Deaf America: A Portrait of the Deaf Community, 1917
Gaillard’s account also illustrates that the deaf community was enriched by its tradition of honouring the contributions and service of past leaders and elders, deaf and hearing alike. Although his discussions of Laurent Clerc are scattered rather than substantive, Clerc’s overarching influence is undeniable. Similarly, the author’s sensitive account of his brief visit to a frail Edward Miner Gallaudet, the first leader of Gallaudet College, is affecting. Finally, his moving descriptions of several homes for aged and infirm deaf adults are heartening reflections of the wider community’s uncommon commitment to the health and well being of its elders.
An additional contribution of the journal is the collective portrait of individual accomplishments. Gaillard visited some half dozen cities where he conferred and socialized with a representative mix of male deaf leaders from fields as varied as education, industry, small businesses, as well as the arts and sciences. While one can wish that the author had also deemed it instructive to record his thoughts on the contributions of the women he encountered, the profiles of male leaders he offers remain noteworthy.
Several characteristics unite these leaders and may be a key to their success. All were uncommonly skilled and committed—certainly effective counterpoints to the systemic barriers of discrimination and ignorance that were commonplace in the early twentieth century. Moreover, the majority had access to advanced academic or vocational instruction, including attendance at Gallaudet College. The NAD, for example, has often been dubbed the “Gallaudet Club” because most of its leaders attended the school. Overall, this combination of drive, ability, and superior academic or vocational training was determinative in enabling these men to achieve not merely success, but prominence in a wide range of fields.
At the same time, however, it bears noting that this remarkable leadership class was not representative of the broader national deaf community. Like other minority groups, the deaf community was divided by gender, racial, educational, and, of course, economic divisions. The reader may hunger for a more diverse portrait, one that could provide additional insight into the problems and pursuits of the deaf working women and men unable to attend the grand balls or exclusive restaurants frequented by Gaillard and company. At the same time, the author’s report on Akron’s “Deaf Colony” of some 500 industrial workmen and women employed by the Goodyear Corporation provides welcomed glimpses of these industrious individuals and their vibrant community.
Moreover, if sustained academic and vocational instruction, more than any other factor, advanced the status of deaf adults, it should be noted that most children and adults received little more than primary or “elementary” instruction (typically over a period of five to ten years). Only a tiny minority ever acquired either the training or opportunity to attend Gallaudet College. By the 1920s, for example, it was estimated that ninety percent of the nation’s deaf children received at least elementary schooling. At the same time, these observers estimated that a majority of these students left school before they completed their education. Overall, the experiences of the majority of ordinary deaf children and adults have been difficult to fully reconstruct.
Ultimately, this journal, like its author, is promising. On the one hand, the extraordinary leaders Gaillard profiles were exceptional rather than numerous. On the other hand, the composite individual and collective history encompassed within this journal represents a remarkable pattern of individual and collective determination and accomplishment—typically, in the face of daunting conditions. This enduring legacy of achievement is sure to inform and hearten contemporary readers as they consider the challenges and opportunities before the deaf community and the nation at the onset of the twenty-first century.