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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 two readings that close this section are related to the formation of the Deaf Association in Madrid. Alvaro López Núñez, the same López Núñez who was to publish Licenciado Lasso’s legal treatise on deaf-mutes ([1550] 1919), was active in the formation and development of the association in 1906 and published a book titled The Silent World: Essays to Disseminate the Problems of Deaf-muteness (1914). From today’s perspective, and as shown in the first excerpt of his work included here, López Núñez is somewhat of a contradictory figure. In “The Hand That Speaks,” he eloquently expresses a respect for the medium of sign and visual language —which he finds beautiful, natural, and even transcendent—and yet, as a strict oralist, he closes even this piece with an admonition that deaf people, instead of being encouraged to use visual language, must be taught to speak. Miguel Gómez Cano’s The Deaf-mutes of Madrid (1914), more of a pamphlet than a book (it is included here in its entirety), narrates the author’s impressions upon visiting the association and interviewing its then-president, López Núñez. The strict oralist character of these readings, which should be read as a direct result of the unfortunate Milan Conference of 1880 that established oralism as the official method to be used in educating deaf students, may seem to be at odds with the benefits provided by the association in the realms of social life and work. Sadly, as we see in the part III of the present work, the obstacles faced by deaf people at the turn of the century in terms of work had changed very little even by the 1970s and 1980s.

Part III: The Contemporary Deaf Experience

In the United States during the late 1950s and 1960s, the research communities began a concerted effort to officially recognize what deaf people had known all along—that sign languages were natural languages capable of expressing abstract thought. The direction of this movement in research, largely attributed to hearing researcher William Stokoe of Gallaudet University, began to make inroads not only in linguistics but also in anthropological and sociological accounts of the lives of deaf people. The effect of this movement was to more clearly show that, contrary to what was largely thought by the hearing society of the time (and to a great degree is still prevalent today), the problems faced by deaf people were not merely caused by their own deficits but rather by the inability of hearing society to appropriately approach deafness and visual language on deaf people’s terms.

The movement gave scientific and academic support to deafness not as a disability but instead as the sign of a minority culture. By 1988, students at Gallaudet University had expressed their discontent with a long tradition of hearing university presidents in the form of the Deaf President Now! movement, which successfully bought a deaf president to the head seat of the school. Although I. King Jordan was not born deaf (he became deaf in his twenties as a result of a motorcycle accident), he nevertheless embodied a spirit of change, an attempt to throw off the colonizing pattern that Harlan Lane has called the Mask of Benevolence (1992) and to claim for deaf people the power to dictate their own social lives, education, and social representation.

The scientific and academic legitimization of sign language and deafness as a cultural rather than merely physical trait was nowhere near as prevalent in Spain. Of course, one might argue that the Spanish tradition of oralism going back to Pedro Ponce de León and even further left no room for visual models of communication. The oralist character of instruction in Spain and its reinforcement by the Milan Conference of 1880 has undoubtedly had the effect of strengthening an assimilating perspective on deafness. One could say also that the issue of deafness was eclipsed by and even subjugated to the problem of the progressive decline in power of Spanish nationhood by that nation’s most noted thinkers. This focus on deafness as a mere springboard for the national problem may have reinforced the ingrained idea of deafness as a metaphor (appearing in Teresa de Cartagena’s work, for example) and may have distracted from deafness as a social issue. Likewise, one could also argue that the fortuitous circumstances of a newly forged nation in North America with no rooted educational paradigms of any kind, let alone an established history of educating deaf people, allowed the more rapid and more extensive spread of a visual paradigm for deaf education.

These ideas are useful in thinking about the problematic history of the deaf population in Spain, but I do not believe that they can completely explain such a history. History is necessarily incomplete, and even at its best is quite reductive. In lieu of a complete record, what this section presents, then, is a selection of notable voices, events, and information from the past quarter century in Spain. I use the word “notable” because in no way is this section representative of the totality of deaf experiences unfolding in Spain. However, I do think these readings are particularly important in that they are all contemporary attempts at a public dialogue on the nature of deafness and the social lives and problems of deaf people in a largely hearing Spanish society that had not yet officially recognized the validity of visual communication. Both Inés Polo Merino and Félix-Jesús Pinedo Peydró are influential deaf Spaniards of this period, even though this may be precisely because they were exposed to the Spanish language before becoming deaf. They both identify as postlingually deaf people and, as becomes clear from the readings included here, see themselves as better able to negotiate the divide between the hearing and deaf populations in Spanish society. Both deserve recognition for their practical efforts to improve the social conditions awaiting the deaf child and most of all for pushing the boundaries of the social norms regarding deaf people in Spain. Among many others, their early efforts have been absolutely crucial in terms of moving toward the recognition of sign language and deaf culture.

The excerpts of Polo Merino’s narrative included here are quite personal: she describes how she came to be deafened at an early age and uses her own life experiences as a starting point for denouncing the current state of options for deaf people living in Spain regarding language, education, work, and more. Pinedo Peydró, a former president of the Confederación Nacional de Sordos de España (National Confederation of Spanish Deaf Persons, CNSE), continues to be one of the most influential figures in the cultural


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