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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Signs and Voices: Deaf Culture, Identity, Language, and Arts

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As we shall see, the ensuing controversy arose by asking a simple question: What sort of Deaf person is the visitor meeting?
Please stop the myth that the deaf are mute and dependent on Deaf culture to thrive.[9]

I urge you to make sure the exhibit, funded by public monies, tells the complete history of deaf people in America in a fair and objective way.[10]

I understand that the present focus of the exhibit is . . . [that] deafness is a culture and not a disability. . . . There are other views held by many people that deafness is a disability that may be immensely minimized by Auditory-Verbal/Oral approaches.[11]

The deaf or hearing impaired who have learned to use what hearing they have proficiently, and are able to speak intelligibly, are far better able to cope with life than the cloistered community of those who must rely entirely on sign language because they have rejected oralism for whatever reason, be it the lack of opportunity, misinformation, or insufficient intestinal fortitude to stay the course.[12]

It seems to be a “Generation Thing” to think of deafness as “living in a silent world.” Most of our friends . . . accept + expect our adopted son will be oral while our own loving parents sometimes, inadvertently, just can’t believe that he’s not going to be using sign language. Like I said—I believe these ideas of only signing to communicate were of that generation. Please don’t pass this misguided view on to our children.[13]

It is improper for the Smithsonian to display a political view regarding oralism vs. manualism. If the exhibit were to remain the way it is, the Smithsonian would in fact be supporting one approach over another, and therefore be telling parents of deaf children what choices to make for their children. I am certain that the Smithsonian is not in the business of telling people how to raise their children.[14]

In 1995 and 1996 hundreds of letters were written to the Smithsonian in order to protest the exhibition’s initial focus upon the signing Deaf community. The protest letters, several of which are excerpted above, initiated a dialogue within the planning committee that eventually reshaped the content of the exhibition in order to “present the deaf population in a context to which many people can relate, aligning deaf experiences with U.S. history.”[15] Now known as “History through Deaf Eyes,” a narrative of deaf people within the narrative of American history, the exhibition opened in 2002 and has since been posted in numerous U.S. cities.

In changing the focus, the exhibition shifted paradigms of knowledge; instead of looking through a sociological lens and using sociolinguistic and anthropological terms of description, the exhibition reinserted the story of deaf people within American history. Instead of focusing upon community-based verbal arts genres of American Sign Language (ASL), a section of the exhibition focused on the conflicted educational history of deaf people in America. Another section focused upon deaf people in the war industry during World War II. Yet another focused upon the great strides made in civil rights recognition. The director, Jean L. Bergey,


9. Letter to the Smithsonian, n.d., Gallaudet University Archives.

10. Letter to the Smithsonian, n.d., Gallaudet University Archives.

11. Letter to the Smithsonian, n.d., Gallaudet University Archives.

12. Letter to the Smithsonian, November 16, 1995. Gallaudet University Archives.

13. Letter to the Smithsonian, n.d., Gallaudet University Archives.

14. Letter to the Smithsonian, January 25, 1996. Gallaudet University Archives.

15. Bergey 2004, 45.


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