Through Deaf Eyes

A Photographic History of an American Community

First Edition

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

Imprint: Gallaudet University Press
Hardcover : 9781563683473, 200 pages, April 2007
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Human beings are social animals who communicate with each other almost constantly through sounds and movements. From the moment we are born, we are engaged in the learning and use of one or more complex languages. This imperative to employ language is deeply embedded in our genetic heritage. If two infants are placed together in isolation, they will begin to create their own language. So fundamental is the need to maintain communication with others that one of the most severe punishments we can inflict is solitary confinement.
Language is most often conveyed via speech and hearing, but we can just as readily use gesture and sight. Native Americans, for example, created relatively complex gesture languages for intertribal communication as well as for ritual use. Australian aborigines developed sign languages for use when speech was ritually taboo, such as during mourning periods for women or initiation ceremonies for men. Some linguists theorize that humans communicated via gesture for thousands of years before they developed speech.

In this 1907 school photograph, students and their teacher pose for the camera. All but two of the boys (first row, right) are able to be still for the seconds the shutter is snapped. Their signing to each other is captured and produces a double image. (Gallaudet University Archives, #13747-18, Washington, DC; from the Alice Teegarden Album.)


However, most sign languages, especially the most complex among them, have been developed by Deaf communities. Just as geographical and cultural conditions that isolate populations have led to the creation of distinct spoken languages, so has the physical and social condition of not hearing led to the creation of Deaf communities and sign languages. Hundreds of sign languages are in use around the world today. While each is distinct, all use the shape, orientation, position, and movement of the hands, as well as subtle uses of facial expression and movement of the head and body. Combinations of these elements make possible a variety of linguistic expressions as unlimited as the combinations of sounds used in spoken languages


Deaf people also cultivate, to varying degrees, the difficult arts of lipreading and speaking (tasks made more or less challenging by, among other factors, the degree of deafness and the age at which deafness occurred). Lipreading is difficult and imprecise in any language, and it is made even trickier by the many sounds and words in English that look identical on the lips. Sole reliance upon oral communication has been more common among some populations than others, such as those people who became deaf as adults. The more common alternative for people deaf from an early age has been to cultivate a means of communication better suited to the visual sense, in other words, some form of gestural language.


Whenever significant numbers of deaf people have congregated in one place, as in large cities or in residential schools, Deaf communities that rely on naturally evolving sign languages have come into existence. The little-known history of the American Deaf community parallels the experiences and struggles of other minority groups. Deaf Americans have organized politically to protect and promote their interests; formed local, state, and national organizations; established newspapers and magazines; founded schools; and gathered in churches where American Sign Language was the language of song and sermon alike. The great majority have found not just their friends but their spouses within the Deaf community.
American Sign Language (ASL) is the visual/gestural language that is the primary means of communication within the Deaf community in America and parts of Canada. ASL signs, like spoken language words, represent concepts. Many of the signs correspond fairly directly with English words, but many do not. Interpreting from ASL into English and vice versa is a difficult and inexact task, just as interpreting between any two languages always is.
American Sign Language traces its roots not to Britain, as American English does, but to early nineteenth-century French Sign Language because the first deaf teacher in the United States came from France. While ASL and French Sign Language have diverged considerably over the years, they are still mutually intelligible to a limited extent—somewhat like modern Spanish and Italian. British Sign


Language and ASL are, for the most part, mutually unintelligible. Similarly, the vocabulary and grammar of ASL are distinct from English. ASL has its own syntax and is governed by a unique set of grammatical rules, just as Japanese Sign Language is distinct from spoken Japanese, and Swedish Sign Language is distinct from spoken Swedish.
In spite of the upsurge in ASL research in recent decades and the growing popularity of ASL courses in high schools and colleges, misconceptions about this language are still common. For example, many people assume that there is

 one universal sign language. This assumption often coexists with the entirely incompatible and equally erroneous notion that ASL was invented by educators as a visual representation of English. The usual conflation of “language” with “spoken language” is behind such beliefs, and this makes it difficult to convince people that ASL is a natural language, like any other (whether spoken or signed) that has evolved within a linguistic community.

ASL is often confused with the manual communication systems invented in the 1970s for the purpose of teaching written English to deaf children. These systems attempt to represent English on the hands by adding prefixes, suffixes, and verb-tense endings to ASL signs and by arranging the signs in English word order. “Manually Coded English” systems have their roots in the early nineteenth-century system called “methodical sign language,” which was used in the schools in France and the United States. These systems are codes, not true languages.

Because deaf people live among hearing people, they typically are bilingual. Much as Spanish speakers living in the United States sprinkle their conversations with English words and expressions, deaf people introduce elements of English into ASL. They fingerspell (use particular handshapes to represent the letters of the English alphabet) many proper nouns, such as personal names, place names, brand names, and titles of books, plays, and movies. They also fingerspell to communicate exact English words. Fingerspelling lies along the boundary of the hearing and Deaf worlds and mediates between English and ASL.

Like spoken languages, ASL is handed down from generation to generation, but this transference occurs most often within the Deaf community rather than in hearing families, in which, typically, there is only one deaf member. Descriptions of signs from the nineteenth century indicate that the language of the Deaf community, which was called “the natural language of signs,” has not changed essentially since that time. Films made by the National Association of the Deaf between 1910 and 1921 show deaf people using a sign language that, while different in some particulars, such as the production of certain signs and style of delivery, is understandable to ASL users today. How has that intergenerational transmission occurred? This brings us to the question of culture.

Deaf people have formed distinct cultures and signed languages all over the world for at least the last three hundred years. Indeed, wherever sufficient numbers of deaf people have been present, they have formed social groups in which a visually oriented language and culture flourish. These cultures do not include all who lack hearing but rather those deaf people who use sign language, share certain attitudes about themselves and their relation to the hearing world, and identify themselves as a part of a Deaf community. In American Sign Language, this is often referred to as the Deaf-World.

What makes Deaf people a cultural group instead of simply a loose organization of people with a similar sensory loss is the fact that their adaptation includes language. An environment created solely by a sensory deprivation does not make a culture. . . . What does form a culture for Deaf people is the fact that the adaptation to a visual world has by human necessity included a visual language. In the United States this is American Sign Language. . . .
This cultural identity is intrinsically bound to the language. When the Northern and Southern soldiers in a Deaf Civil War legend signed what could be glossed as DEAF-SAME, it was not an affirmation of a mutual lack of hearing, but rather one of mutual identity. In fact, in this legend, which continues to be told, it is an identity that transcended North and South allegiances. (Susan D. Rutherford, “The Culture of American Deaf People,” Sign Language Studies 51 [Summer 1988]: 725–26, 729)

The American Deaf community is characterized by a number of cultural attributes, among them the possession of a rich and diverse literature. Like many languages spoken all around the world today, ASL does not have a commonly used written form, but it does have a long-standing unwritten literature that includes various forms of oratory, folklore, and performance art. The rhetorical style of oratory is marked by the use of particular, sometimes archaic, signs, and is used for formal occasions. Folklore


includes a variety of traditional language arts, such as narratives on traditional themes, jokes and puns, games, and distinctive naming practices. Performance art includes poetry and plays composed in ASL. These genres follow conventions analogous to, but distinct from, those of spoken languages. ASL poetry, for example, is based upon visual rather than aural patterns. This literature has been recorded on film, videotape, and digital media dating back to 1902.
Deaf culture has also been expressed in an astonishing array of social, political, and economic organizations. The


National Association of the Deaf, founded in 1880, currently has active member affiliates in every state. Local clubs have long served as regular meeting places and social centers. The National Fraternal Society of the Deaf was founded in 1901 to provide insurance to deaf people, and over the years it has expanded its operations to become involved in legislative, civic, and social activities. Since 1945, the American Athletic Association of the Deaf has organized sporting events on a national level, as well as American participation in what is now known as the Deafolympics. Dozens of newspapers and magazines written by and for deaf people, with titles such as the Silent


Worker, Deaf Life, and Silent News, have existed within the Deaf community over the past century and a half.
These more formal expressions of culture are only the tip of the iceberg. Cultural expression is manifested most importantly in the decisions and actions of everyday life. Deaf cultural norms dictate the rules for the sharing of information, how to politely begin and take turns during a conversation, and appropriate etiquette for social gatherings. When deaf people marry other deaf people (which they do over 90 percent of the time), that, too, is an expression of cultural values. The transmission of cultural knowledge between generations, which has gone on remarkably effectively in spite of tremendous obstacles, is both the necessary precondition for, as well as the mark of, an enduring culture.


Lipreading, like sculpting or painting, is an art.
                             —Bonnie Tucker, The Feel of Silence
Deaf people have always communicated by oral means to one extent or another, either exclusively or in addition to sign language. People who lose their hearing in adulthood


are less likely to learn to sign or to identify with Deaf culture; however, signers and nonsigners share many experiences, face similar struggles, and work together on many issues. Their combined efforts have contributed to the development of new technologies such as the teletypewriter (TTY) and television closed captioning, and civil rights legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“You are at a store purchasing something. The clerk says $3.30 when you think she says $3.13; $3.40 when you think she says $3.14; $3.60 when you think she says $3.16 and any one of the numbers vice versa as well as a thousand and one more confusing words look-alike speechreading words.”
“You get dizzy at a meeting trying to locate who is talking and when you finally locate the speaker, he has finished and someone else has started and you must begin your game of ‘hide and seek’ all over again.”


“You drink Manhattans instead of other drinks and you smoke certain brands of cigarettes because your favorites are often difficult to pronounce.”

           Roy Holcomb, Hazards of Deafness, quoted in
        Jack R. Gannon, Deaf Heritage: A Narrative
        History of Deaf America (Silver Spring, MD:
 National Association of the Deaf, 1981), 210, 216

Watch yourself in a mirror while you say the following words: bat, bad, ban, mat, mad, man, pat, pad, pan. Most hearing people are surprised to find that every one of these words looks exactly like the others. The cat in the hat may just as well be the hat in the cat. Only 30 to 40 percent of English is unambiguously visible on the lips under ideal circumstances. What would make circumstances less than ideal? Mustaches. Beards. Distance. A speaker who moves around, such as a lecturer. A group discussion. Dim lighting or glare. An old joke about three elderly and hard-of-hearing men on a train points to the difficulties: as they pull into a station, one says, “Ah, it’s Weston.” The second replies, “I thought it was Thursday.” The third: “Me too, let’s get a drink.”
The challenge of oral communication is to learn to form words and modulate speech patterns with a voice that can be heard only imperfectly or not at all, and to learn to distinguish the words that others form on their lips. Since many words look alike, the lipreader depends also upon body language, context, and other cues to follow a speaker. It is, at best, an imperfect art.

Since I was a child, some of my misunderstandings have brought gales of laughter I couldn’t help joining in with. A few have become oft-told family anecdotes. Some years ago, for example, during the flu season, I sat one afternoon in the living room reading a book while suffering from a


typhoon in the bowels. Suddenly and prodigiously I broke wind. My elder son, Colin, then five years old, dashed in wide-eyed from the kitchen and inquired, “What’s that big loud noise?”
      Mystified, I arose from the couch, peered out the window, and said, “What pig outdoors?
     My son stared at me dumbfoundedly. What pig?
     Go ahead, look in the mirror and watch your lips: to a lipreader, “What’s that big loud noise?” looks exactly like “What’s that pig outdoors?” (Henry Kisor, What’s That Pig Outdoors: A Memoir of Deafness [New York: Hill and Wang, 1990], xv–xvi).

Lipreading is most effective when paired with hearing. Hearing people unconsciously lipread to supplement their hearing in noisy environments. Many people with mild to  moderate hearing losses, especially those who wear hearing aids, and people who have cochlear implants find lipreading a useful complement  to whatever hearing they possess. Most people with severe to profound losses, however, have difficulty grasping more than isolated words or phrases. Intelligible speech presents similar difficulties:

Speaking is difficult when you cannot monitor your own voice and when you have only the feeblest of cues to enable you to know how you sound to others. As one Deaf person has put it, “For me, speaking is like walking about in public naked” (Jerome Schein, At Home Among Strangers [Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1990], 33).

While most deaf adults have always supported the teaching of lipreading and speech in the schools, many have expressed concern that too often it has had questionable


benefit and has come at the expense of children’s general education and overall language development.
Deaf people live in every community. In most times and places their numbers are small, but exceptions appear from time to time. One such exception took place on Martha’s  Vineyard from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. Because of an unusually high rate of inherited deafness on the island during that period, many people were bilingual in English and sign language. Consequently, deafness appears to have had little effect on social relations. In the general U. S. population, fewer than 1 in 5,000 children were born deaf at that time (many more became deaf from illness), but on Martha’s Vineyard the number was closer to 1 in 150, and on parts of the island it was as high as 1 in 25. As a result, many hearing islanders were able to switch back and forth from spoken English to sign language depending upon who was present, and there seems to have been no difference between the social and economic lives of hearing and deaf people. They intermarried regularly, did the same sorts of work, earned the same incomes, and participated in the daily life of their communities on an apparently equal basis.
“I had already spent a good part of the afternoon copying down various genealogies before I thought to ask Gale what the hearing people in town had thought of the deaf people.
     ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘they didn’t think anything about them, they were just like everyone else.’
     ‘But how did people communicate with them—by writing everything down?’
     ‘No,’ said Gale, surprised that I should ask such an obvious question. ‘You see, everyone here spoke sign language.’
     ‘You mean the deaf people’s families and such?’ I inquired.


‘Sure,’ Gale replied, as he wandered into the kitchen to refill his glass and find some more matches, ‘and everybody else in town too—I used to speak it, my mother did, everybody.’
The Martha’s Vineyard experience suggests strongly that the concept of a handicap is an arbitrary social category. And if it is a question of definition, rather than a universal given, perhaps it can be redefined, and many of the cultural preconceptions summarized in the term ‘handicapped,’ as it is now used, eliminated.
The most important lesson to be learned from Martha’s Vineyard is that disabled people can be full and useful members of a community if the community makes an effort to include them. The society must be willing to change slightly to adapt to all.”

                 Nora Ellen Groce, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
 1985), 2–3, 108 

In most places and at most times, however, deafness is relatively uncommon. As a result, one of two conditions is necessary to bring a Deaf community into being: a large and concentrated urban population or a deliberate decision to send deaf people to a centralized location, such as a school. The former condition occurred in Paris when the population grew to well over half a million in the eighteenth century. The latter occurred in the United States in the nineteenth century when residential schools for deaf students were established, bringing together large numbers of deaf people. And that is where we begin our story.

Table of contents

chapter one
chapter two
The Advent of Deaf Education in the United States
chapter three
Formation of an American Deaf Community
chapter four
The Struggle over Sign Language
chapter five
In a Time of War and Economic Depression
chapter six
Awareness and Access
Film Credits

Released with the PBS film, 200 photographs with a historical narrative depict the American Deaf community and its place in our nation’s history.


Through Deaf Eyes Film with Closed Captions



In 2001, the Smithsonian Institution presented the landmark photographic exhibition History Through Deaf Eyes, representing nearly 200 years of United States deaf history. Drawing heavily on the extensive archives at Gallaudet University, the curators created an exhibition that drew more than 400,000 people viewed at the Smithsonian and in 12 cities during a five-year national tour. Its popularity prompted the production of a documentary film for national broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System. Now, the photographs, quotes, and stories from this remarkable exhibit and documentary have been assembled in a book of stunning beauty and poignant images, Through Deaf Eyes: A Photographic History of an American Community.
       Featuring more than 200 full-color photographs, Through Deaf Eyes depicts the story of Deaf America and also affords readers the opportunity to learn about the nation’s broader history. The values and judgments of society have had an impact on the education, employment, and family life of deaf people, while historical eras often can be illuminated by examination through a Deaf lens. Photographs reveal the character of Deaf people in school settings, the workplace, during wartime, and using their cultural signature, American Sign Language. For both deaf and hearing readers, the Deaf community portrayed in Through Deaf Eyes offers a unique and fascinating perspective on the value of human difference.


Douglas Baynton is Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA.
Jack R. Gannon is former Special Assistant for Advocacy to the president of Gallaudet University and is the curator of the History Through Deaf Eyes exhibition. He and his wife Rosalyn live in New Market, MD.
Jean Lindquist Bergey is the Director of the History Through Deaf Eyes Project at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.



"An enlightening and engaging collection of photographs and historical accounts is interspersed with personal anecdotes in this companion to a PBS documentary of the same name. This is an ideal introduction for anyone who has ever puzzled over the difference between deaf and Deaf (the latter refers to deaf culture)." 

— Publishers Weekly

"This informative and well-illustrated volume is recommended for undergraduate and large public libraries."

— Library Journal

"The authors have done justice to successfully documenting an important visual history of Deaf America. The book reads well, and the quality and organization is evident throughout. Educators, students, and other interested individuals, particularly families, should see this book. A strong foundation in Deaf History is something that deaf and hard-of-hearing children should receive from their families because it can enhance the development of self-esteem, self-concept, and self-confidence and, as such, contribute to the development of the child's individual and social identity."

— Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education