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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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From The American Historical Review

In Damned for Their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled, Jan Branson and Don Miller provide an excellent, if unusual, point of departure for understanding deaf history in the West. Although the two Australian sociologists draw heavily from recent French theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, Georges Canguillhem, and Michel Foucault, and although they advance a critique much like Stiker’s of the contradictions inherent in capitalist democracies, their study follows a synthetic more than an eclectic path. To be sure, as the title implies, the book embodies deaf history’s uneasy relationship to disability. The first fifty-six pages introduce major trends in European history—changing ideas of cosmology and science, the rise of industrial capitalism, the development of the modern state, the impact of imperialism and war, and the advent of globalization—to offer a clear, sensitive critique of how disability became pathologized and disabled people increasingly undervalued as a result; the remaining two hundred pages measure the deaf community’s success in fleeing from disability. Since the French and American cases have determined the parameters for how generations of scholars have approached deaf history, the book’s attention to Britain and Australia provides a good opportunity to question come basic assumptions. For example, according to Branson and Miller, the British introduced many of the philosophical ideas about the role of language in educating the deaf nearly a century before the French, but they medicalized deafness (turned it into a disability) later. This created a more complex debate between proponents of sign language and those of speech than has previously been assumed because British ideas of professionalization and medical authority followed their own path.

Damned for Their Difference also introduces scholars to new ways of thinking about disability and deafness in relation to ideas of the nation and the individual. Throughout their study, Branson and Miller return to “the contradictions between the exploitive mode of production and individualism,” showing how capitalist democracy creates tensions between its political promise of individual agency and equality on the one hand and its thirst for economic expansion that fueled the drive to regulate and standardize to ensure a stable work force on the other. Products of this new capitalist state, the medical profession and the educational system rendered deaf people powerless and alone by transforming them from just another example of difference in a local community to “disabled non-hearing people” best relegated to institutions. But lest readers come away with a simplistic idea that deaf people were only innocent victims, Damned for Their Difference ends with a spirited critique of recent drives to create national sign language dictionaries—symbols of deaf culture’s success in the West—as oppressive to a patchwork of deaf linguistic traditions existing in much of the world. “Even the oppressed themselves can become oppressors if the complexities of linguistic and cultural rights are not explored,” Branson and Miller warn.

Perhaps because many have struggled valiantly to free deafness from pathological associations, deaf history contains two countercurrents: one shows deaf people as historical agents while the other decries their status as victims. Like most sophisticated works in deaf history, Robert M. Buchanan’s monograph, Illusions of Equality: Deaf Americans in School and Factory, 1850-1950, embodies both, in this case by looking at labor history. Using records from institutions and workplaces, Buchanan tells the story of deaf leadership and the tensions within the deaf community not just over matters related to language but also regarding the role of the state and what deaf people believed they could legitimately and usefully gain from government assistance. In other words, Illusions of Equality shows deaf people wrestling with questions regarding the relationship they wanted to create between their identity, mainstream American society, and disability, indeed, whether they wanted to be considered disabled at all.

Buchanan traces deaf history with a special emphasis on a thriving community of people initially drawn to the tire factories of Akron, Ohio, around 1910. Particularly mindful of class issues as well as the parallels with the experiences of immigrants, the book charts the ups and downs of deaf men and women living through the dramatic changes brought by industrialization and the two world wars. Once people who had been absorbing American values of pride and self-sufficiency in deaf educational institutions confronted the realities of a mainstream society that rejected them, they flocked to places that accepted them. For instance, when a factory such as Goodyear began employing deaf workers by the hundreds in what reporters called the “Silent Colony” of skilled, semi-skilled, and even management jobs at the beginning of World War I, the city’s deaf population swelled to the point that people in other American cities noticed an exodus. At its height during World War I, the Akron deaf community, like others across the nation, boasted its own religious and civic organizations, many of which conducted charity drives for the war, social events such as silent movie screenings, and an active football team. The fortunes of Akron’s deaf community rose and fell with the American economy, as desperate employers went out of their way to hire deaf people in wartime and—just like Rose the Riveter—unceremoniously dismissed them in times of peace with the return of the regular labor force. Meanwhile, deaf workers debated hot issues such as whether they should join unions or whether they would stand a better chance of employment by being strikebreakers.

Buchanan’s Illusions of Equality demonstrates many of the strengths and weaknesses possible in historical approaches to disability. Buchanan is a talented, energetic researcher who has brought a compelling and important chapter of deaf history to life by introducing us to sources and case studies from across the country: student newspapers, organization reports, and labor decrees, as well as a wide array of captivating pictures showing ads for deaf workers, workers on the job, political cartoons, and leaders of the community. He tells a lively story with interesting characters and a good plot while making readers aware of places where future work needs to be done, most notably in issues related to race and gender. But even though Buchanan apologizes for not discussing women and African Americans in any depth, perhaps some race or postcolonial theory or even discussions of masculinity would have helped him understand a deaf community dominated by white male leaders in a more complex way. For example, rather then simply blaming deaf leaders’ caution on their having internalized the dominant cultural values of hearing society with regard to race, gender, and class, it would be useful to apply some general analysis to understanding the role of masculinity in the context of an evolving deaf culture. In what ways did the mainstream society’s association between disability and femininity influence male leaders’ choices? How were ideas of masculinity and work incorporated into deaf men’s expectations of themselves?

Such tools prove useful when interpreting primary sources, especially in the new field of disability history, where such documents are only beginning to be discovered and analyzed, let alone put into print. Autobiographies provide a valuable, if complicated, source, at the same time that they offer important ways of giving disabled people a rare form of agency by allowing them to express themselves. Christopher Krentz’s book A Mighty Change: An Anthology of Deaf American Writing, 1816-1864 is the best autobiographical collection currently available for deaf history. Divided into two parts, the book focuses first on individual authors, chosen, Krentz notes, “for quality writing that merits preservation and provokes interest,” writers who lost their hearing before the age of eleven and identified with the community of deaf people who used sign language. Although in the introduction he worries that nearly all of his sources come from white males, he includes an unusual, absorbing account by a homeless deaf woman in Michigan writing before the Civil War. Once Krentz makes it clear just how difficult it was even for pre-lingual deaf people of the privileged classes to learn to write in a language they had never heard (and at a time when few believed that deaf people would write at all), our early twenty-first-century expectations of inclusion need to be seen as a product of our own times. Still, as parts of this volume—and my own discovery of an unpublished manuscript written by the blind daughter of French artisans in the 1820s—make clear, many more sources remain hidden away, masked by the fact that disability history has barely begun to be explored. The book’s second section, “Events and Issues,” presents an engaging set of discussions around important moments in deaf history of this period, including a heated debate in the 1850s over whether deaf people should create their own commonwealth in the form of a utopian community. One only wishes that, in a field that desperately needs people to tell their own stories, more such volumes existed for other times, other places, and other disabilities.

As for many other marginal groups, the Holocaust has produced some of the most poignant accounts in disability history. Yet, even though studies of this event occupy whole sections in bookstores, and even though disabled people were among its first victims as the Nazis tested public opinion for eliminating undesirable citizens, little scholarship has been published on disability in this context. More work addresses the subject by exploring the Holocaust’s turn-of-the-century foundations in the rise of eugenics, a respected scientific, state-supported approach to “human betterment.” Many Western nations, including the United States and Nazi Germany, passed legislation that prohibited marriages between “defectives,” mandated forced sterilization programs, and supported euthanasia for disabled people. Given these inauspicious roots, the lack of scholarly discussion about disability and the Holocaust becomes even more striking since some estimate that as many as a million people were murdered because of their disability. A number of factors might explain this lacuna, among them perhaps a tacit acceptance that the Nazis may have been right to want to eliminate this particular group of “undesirables.” Disabled people have never received recognition as victims of genocide, and even now that gay rights activists have added homosexuals to the list along with Romany and Jews, the public knows surprisingly little about disability and the Holocaust. Horst Biesold’s Crying Hands: Eugenics and Deaf People in Nazi Germany is a welcome, if problematic, early contribution to this little-told story. Culled and translated from a German doctoral dissertation based on interviews with over 1,200 deaf victims of Nazi persecution, this is a very disturbing book. It plunges readers into the muddy waters of science, eugenics, and decisions about the value of human life by focusing on the forced sterilization of deaf people, beginning with the “Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Disease” passed in 1933. This tragedy came about largely through the energetic help of teachers and principals in deaf institutions, since many repeatedly informed on their students. Meanwhile, physicians and social workers also did their part, meaning that professionals played a far greater role in denouncing their deaf charges than the German public did. Moreover, the leading German deaf organization, the REGEDE, largely sympathized with the Nazis, thereby undermining the deaf community at its core.

Because this book comes to us through so many filters (traumatic memories from childhood, transcriptions of sign language translated into spoken German, German into English, a dissertation into a book, a book itself substantially revised for an American readership), evaluating it for anything but the chilling stories themselves seems almost futile. Before meeting Biesold, these victims’ shame about their deafness and their fate kept many from revealing to anyone that they had been forcibly sterilized. The pages upon pages filled with accounts of betrayal both intimate and bureaucratic thus come through with such force that attempting to summarize them or single out examples would never do them justice. And Biesold himself seems not to have found the right tone, since his narrative of the events seems both too distant yet also too close as it weaves awkwardly in and out of his informants’ past and present lives. Not quite a study, then, Crying Hands is an experience, a riveting account. Here, hundreds and hundreds of deaf people tell their stories—without the aid of literary conventions and without the backing of a wider world that has joined them in their outrage. Even as mediated history, this is raw stuff that forces us to suspend analysis until such a time as more studies of disability in the past can give us a deeper understanding of how humans deal with their relationship to difference.

-- Catherine J. Kudlick, University of California, Davis