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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf History and Culture in Spain: A Reader of Primary Documents
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Whereas in the United States, the legacy of a vibrant contemporary Deaf culture can be traced back through a scholarly and academic literature that spans almost fifty years, in Spain that tradition is scarcely ten to fifteen years old. Moreover, within Spain, the struggle for the official recognition of sign language (including, for example, Spanish Sign Language [LSE ] and Catalán Sign Language [LS C]) culminated only recently. A law supporting sign languages was drawn up in 2005 and finally supported by the Spanish Senate in 2007. Thus, although in the United States, Deaf culture has been an established starting point for research (at least within communities of deaf people, university classes, and a substantial portion of disciplines such as linguistics and anthropology), in Spain it has been a subject of more debate over the years.

The historical documents and critical essays included in this book form a story that begins with early (mis)understandings of deafness as an illness, moves through turbulent centuries of misguided deaf education, and ends with the official recognition of sign languages (and the acceptance of Deaf culture) in the Spain of the twenty-first century. History is continually shaped through conflict, as it evolves, and it is subsequently reshaped as it is retold. Thus, this volume does not seek to present a tidy, straightforward narrative of the history of deaf people in Spain. Instead, it constitutes a collection of disparate voices incorporating written documents by both hearing and deaf people; lawyers, teachers, historians, linguists, poets, visual artists, travelers, and researchers of culture; Spaniards writing from within Spain and also those writing from abroad. I believe that this approach allows readers to assess the nature of the conflicts that have shaped and continue to shape the experience of deaf people in Spain.

The greatest conflict in this long history can be concisely summarized in this way: On the one hand, the oralism characteristic of the early period in deaf education is worthy of note because it broke with deep-rooted philosophical ideas concerning deafness and language. This assimilationist model arguably had good intentions—to further incorporate deaf people into society. That is, as the readings constituting this volume reveal, there were tangible social benefits for those who could learn to speak. For example, nonspeaking deaf people were routinely prohibited from inheriting property, but those who could learn to speak were allowed to inherit. On the other hand, whereas the history of benevolent paternalism regarding deaf people in Spain may have had its benefits, it has also unquestionably prevented the full integration of deaf people into society. From today’s perspective, in which there is now a consensus that sign languages are full-fledged languages and not merely limited codes, it is easy to see that the oralist focus on teaching deaf students to speak expresses the bias of a majority hearing society, which, good intentions or not, used its social and cultural power in ways that notably discriminated against deaf people of the time.

This problematic treatment of deaf people fused with other cultural forms of discrimination. Even in the beginning of oralism in the mid-sixteenth century, only those deaf people who belonged to privileged families could benefit from instruction. Later on, as some of the readings in this volume indicate, Spain was relatively slow to develop public schools for deaf students, and even when schools were founded, they often closed quite prematurely. Additionally, the tuition needs of students attending these schools were not adequately addressed as a problem of the larger hearing society. More recently, even the assimilationist attempt to incorporate deaf people into hearing society has been only partially successful, as a number of documents in this collection testify, not only in terms of education but also in terms of employment. The fact of the matter is that oralism has had lasting repercussions in Spain: selections in this volume indicate that signed television shows and public interpreters appeared only in 1984 and 1986, respectively, and only after another twenty years would Spain would see legislative support for sign language. Ultimately, this conflict between deaf people and the society in which they must educate themselves, find work, forge social relationships, and so forth is still a point of concern in Spain just as it is elsewhere.

Undoubtedly, hearing people must accept deaf people on their own terms. Nevertheless, the problem is more complex. Another conflict that appears in the readings scattered throughout this book is one that is manifest within deaf communities themselves. Just as, since 1550, those (privileged) deaf people who were in a position to benefit from oral language instruction were more able to advance in a hearing society, even today there are those deaf people who enjoy greater access to oral language and are more likely to assume leadership positions in the Spanish deaf communities. More than a few of the selections in this book take time to reflect on a distinction between prelingually and postlingually deaf people, which is an issue of simultaneously both a linguistic and a social nature.

Although readers familiar with the scholarly literature on Deaf culture and the linguistics of ASL in the United States will certainly be familiar with the two (interrelated) conflicts I have mentioned, there is one more conflict of interest that is particular to this set of documents. This is perhaps better understood as an encounter than a conflict, and it consists of a prolonged dialogue between researchers in Spain and those in the United States. It is most curious, given that Spanish historical documents laud the importance of the “Spanishness” of teaching the mute to speak, that the country that is today regarded as the birthplace of deaf education (Spain) should come to be reinvigorated by direct influence from America. As the act of tracing the circuitous route of this movement (Spain to France to America to Spain) constitutes the whole of this volume, for the moment it is sufficient to say that deaf education in Spain was brought to France by a teacher named Jacobo Rodríguez Pereira, that this transposition would ultimately see the development of Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Epée’s “methodical” signs (spoken-language grammar rendered in visual form), and that the transmission of sign language to the United States occurred through none other than Laurent Clerc, a deaf instructor who accompanied Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet from France to found the first school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817.


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