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American Annals of the Deaf

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Through Deaf Eyes: A Photographic History of an American Community

Douglas Baynton, Jack R. Gannon,
and Jean Lindquist Bergey


History Through Deaf Eyes, an exhibition based on the lives of deaf people in the United States, toured the country from 2001 to 2006. During its twelve-city tour, more than 415,000 people visited the exhibit and learned of the struggles and triumphs of the Deaf community, a cultural, linguistic minority within the larger hearing population. The impetus for History Through Deaf Eyes came from Gallaudet University, the only university in the world founded specifically to provide higher education to deaf and hard of hearing people. Gallaudet is a cultural home to many deaf people. Drawing heavily on the university’s extensive Archive collection, the exhibition represents nearly 200 years of United States deaf history. At each opening of History Through Deaf Eyes, visitors asked, “Where’s the book?”

The photographic narrative presented here brings to the public images of people and events both well-known and obscure. The story told in pictures and text reflects the content of the exhibition as well as the focus of the documentary Through DEAF EYES, a film produced by WETA TV, in Washington, D.C., and Florentine Films/Hott Productions in association with Gallaudet University, and nationally broadcast on PBS stations. Quotes from the film punctuate this photographic history, and images found within these pages can be seen in the documentary.

NOTE: The word deaf has both physical and cultural meanings. In this book, we will use Deaf to refer to cultural entities and concepts: Deaf community, Deaf culture, Deaf club and Deaf lens, for example. We will use deaf for all other references.

Studying the lives of deaf people illuminates not only a minority community but also the majority hearing population. Through the story of deaf America we learn much about our broader history. While the values and judgments of society have had an impact on the education, employment, and family life of deaf people, historical eras often can be illuminated by examination through a Deaf lens. For both deaf and hearing readers, the history of the Deaf community offers a unique and fascinating perspective on the workings of human difference.

Photographs often pose contextual questions of where and when. We wonder who took the picture and why; if the setting was staged; and whether the photograph casts a positive image, reinforces a negative vision, or implies multiple interpretations. Each picture was taken for a reason—to persuade others into action, to expose wrongs and misfortune, to present good work, to remember.

Remaining mindful that the photographers may have had different reasons to capture the moment, our intention for this book is to present a community history. For this reason, we selected images that reveal in subtle and obvious ways something about the lives of deaf people and the collective experiences of the Deaf community.

The photographs come from multiple archives held at schools for deaf children and by individual collectors. For each image presented, dozens more did not make it into the book. Still, there are many holes in the photographic record. The photographs we discovered included far more

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