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Genetics, Disability, and Deafness

John Vickrey Van Cleve, Editor

Now in Paperback!

Read chapter one.
Read reviews: Ragged Edge Magazine, Choice, SIGNews, Disability Studies Quarterly.

$46.95s

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From Ragged Edge Magazine

In 1883, Alexander Graham Bell -- best known in hearing culture as the inventor of the telephone and famous in Deaf culture for his oralist stance -- announced that he wanted “to draw attention to the fact that in this country deaf-mutes marry deaf-mutes.” Drawing on the accepted eugenic theories of the time, he expressed concern that the practice of deaf-deaf marriages might lead to “a deaf variety of the human race.”

Bell is quoted in Joseph J. Murray’s essay, “‘True Love and Sympathy’: The Deaf-Deaf Marriages Debate in Transatlantic Perspective,” one of 13 essays in Genetics, Disability, and Deafness. Information from the book’s cover informs us that these papers, “from science, history, and the humanities, ...show the many ways that disability, deafness, and the new genetics interact and what this interaction means for society.” They were originally presented at a conference held at Gallaudet University in 2003

One advantage of the cross-disciplinary nature of the conference seems to have been that presenters did not assume that their audiences had extensive backgrounds in the fields from which the presenters came. This means that while it’s an academic book, it’s relatively accessible to an audience without advanced degrees. It also means that the endnotes and bibliographies (provided by every essayist except Nora Groce) are helpful to those of us interested in learning more about fields in which we are relatively ignorant.

The corresponding drawback, of course, is that a presenter with limited time who cannot assume that the audience has a solid background in the field under discussion will not be able to provide a detailed, nuanced, thorough discussion of whatever it is he or she is there to discuss. The better prepared I was for the subject of an essay, as a rule, the more frustrated I was at what I thought was missing. (In light of this, I regret to say that I wasn’t nearly as frustrated as I would have liked.) This is another reason to value the bibliographies and notes: there are longer pieces, and pieces aimed at people who are much better prepared in specific fields, cited there.


The possibility of “a deaf variety of the human race” has long been rejected by people who note, among other things, that the overwhelming majority of families with two deaf parents have hearing children. More recently, the eugenic theories on which Bell and others based their concerns have been discredited. The idea that a deaf variety (should one arise) would be a bad thing is still going strong.

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John Vickrey Van Cleve is Professor Emeritus of History, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC.

ISBN 978-1-56368-576-7, 6 x 9 paperback, 240 pages, tables, figures, photographs, references, index

$46.95s

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