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The Deaf History Reader

John Vickrey Van Cleve, Editor

Genesis of a Community: The American Deaf Experience
in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Harry G. Lang

Editor’s Introduction

Most histories of the American deaf community start with the immediate events leading to the founding of the American School for the Deaf in 1817, but deaf biographer and historian Harry Lang goes farther back into history. In this essay, Lang identifies deaf children, deaf adults, and deaf couples in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and he uses textual evidence to evaluate their lives and their communication methods. He concludes that sign communication was recognized long before Laurent Clerc introduced French Sign Language to the United States, and his evidence suggests that many deaf people lived fully and autonomously in colonial America. Lang also argues, however, that other deaf colonists suffered from oppression because of their deafness.

The learned . . . are not unapprized, that for two hundred years past there have appeared . . . Deaf . . . persons more or less instructed; which was then regarded as a species of miracle; but the rest of mankind did not imagine that this attempt had ever been made, and much less that it had been made with success.

Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Epée1
In American Colonies, Allan Taylor wrote that “the traditional story of American uplift excludes too many people.”2 He described a narrow cast that showcased male English colonists in the East and seldom satisfactorily covered the interplay of colonial and native people or the regional explorations and “human places” of other cultures, even those of other Europeans. Though Taylor did not say so, the “human place” of deaf people in the American colonies and post-Revolutionary War period is also relatively unexplored. This paper attempts to begin to fill that gap, to enhance our understanding of both the complex attitudes played out in the lives of deaf people and their methods of self-empowerment during America’s formative years.

Seeds versus Roots

The biography of a community, as with biographies of people, should include tracing its life to the seeds of its existence. In the case of an individual, we usually study parental heritage. In the case of a community, we search for the seeds from which key elements or characteristics have evolved. For the deaf community in America, this heritage includes the seeds of American Sign Language and the creation of a new definition of normality within a group that typically has been segregated and mistreated because of its differences.3 From this new identity grow sociological, economic, and distinctly cultural features.


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