The working lives of Deaf Americans from the mid-1850s to the post-World War II era depended upon strategies created by Deaf community leaders to win and keep jobs through periods of low national employment as well as high. Deaf people typically sought to de-emphasize their identity as sign language users to be better integrated into the workforce. But in his absorbing new book Illusions of Equality, Robert Buchanan shows that events during the next century would thwart these efforts.
The residential schools for deaf students established in the 19th century favored a bilingual approach to education that stressed the use of American Sign Language while also recognizing the value of learning English. But the success of this system was disrupted by the rise of oralism, with its commitment to teaching deaf children speech and its ban of sign language. Buchanan depicts the subsequent ramifications in sobering terms: most deaf students left school with limited educations and abilities that qualified them for only marginal jobs. He also describes the insistence of the male hierarchy in the Deaf community on defending the tactics of individual responsibility through the end of World War II, a policy that continually failed to earn job security for Deaf workers. Illusions of Equality is an original, edifying work that will be appreciated by scholars and students for years to come.
Robert M. Buchanan is a member of the faculty at Goddard College.