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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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helped determine the course of Deaf history. Such documents give voice to ordinary Deaf people, a voice too often absent from the historical record. Although admittedly difficult to reconstruct, theirs is, in some respects, the most important story, because it is the story not of the Deaf elite but of the Deaf majority. Although marginalized with respect to hearing society, these grassroots Deaf people, in fact, constituted the Deaf—and silenced—center.

Turning now to the framework of this study, I adopt the cultural-linguistic model of deafness, which views Deaf Spaniards as a cultural-linguistic minority on par with Basques, Catalans, Galicians, and other speakers of Spanish minority tongues. I reject the more familiar medical or infirmity model, which views deafness as a deficit and a personal tragedy that affects the individual. I accept the position that deafness (like disability) is a social and cultural construction, whose significance and import have varied through time and space.

As Lane notes, disability has had moral, medical, and now social constructions—and the same can be said of deafness.9 Although my intention here is not to trace the history of these differing constructions of deafness, a few examples may suffice. In what was clearly a moral construction, Saint Augustine (354–430 A.D.) regarded deaf children as evidence of divine punishment, the sins of the parents visited upon the children.10 But in 1550, a Spanish jurist known as the Licenciado Lasso put forth an alternative explanation: Deafness was the result of “sickness or weakness of the raw material” that nature had to work with.11 For Lasso, then, lack of hearing was attributable not to a moral failure but to a physical defect—a view that seems more in line with the medical model of deafness. Writing nearly 300 years later, Juan Manuel Ballesteros, director of the Madrid school from 1835 to 1868, also subscribed to a medical construction of deafness, going so far as to claim that deaf people generally suffered from a “more or less complete state of disease and debility of the brain.”12 But Ballesteros’s colleague and contemporary, Francisco Fernández Villabrille, begged to differ, maintaining that to write off all deaf people as mentally incapacitated would be “as unfair as it is inaccurate.”13 Seemingly subscribing to a social construction of deafness, Villabrille referred to deaf Spaniards as a “people” with a language of their own.14 Another contemporary, Salustiano de Olózaga, civil governor of Madrid and a member of the deaf school’s governing board, also described deaf Spaniards as members of an identifiable social group, whom he compared with “people of color”15—another instantiation of the social construction of deafness. Thus, it appears that in nineteenth-century Spain, a medical construction of deafness coexisted—and possibly competed—with the social construction.

Related to the various constructions of deafness is the orthographic distinction between deaf/sordo and Deaf/Sordo: spelled with a lowercase d/s, the word refers to the audiological condition of hearing loss; spelled with a capital D/S, it refers to social groupings and cultural identifications resulting from interactions among people with hearing loss who may share a common signed language. (Conceivably in the future, “capital-D Deaf ” people will be identified not by their “deficiency,” that is, their lack of hearing, but by a positive marker of their identity, such as their use of sign language as their primary language.) Although the distinction between Deaf/Sordo and deaf/sordo is now widely accepted, I do not use it in the chapters that follow because it did not exist during the nineteenth century.


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