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Crossing the Divide
Representations of Deafness in Biography

Rachel M. Hartig

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From the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education

There are a lot of reasons why it is important to read about the lives of deaf people that have gone before us. There is evidence that the infusion of the stories of deaf and hard of hearing people into curricula can lead to improved self-esteem among deaf and hard of hearing students. More importantly, if we know about the lives and intersections of deaf people in history, we can say, as Harry Lang, a deaf historian, says, “We were there! Deaf people were there!” at every important time in history. We can learn how certain philosophies and methods developed and we can see how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

       When I first learned to teach deaf children, I read about the usual heroes. There were many inspiring stories that led to ways of exploring how our profession got to this point. Most of those biographies were strictly connected to the history of “deafness” or how these people influenced the education of deaf children. Usually, the biographers tried to be fair as they recounted the lives and impact of their subjects.

       In this engaging book, Professor Hartig elucidates a theory of biography that says that by reading biographies we learn a great deal about the values and experiences of the writer as well as the subject. This idea is first explained and then explicated by examining the lives of three deaf French biographers (Jean-Ferdinand Berthier, Yvonne Pitrois, and Corinne Rocheleau-Rouleau) and how each chose areas of their subjects’ lives to emphasize related to their own interests and relationships. Throughout, I was struck by how many ideas that we think are innovative have been tried before. For example, in 1834, Berthier created an individual plan of study for one of his students at the National Deaf Institute; 150 years later, individual educational plans became the norm.

       Because my first job is teaching, I can envision using this book in a variety of classrooms. If I were teaching a high school or college English class, I would use this book (or portions of it) as a way of examining the literary genre of biography. I would have the students read biographies of the same people in other books and compare how the subjects were portrayed and see whether Hartig’s premise stands up. I would have students choose one of the biographers or subjects and write an additional biography through their own lens and then analyze how the student biographies were different. In a social studies class, I would position each biographer or subject in her or his historical time and place. I would have the students see how the times influenced the actions and ideas of the deaf people involved. If I were teaching a class in teaching methods, I would have preservice teachers figure out ways to infuse the biographies of deaf individuals into the classes they teach and to reflect on which people they chose to include and what that says about their own philosophy of education.

       This book adds an important chapter to the canon that examines the lives of deaf individuals; it is accessible and useful. I relished the time I spent with these intelligent, creative, and moral human beings.

Rachel M. Hartig was professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Gallaudet University.

Print Edition: ISBN 978-1-56368-298-8, 6 x 9 paperback, 184 pages, references, index


E-Book: ISBN 978-1-56368-372-5


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