Deaf America: A Portrait of the Deaf Community, 1917
These changes transformed not only instruction but also instructors. Deaf teachers, long respected by students for their skills, insight and commitment, came under increasing pressure from hearing administrators to step away from the academic classrooms many had helped build. The number of deaf instructors peaked in the 1870s, at approximately 250 of 550 teachers and administrators—roughly 40 percent of the instructional force. Yet by 1918, out of some 1,850 academic teachers, only 270, or less than 20 percent, were deaf.
As hearing educators sought to restore deaf students to the hearing world, like-minded professionals in mainstream society also questioned the very standing of the emergent deaf community. Respected hearing educators and civic leaders led by the brilliant and influential Alexander Graham Bell implored deaf adults not to inter-marry or at least remain childless—lest they bear deaf children. Indeed, Edward Miner Gallaudet, president of Gallaudet College and son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, publicly questioned not only the usefulness of sign language but encouraged deaf adults to limit their involvement with the community’s rich repertoire of social and cultural organizations, for fear they’d be seen as “clannish,” not properly integrated into mainstream society. In these ways and others, the cultural, linguistic, and educational underpinnings, indeed the very legitimacy, of the emergent deaf community itself had become contested.
Optimistic in character and content, Gaillard’s journal ably conveys these historical conflicts; it also offers an extended portrait of a rich and vibrant extended community of deaf individuals and families. His visits to schools for deaf students, for example, while snapshots rather than extended studies, reflect this dualism. In Gaillard’s description of ASD and its leaders, the reader will find a historic sensitivity and a tone of reverence most often associated with visits to churches and religious leaders. This admiration is not without foundation. As Gaillard notes, the school served as an incubator for the national deaf community. By 1893, for example, more than 2,500 children and adults had received sign-based instruction at Hartford. At a national level, ASD’s success also hastened the efforts of other deaf and hearing citizens who favored the establishment of schools. By mid-century, schools had been organized in seventeen states; by century’s end, the establishment of schools had become a national norm. At the same time, by 1917, ASD, like most other schools across the country, had undergone a significant transformation. Oral instruction was predominant, with oral classes eclipsing manual classes by sixteen to three.
Gaillard’s brief visit and favorable sketches of the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, give little evidence of the school’s significance in these changes. Founded in 1820 and briefly led by Clerc, the Pennsylvania school provided instruction in sign language for its first half century. In 1892, however, the Mt. Airy campus earned national notice. Under the direction of Albert Crouter, the school was physically divided into two distinct camps: the first for the majority of students to be taught in a pure oral environment; the second for “oral failures,” to be instructed in sign language. By 1899, ninety percent of students were raised in an all-oral environment. Sign language, Crouter declared, was an unnecessary and unwanted reminder of a past era.
surprisingly, deaf educators and leaders in Pennsylvania and across the country
challenged Crouter’s claims. In one critique, several advocates charged that
students who did not acquire oral skills were often mislabeled “feeble-minded”
and improperly dismissed. Without the power to investigate the school, these
critics were unable to alter the practices they decried. While these conflicts
at Mt. Airy were not in evidence at the time of his visit, Gaillard’s journal
indicates that deaf leaders remained steadfast in their opposition to oralist