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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Emergence of the Deaf Community in Nicaragua: “With Sign Language You Can Learn So Much”

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For long periods in human history, because deaf persons do not naturally acquire oral language, the wider society has considered it impossible for deaf people to play active social roles. Deaf people were expected to exist in a protected environment (in which they might be well-treated or mistreated) but never participate independently and actively in society. Without oral communication, they were cut off, isolated, and marginalized. With the advent of special education procedures designed to teach oral language skills to deaf persons (we have written documentation of such methods from the seventeenth century), access to social agency within the oral society became a possibility, and deaf people could then set as a goal being able to speak intelligibly. Unfortunately, oral competency has been an elusive quest for many.

But in social groupings in which the preeminence of orality was not accepted, and in which language was shifted to an alternate modality—in deaf communities using sign language—full access as social actors has been available for those previously disenfranchised. Deaf communities provide a vehicle for deaf persons to participate as social agents in society. While deaf communities have been studied and described (Erting 1994; Higgins 1980; Higgins and Nash 1982; Padden and Humphries 1988; Prillwitz and Vollhaber 1990; Schein and Delk 1974; Van Cleve and Crouch 1984), the history and formation of these groups has been harder to document, although this area has received more attention in the past fifteen years (Fisher and Lane 1993; Gerner de Garcia 1990; Monaghan 2004).

This is probably a result of the fact that, until the 1960s, signed languages were not considered to be independent languages, but rather systems of mimicry and gestures or a manual reproduction of an oral language. While not common today in the United States, I have met a few deaf people who were educated before linguists took much interest in signed languages, and who go out of their way to sign in English word order because they consider American Sign Language (ASL) to be “bad English.” William Stokoe’s monograph, Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf, published in 1960, discussed how signed languages could be rule-driven, were not a reflection of the majority oral language, and, in fact, (because they use a spacial/visual modality rather than an oral/auditory modality) have some grammatical constructions with no equivalent in oral languages (Maher 1996). Since signed languages were considered to be either nonlinguistic (gestures only) or a poor imitation of the majority language, naturally, there was little interest in, or study of, the groups who formed around signed languages.

Deaf communities were regarded as a social deviancy, because hearing society assumed that deaf people congregated in communities, not through choice, but because they lacked other options (Goffman 1963). Having no access to “normal” social structures, deaf communities were considered “last resorts”; hearing researchers assumed that deaf people would form such groups out of a shared sense of stigma, and that anyone who could fit even minimally into a mainstream group would naturally prefer to do so. This attitude resulted in a paternalistic, depreciating view of deaf communities, and I found no study of this type (e.g., Best 1943; Upshall 1929), which looked carefully at how or why the group formed at the beginning.

In fact, most of the information we have about the existence of the earliest known deaf communities is in the form of co-incidental allusions, when the author’s main point lay elsewhere. Pierre Desloges was refuting the assertion that the Abbé de l’Epée was the founder of the sign language used in Paris in the late eighteenth century when he mentioned that there was a well-established deaf community and language long before the Abbé appeared. Because the Abbé’s role, not the community, was his focal point, he gave no details about what the deaf community was like, or when or why it might have formed.

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