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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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The question then becomes: Does Ponce de León deserve the credit that history has dealt him in this regard? Did the (largely posthumous) attention given to him by the hearing society of his time spark a chain of events that led to the recent official recognition of sign languages in Spain, or did his actions, and those of his successors, merely hold back and constrain developments in deaf education by imposing an oralist model on deaf people? There are reasons to consider both of these points of view (at the same time understanding that he has become the earliest recognized teacher of deaf students). I hope that through reading the selections I have collected in this section, the reader might come to reconcile the one with the other on his or her own terms.

Because of the assertion by some critics that Ponce de León never published a book detailing his method of instruction, or better still of the likelihood that said book, although written, has been lost,[3] we must turn to other sources to read of his accomplishments. Luckily, such testimony is far from scarce. Many of the selections throughout this work mention his name, and even those that do not may be seen as implicitly indebted to his work at Oña. In one of the earliest translations included in this volume, Ponce’s work is observed, praised, and built upon by the Spanish lawyer Licenciado Lasso. Lasso traveled from Madrid to Oña to witness Ponce’s work on articulation (speech) with the brothers Velasco y Tovar and penned a legal treatise in the form of a letter to Francisco. In this treatise, he argues that those deaf people who come to be able to speak are immediately eligible to inherit estates. In his A Legal Treatise on Deaf-mutes (1550), which is a fundamentally audacious work with respect to both the legal and philosophical beliefs of the time, he proclaims of such mutes that “neither does the law consider them mutes nor in effect of truth may they be called mutes.”

Because Ponce de León’s method of instruction was never published and Lasso’s text was largely unknown until it was republished in the early twentieth century by Alvaro López Núñez, many came to credit Juan Pablo Bonet with establishing deaf education in Spain. Bonet, who took over the teaching duties of Manuel Ramírez de Carrión, another instructor of deaf students, mentions neither Ramírez de Carrión nor Ponce in his work. However, his Simplification of the Letters of the Alphabet and Method of Teaching Deaf-mutes to Speak (1620) may possibly provide insight into the method used by Ponce and later Ramírez de Carrión.

Reading Bonet’s work from today’s perspective, one gains an appreciation of how arduous and time-consuming the activity is, even for those students who were most favorably disposed to it. At the time, the self-proclaimed achievement of the oralists—that the deaf students could come to speak—was considered to be almost miraculous, garnering widespread attention. Bonet’s book was even praised by legendary Spanish playwright and poet Lope de Vega Carpio, whose admiration was anything but modest. In fact, Lope wrote a dedication for Bonet’s volume (1620), penned a letter to Bonet in verse (circa 1620), and later dedicated his play Jorge Toledano to the teacher (circa 1621; all three are magnificently translated for inclusion in this volume by Sonja Musser Golladay). Although Carrión’s teachings predated Bonet’s, documentation of his method is elusive. Nevertheless, a brief excerpt from his encyclopedic work on Marvels of Nature (1629), which addresses the topic of deafness, is included here.

Bonet’s fame was great, perhaps even surpassing Ponce’s for a short while, and it was not until interest in deaf education waned that a critic stepped forward to assert that the idea was Ponce’s and, in the context of the diminishing/decadent Spanish empire, characterize it as a uniquely Spanish contribution to scholarly work. A Spanish scholar and Benedictine monk named Benito Jerónimo Feijóo y Montenegro, today regarded by some as the Spanish counterpart of Enlightenment thinker and philosopher Immanuel Kant, undertook this very effort. First in 1730 as part of his epic Theatro crítico universal (Universal Critical Theater, 1730) and later in his Cartas eruditas (Erudite Letters, 1759), he proclaimed the genius and originality evidenced by Ponce de León in his work with deaf-mutes, lamenting that such inventions as Ponce’s “have been enjoyed by foreigners rather than by Spaniards themselves.”

Feijóo took care to establish the proper chronology of the passing of the method—from Ponce de León to Bonet rather than the other way around: “Thus, if one derived the knowledge from the other, it was necessarily Bonet from Ponce and not Ponce from Bonet. Consequently, if one of the two was a plagiarist, it was Bonet and not Ponce.” In this way, Ponce de León’s work, now recovered by one of Spain’s foremost critics, explicitly came to form part of the national imagination of Spain. Yet lamentably, as the Benedictine monk and scholar explores in the writings included here, deaf education had spread to other nations where it was more supported and where its “Spanishness” was all but erased. Many years would pass before Feijóo’s call to recognize the importance of instructing deaf students would produce results and invite further inquiry.

The selection that brings a close to this first section of the volume is a superb overview of this early period of deaf education in the form of the “Historical Introduction” written for A. Farrar’s 1890 British English translation of Bonet’s book (originally published in 1620). The author astutely divides the history of deaf education into two periods, the first ending and the second beginning with the signed method practiced by the Abbé l’Epée. He states, “De l’Epée was the first to develop and raise signs to the dignity of an independent language, which, in his opinion, if not equal, was at any rate sufficient to serve the same purpose to deaf-mutes as speech to those who hear.” Farrar treats the period before l’Epée’s work in detail, tracing perspectives on deafness through numerous philosophers, jurists, physicians, and the like.


3. A page of it is mentioned by Plann (1997), Gascón y Ricao (2006), and Sacks (1994).
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