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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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I do, however, use the word deaf-mute to translate the Spanish sordomudo, which was common throughout the 1800s. Today the term sordomudo is rejected by the Spanish Deaf community and its supporters (as is its English counterpart deaf-mute in the United States), although it may still be employed by Spaniards unaware of—or indifferent to—its pejorative connotations. I have chosen to use the term deaf-mute (and occasionally mute) for the sake of historical accuracy; no offense should be taken and no negative implications are intended.

Two themes appear and reappear throughout this work: the nineteenth- century construction of deafness and the status of Spanish Sign Language and its use in the classroom (always key issues in deaf education). The latter topic is of particular interest in light of Lane’s hypothesis on the role of deaf teachers in educating deaf children. According to Lane, “If the profession of deaf education acknowledged that deaf children have a language and that manual language is the best way to educate these children, then deaf adults would once again enter the profession (as they did in the [nineteenth] century), and hearing people would lose their monopoly.”16 The lessons of Spanish Deaf history call this assertion into question, however, because during the 1800s, educators at the Madrid school recognized that their pupils had a language and championed its use as a medium of instruction; but even so, for the better part of the century, they did not allow deaf adults to enter the profession.

This brings us to another recurring theme: the exclusion of deaf professors at the Madrid school. During its first three decades of existence, the school employed a deaf art teacher, Roberto Prádez; but throughout the 1800s, the establishment hired no deaf teachers of academic subjects, and it was not until fifty years after Prádez’s death (in 1836) that another deaf art teacher was admitted. The explanation for the Spanish ban on deaf teachers is no doubt complex and involves many factors, including, but not limited to, the prevailing view of deafness. Although I do not claim to resolve the matter completely in this work, the topic is nevertheless explored and various hypotheses are set forth. I suggest that, whatever the explanation might be, the barring of deaf professors had far-reaching consequences for Spanish Deaf history.

Standing in sharp contrast to the theme of deaf exclusion from the professorial ranks is the theme of Deaf agency. As might be expected at an institution that did not welcome deaf professors, Deaf agency at the Madrid school rested largely with the students, whose contributions to Spanish Deaf history have been too often overlooked. This study attempts to right the balance.

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