Deaf America: A Portrait of the Deaf Community, 1917
For some in the French and American deaf communities, the trip also provided an opportunity to champion their patriotism. The United States had entered World War I as an ally of France weeks prior to Gaillard’s departure. Deaf men in the United States and France, typically blocked from serving as soldiers, sought alternate opportunities to demonstrate their patriotism and “manhood.” For these men (and some women as well), Gaillard and company functioned as unofficial ambassadors whose travels symbolized the earnestness and involvement of the larger deaf community. As the date of ASD’s centennial fast approached, deaf citizens from Paris and across the country donated francs while anxious deaf leaders petitioned civic and governmental agencies and leaders outside the deaf community. By the spring of 1917, with little time to spare, they had gathered sufficient resources.
Eager to begin their journey, Gaillard’s party assembled on the French coast. Just prior to sailing, the group briefly toured the schools for deaf girls and boys at rue Saint-Sernin and rue de Marseille. Their visit underscored the educational divisions confronting deaf adults that would be evident throughout their journey to the United States. After visiting one class, Gaillard acknowledged the oral training of several students but noted that a longer visit would have enabled him to “find the little rebels against the pure oral method.” On the 23d of June, the group set sail for the United States.
As the account will show, in the United States Gaillard found a proud but embattled minority community. Deaf citizens heralded their individual and collective educational, vocational and cultural accomplishments, for many made possible by the founding of ASD. In one century, thousands of deaf children and adults had received vocational and academic instruction, either at ASD or other private and public institutions across the continent inspired by ASD’s methods and accomplishments. Hundreds more had gone on to advanced studies, often at Gallaudet College, at the time the world’s only college for deaf and hard of hearing students. Whatever their particular background or training, the nation’s deaf adults had earned acclaim as farmers, artisans, entrepreneurs, artists and more. In short, in this pivotal century deaf adults had constructed a unique national community with its own visual language, schools, and organizations.
Gaillard’s narrative account also provides compelling evidence that deaf citizens, like other minorities in the early twentieth century, were at risk. Acclaimed for its representative democracy, its growing industrial might and its entrepreneurial genius, the United States in the early twentieth century was also a segregated country defined by hierarchy and division. In its rapid and often discordant transformation from a scattering of colonies to an industrial giant that spanned the continent and beyond, the national culture and civil society privileged white over black and red, men over women, the affluent over the impoverished, the “able-bodied” over the “disabled,” and, of course, the hearing over the deaf.
In particular, from the 1870s through the early twentieth century, the nation’s deaf citizens found themselves enmeshed in an epic struggle over their identity and future. During this pivotal period, an influential corps of hearing professionals and parents of deaf children, drawn by the appealing vision that deaf children could be restored to mainstream society by learning how to speak and understand spoken language, advocated a series of sweeping educational, civil and social changes. These conflicts were centered in the nation’s private and public schools. Sign language, the predominant means of communication at ASD, had been broadly acclaimed and widely used by deaf and hearing educators for much of the nineteenth century. By the latter part of the century, however, sign language had come under fire and its use greatly reduced or prohibited in schools.
By the early twentieth century, oral approaches that favoured articulation and lip reading had become predominant. In 1887, out of some 8,000 students, almost 5,500 were educated by the combined approach that featured sign language but included oral training for students that demonstrated an aptitude. By 1915, however, the majority of the nation’s deaf students were instructed, not in sign language, but through writing and oral methods: among some 13,000 students, nearly 9,000 were guided by oral approaches.