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Sign Language Studies
American Annals of the Deaf
Voices: Deaf Culture, Identity, Language, and Arts|
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
13. Letter to the Smithsonian, n.d., Gallaudet University Archives.
14. Letter to the Smithsonian, January 25, 1996. Gallaudet University
15. Bergey 2004, 45.