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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Spanish National Deaf School: Portraits from the Nineteenth Century

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In selecting the subjects of this study, I have attempted to portray individuals from a variety of situations and conditions. Featured are a Deaf male teacher (arguably representative of the Deaf elite), two hearing men (nineteenth-century Spain’s leading experts on deaf education), two grassroots Deaf students (exemplars of Deaf agency), a hearing female teacher (an authority figure of sorts, yet marginalized by male colleagues as much because of her gender as for her radical ideas), and a Deaf-blind pupil whose trajectory took him from obscurity to celebrity and back again. Yet despite my efforts to depict a broad range of subjects, the difficulties inherent in researching the lives of ordinary Deaf people cannot be overstated, and it is no accident that the longest chapters in this book deal with hearing people in positions of authority. This is, needless to say, not by design but rather because very little information has been preserved about nineteenth-century Deaf people in general, and even less remains about “unimportant” Deaf people of that era. Deaf professor Roberto Prádez was of distinguished birth, and his contributions were valued by his hearing colleagues; but even so, relatively little documentation about him can be found. Information on the students of the Madrid school is even harder to come by because the particulars of their lives were not deemed worthy of recording.

There is, however, a wealth of published information on the Madrid school. Annual reports explained the schedule of classes, masses, and other activities; outlined improvements in the physical plant, changes in personnel, and modifications in curriculum; and described students’ uniforms and even their diet. The Reglamento (official school policy) set forth the school’s objectives, stated the entrance requirements, and spelled out the respective obligations of the director, teachers, students, and staff, and speeches pronounced on graduation day touted the establishment’s accomplishments. Yet such documents tell us little about what really went on at the school, and they tell us next to nothing about the pupils.

The same can be said of student records, which usually contained only names, dates of arrival and departure from the school, and a few facts about family background.7 Thus, generations of Deaf girls and boys passed through the Madrid school leaving little more than their names and dates of attendance, seemingly passive entities who were acted upon by their teachers, teaching assistants, and teachers’ aides—the great majority of them hearing—and buffeted by the changing tides of deaf education.

Archival documents may supplement the limited information put forth in official sources, but even then the record is fragmentary at best. Not infrequently, these unpublished accounts dealt with episodes that were intentionally kept from the public eye to protect the reputation of the school, its teachers, and its administrators.8 Instances of student mistreatment, insubordination, and even insurrection were prime targets for a cover-up, and on such occasions, the disparity between the official rhetoric and what actually occurred behind the scenes could not have been greater. Documentation concerning these events, which was often the result of internal investigations, may supply unexpected details about day-to-day life at the establishment, missing pieces of a rich and varied tapestry.

Such sources may also provide information on individual Deaf students, for if the investigation included interviews, transcripts sometimes preserved students’ accounts in their own words, their own signs. Pupils are then revealed, not as passive recipients of knowledge doled out by instructors and caretakers, extras in a historical pageant in which the stars were hearing teachers and administrators, but as active participants who shaped events as they unfolded at the school and


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