the Deaf—in a demonstration suggestive of the protests that would shut down Gallaudet University half a century later—boycotted classes and marched to the state capitol to protest.31 In early 1939, members of the State Board of Control agreed to appoint a new superintendent.

The deaf community’s victory, although remarkable, was not complete. Scott’s ouster greatly lessened the climate of coercion, and his successor invited members of the Texas Association and parents to the school for consultation.32 Still, these substantive changes did not signal a rejection by state officials or hearing parents of oral-centered practices. Although Texas Association leaders supported the combined method and recommended that all teachers be fluent in sign language, they declined to press these positions, lest the focus be shifted away from Scott. Officials ended the physical and psychological abuses of the Scott administration, but there is no indication that hearing parents or officials agreed with deaf adults that pure oralist practices were themselves abusive.

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