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Deaf History and Culture in Spain: A Reader of Primary Documents

Benjamin Fraser, Editor and Translator
Foreword by Sam Supalla


When I traveled to Madrid, Spain, in 2002 to research Deaf culture —as a Spanishspeaking, hearing researcher and native English speaker interested in the topic—I was immediately informed by a contact that there was, in fact, no “Deaf culture” to be found. This book is the outcome of my struggle to make sense of this statement. The readings it contains are documents of a complex struggle. Understanding the history of this struggle—one that involves both hearing people and deaf people, paradigms of education, and attitudes toward language itself—is important if we are to fashion a more just world. I hope that the reader will gain a sense of the problems of the past that endure even today and also of how far we still have to go.

Before my trip to Madrid, I had taken courses in American Sign Language (ASL as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia and during my graduate studies in Spanish at the University of Arizona, and I took my developing understanding of the Deaf world for granted. As I understood things, Deaf people were a linguistic minority, ASL was the expression of a cultural identity, and this identity, in its modern expression, had been the result of a concerted effort by both deaf and hearing people alike. Like other students of ASL and Deaf culture, I knew that the history of this effort could be traced through numerous publications, organizations, and demonstrations from William Stokoe’s work in the late 1950s and 1960s through Gallaudet University’s Deaf President Now! student movement of 1988 and beyond. I was familiar with the turbulent history of oralism in deaf education—the idea that deaf people should be taught to speak—after reading such masterful works as Harlan Lane’s Mask of Benevolence (1992) and Susan Plann’s A Silent Minority (1997). In casual conversations with hearing people who knew little about deaf people, I was often in the position to point out to others that, no, there was no such thing as a universal sign language and that sign languages have a grammatical structure of their own and amount to much more than merely “waving your hands.”

Yet, despite this rudimentary knowledge, I was not in the position to appreciate that the Spanish context was so different. I wondered how it could seem that there was no Deaf culture in Spain. Although I did not believe this at the time and still do not believe it today, I needed to understand the turbulent history of deaf people in Spain to make sense of this statement. This volume seeks to present this turbulent history—its ideas, its key figures, its institutions, its recent developments—through documents dating from the early fifteenth century through today. It is my hope that deaf and hearing people alike, whether they are interested in Spain in particular or deaf history and culture in general, will find much in this work that, despite its historical context, is relevant to the struggle deaf people face in a contemporary hearing society.

It is my belief that there has been Deaf culture wherever deaf people have been able to find and establish relationships with one another. In this sense, there has always been Deaf culture in Spain. Yet from today’s perspective, “Deaf culture” (with a capital letter) connotes a certain self-conscious formation of identity, an acknowledgement of the power relationships that have always structured relations between hearing and deaf people—in short, an essentially social and even political project. The later selections in this volume make it very clear that this project is alive and well in Spain today. Contemporary authors, poets, linguists, and investigators of culture have been putting together a body of work that testifies to the deaf experience and to the legitimacy of a language and a culture that an overwhelming hearing majority has historically denied them.

Nevertheless, the road to Deaf culture in Spain has been a long one. It has required struggle by both hearing and deaf people, a struggle that has only recently begun to bear fruit. Many of the early readings in this book, given their oralist focus, are sure to provoke strong reactions. Sadly, this oral bias continues to be expressed even through many of the more contemporary writings included here, either in the guise of a preference for postlingually deaf people over prelingually deaf people or in the act of maintaining the metaphorical notion of deafness as silence—a metaphor that implicitly continues to frame deaf experience in opposition to hearing society and not on its own terms. Although understanding the history of deafness in Spain certainly cannot excuse this bias and its multiple manifestations, such a historical contextualization as that which I hope to have accomplished here serves to underscore the notion that recognizing Deaf culture is a struggle, and moreover, a struggle that must continue.

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