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American Annals of the Deaf

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The Spanish National Deaf School: Portraits from the Nineteenth Century

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The larger context of this study is best understood within the framework of recent work in the field of Deaf history. More than two decades ago, Harlan Lane denounced the long-standing tradition of presenting Deaf history as “the untiring efforts of hearing people across the ages.”2 Within this tradition, the focus of Deaf history was not Deaf people at all, but rather their non-deaf educators and “benefactors.”

Eventually, however, the focus shifted, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Lane himself. As Deaf people took their rightful place in Deaf history, the spotlight shone first on the Deaf elite, and important Deaf people (generally men), such as the Frenchmen Laurent Clerc and Ferdinand Berthier, the Americans John Carlin and Olaf Hanson, and the Spaniard Roberto Prádez, moved to center stage.3

Current research in social history has seen another shift in focus, as there emerged an interest in “ordinary” Deaf people and with it an effort to understand them on their own terms.4 Issues such as gender, race, and social class are now central to the interpretation of Deaf history, as is the change in perspective from Deaf victimology to Deaf agency. Thus, it is recognized that although Deaf people have, in fact, been oppressed by hearing people, they have nonetheless been agents in defending their cultural and linguistic identity and defining and shaping their own destiny. Representative of this more recent approach is Owen Wrigley’s affirmation that Deaf history should concern itself not with hearing teachers and administrators and the institutions they create, but rather with “the margins where control has failed,” “the small land wars at the margins of society and self-identity, exactly where the Hearing administrations of the Deaf through these institutions don’t quite succeed in controlling or suppressing Deafness.” Deaf history, for Wrigley, is not about “the success of the institutions into which Hearing people put Deaf people,” but instead, it is about “the resistances to subjugation and oppression.”5

Viewed from a somewhat different perspective, Deaf history can also be seen as a subfield of disability studies, an interdisciplinary field that views disability not in medical terms but as a social category on par with race, class, and gender. Yet many Deaf people reject the disability label in favor of a model that regards them as members of a cultural and linguistic minority; typically, these people were born deaf or lost their hearing early in life. They belong to a Deaf community, and sign language is their primary language.6 But regardless of which model one subscribes to, when it comes to prejudice, discrimination, paternalism, and environmentally imposed obstacles and limitations, there can be no doubt that Deaf people’s experience mirrors in many ways that of the disability community.

My own position is that Deaf history is, in fact, all these things and more, and the chapters of this book are written with this in mind. In the present study, issues of auditory status as it affects relations between deaf and hearing Spaniards are seen to intersect with issues of power, class, and gender. The vast majority of students at the Madrid school were from the lower socioeconomic classes, and girls and boys followed a different course of study and were prepared for different roles in life. Male and female educators taught different subjects and labored under different working conditions, which were determined by gender as well as the (in)ability to hear. In vocational classes, deaf as well as non-deaf instructors could be found—all men, to be sure—but only non-deaf men taught academic subjects and only non-deaf women taught homemaking. Thus, at the Madrid school, both deafness and gender were markers of hierarchical relations.

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