Chapter 6 of Illusions of Equality continued…
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Underemployment was common among those deaf women and men who were able to find jobs in the 1930s. The decade's only national survey -- a study of ten thousand hard of hearing and deaf women and men completed in 1934 -- indicated that nearly half of all respondents were unemployed. Among job holders, however, 40 percent of men and 50 percent of women held unskilled or semiskilled positions that required no formal schooling and from which there was little chance to advance.

The major thrust of efforts by deaf activists to secure more and better employment for workers during the Depression focused on expanding access to the private sector through the establishment of state-based labor bureaus. They threw themselves into bureau drives in more than a dozen states. Although deaf activists in New York were unable to establish a separate bureau for deaf workers, their campaign is particularly interesting because of their efforts to challenge oralist hegemony and command new communication rights for working adults. Organized by Jack Ebin and the revitalized Empire State Association, deaf people in New York state worked to establish a separate division within the Department of Labor to be staffed by professionals fluent in sign language. Moreover, in an innovative effort to win recognition as a linguistic minority group -- a position championed by deaf activists in the 1980s and 1990s -- Ebin argued that deaf adults, by virtue of their facility in sign language, should be considered a minority-language group. Sign language, bureau proponents maintained, was indispensable to communicating with placement officers and ensuring proper job placements.

With this insistence that sign language be the medium of communication, activists implicitly rejected a role subordinate to state personnel. Deaf adults typically had been restricted to communication methods chosen by hearing professionals -- for example, in the frustrating meetings individual job petitioners had with Margarette Hemle -- but now they demanded the right to communicate in a language that provided them with the best opportunity for full expression. In so doing, they also challenged the legitimacy of oralist precepts. Deaf New Yorkers were able to secure legislative support for their initiatives, but they desperately needed the endorsement of leadership in the Department of Labor and the influential Temporary State Commission (TSC), then investigating the provision of state services for deaf and hard of hearing children and adults. The commission had no deaf members, however, and it was dominated by hearing politicians, educators, and oralist medical personnel. Not surprisingly, the TSC dismissed the initiative. Department of Labor administrators even insisted state personnel need not learn sign language because deaf workers did not ask employers to develop such proficiency. In the end, oralist beliefs prevailed in the workplace and in the provision of state services: deaf adults had to accommodate the linguistic methods of the hearing majority. Next Page

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