||Illusions of Equality
Deaf Americans in School and Factory, 1850-1950
Robert M. Buchanan
Now in Paperback!
From The Journal of American History
Deaf historiography has entered its second wave. The first wave, led by historians at Gallaudet University and the psycholinguist-cum-historian Harlan Lane, mapped the broad terrain of Deaf history. Revising a still earlier scholarship that rendered Deaf people as passive, afflicted, and acted upon by hearing benefactors, those scholars depathologized Deaf people’s experience by recasting them as a linguistic minority. Focused mainly on the rise of sign-based Deaf education and the formation of Deaf communities in Europe and America from 1750 to 1880 and on the seeming victory of oralism from 1880 to 1920, those studies demonstrated Deaf historical agency and celebrated Deaf culture but often depicted declension from a nineteenth-century Deaf golden age to a twentieth-century oralist dark age.
Robert M. Buchanan’s Illusions of Equality exemplifies second-wave Deaf historiography in several ways. It begins in the latter half of the nineteenth century but gives greatest attention to the first half of the twentieth. It shows the dominant position of oralists in early-twentieth-century Deaf education but makes clear that the Deaf community vigilantly and vigorously sought to influence that schooling. Deaf leaders not only challenged the claims of oralist success but tried to safeguard the jobs of the declining numbers of Deaf instructors at the state residential schools, to promote improvements in vocational instruction, and to facilitate job placement of male graduates.
The last issue draws Buchanan, by training a labor historian, to his most distinctive contribution. From the 1880s through the late 1940s, Deaf leaders increasingly devoted their energies to the problems of Deaf workers in the job market. They challenged anti-Deaf discrimination in early-twentieth-century civil service hiring and in New Deal work programs. They lobbied first for state labor bureaus and later for vocational rehabilitation services targeting Deaf workers. A few militant activists demanded antidiscrimination proscriptions and even hiring quotas, but for the most part Deaf leaders moved cautiously to avoid alienating hearing officials and employers. Accepting the right of employers to make employment decisions without government intervention, they exhorted Deaf adults to display proper work habits in order to educate those employers about their capabilities. The conservative political approaches adopted by the leaders of this tiny embattled minority, Buchanan thus shows, bought into the dominant cultural ideas of individualistic self-reliance that historically also hampered labor organizing and disability-based political activism.
Buchanan exemplifies another feature of recent Deaf scholarship by introducing issues of gender, race, and disability He traces the neglect of and bias against Deaf women and Deaf African Americans by white male Deaf leaders as well as by the schools. He also takesup the controversial matter of the Deaf community’s relationship to “disability,” reporting the long-term resistance of most leaders to any such connection and examining in depth the fierce clash during World War II between those leaders and advocates of a cross-disabilitypolitical alliance who called for vigorous government action to combat discrimination.
In all those ways, this book and recent scholarship are building on the initial literature, deepening Deaf historical analysis and making it more critical and more complex.
—Paul K. Longmore, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, California
Robert M. Buchanan is a member of the faculty at Goddard College.