Note: The names of Deaf individuals appear in bold italics throughout this chapter. In addition, names of Deaf and Hearing historical figures appearing in blue are briefly described in “Who’s Who” which can be accessed via the Overview Section of this Project (for English text).

Someone said to me once, ‘The first thing the oppressor kills is creativity.’
Paddy Ladd, 2009

We were isolated in the midst of society; today we are reunited; today we have united our intellects, our efforts, our lights; today we constitute one body; all of us, active and devoted members, desire the well-being of that body; we who were not, ARE!
Claudius Forestier, 1849

We can see that art making was a fundamental human impulse and continues to be one, despite the fragmentation in our current civilization. When it [art] becomes a truth teller, a healer, a form of resistance and a promoter of dialogue, it is often shut down and called dangerous.
–Beverly Naidus, 2008

Artistic and Literary Expressions

Why does any group of people make art?

To answer this question, we must journey back to the very first form of visual artistic expression. The earliest known artworks date to prehistoric times and appeared in the form of cave paintings. Humans, who had not yet developed written language, created paintings largely depicting survivalist and mystical themes.

Photograph by Christopher Jon Heuer

For these people, visual expression served as both a means of communication and a way of documenting their lives and ideas. Many scholars theorize they were often the creation of shamans trying to incorporate and draw out magical powers. Common motifs were large animals and human hands. Hence, these earliest known artists chose a way to share and preserve their knowledge and experiences in an effort to influence their waking world via a visual form.

As humans developed the ability to use language and form communities and cultures, specific artistic expressions from different groups of people emerged. Greek and Roman societies developed very specialized and sophisticated forms of artistic and literary expressions. Indigenous cultures all over the globe created artistic forms as well as complex unwritten face-to-face literary traditions.

Today, when people encounter culturally specific textile, pottery, or music, they are able to identify whether it is from Africa, South America or Southeast Asia. People from those areas would further be able to identify which specific region it came from. All people have generated artistic expressions that are unique to their cultures and are often used as a marker of belonging and group boundaries.

Deaf People, Deaf Culture, and Artistic Expressions

“Deaf people have always lived within other people’s worlds. Their local communities are located within larger communities of people who hear and use a different language. What does this mean for Deaf people? How does it show up in the ways Deaf people talk about and explain things? We are now at the problem that Deaf people have of developing and holding an independent understanding of themselves while living in a world surrounded by others who have a different theory about them, in fact, a ‘science of deafness.'” (Humphries 1991: 232)

The challenges of gaining recognition of Deaf people’s culture and of Deaf individuals finding a way into that culture are due, in the first place, to geography —that Deaf people live among Hearing people and have no recognizable home land. Moreover, Deaf people live among “others,” Hearing people who largely have no knowledge of or experience with them. Thus, Hearing people faced with this new experience tend to turn to “experts from the field of deafness.” Ironically, these “experts” are often people whose training has been founded on the goal of diminishing, minimizing, removing and eradicating precisely those characteristics, which make Deaf people visual people, people who are unique and people of the eye and hand.

In order to speak more clearly to these experiences, the terms audism and Deafhood have been recently coined. Dr. Tom Humphries focused on the attitudes and behaviors of others, defining audism as “the notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or behave in the manner of one who hears.” Dr. Paddy Ladd coined the term, Deafhood, in an endeavor to describe how one takes on a Deaf cultural identity:

“Deafhood is not, however, a static medical condition like ‘deafness.’ Instead it represents a process – the struggle by each Deaf child, Deaf family and Deaf adult to explain to themselves and each other their own existence in the world. … Deaf people are engaged in a daily praxis, a continuing internal and external dialogue. This dialogue not only acknowledges that existence as a Deaf person is actually a process of becoming and maintaining ‘Deaf,’ but also reflects different interpretations of Deafhood, of what being a Deaf person in a Deaf community might mean.” (Ladd 2003: 3)

Naturally, the visual stories of Deaf people have depicted their experiences with audism and their individual and collective journeys to Deafhood.

What is the difference between culture and community?

Deaf culture expert, Dr. Carol Padden, has defined the Deaf Community as a group that shares “the common goals of its members, and in various ways, work toward achieving these goals. A deaf community may include person who are not themselves Deaf, but who actively support the goals of the community and work with Deaf People to achieve them” (Padden1980: 92). Thus, the boundaries of a community are much more loose and fluid than that of a cultural group and allow for people to enter and leave as their interests shift.

As early as 1910, George W. Veditz called Deaf people a “class” and a “community of interest”.Veditz, a passionate Deaf advocate, was a two-term president of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). George Veditz recognized Deaf people as a “class of humans” who “are facing not a theory but a condition, for they are first, last, and all the time the people of the eye” (1912, p. 30).

Visual representation of the Deaf and Hearing communities.

As indicated by the largest circle above, many Hearing people– and people with Hearing losses who do not use sign language– live their whole lives without ever encountering members of the Deaf community or Deaf culture. The hexagon shape represents the Deaf community, which is made up of Deaf, partially Deaf, and Hearing people who use sign language. Members of the Deaf community share common goals and have a physical or virtual space where they gather. Finally, Deaf culture is part of the larger circle and the hexagon indicates that members of Deaf culture, like members of the Deaf community, also live within the dominant culture. In fact Hearing parents of Deaf children will comment that the first Deaf person they ever met was their own child. However, Deaf people, even those born to Deaf parents, could never say they had never met a Hearing person before. From the moment we are born, we encounter members of the dominant culture via the medical profession, extended family members, neighbors, and the larger community in which we live and in turn become multicultural.

The sun-shaped circle is largely made up of Deaf individuals who have had strong ties and intimate contact with the keepers or carriers of our culture. Culture is often defined as a way of life for a group of people and generally has five common characteristics: language, values/beliefs, norms of behaviors/customs, traditions/heritage, and possessions/material culture.

In contrast to community membership, becoming part of a culture generally is a process of learning and internalizing cultural characteristics as well as learning how to navigate boundaries between cultures. Compared to communities, cultures tend to be more rule-bound and more strict in terms of boundary maintenance than communities.

Although culture is largely passed down from parent to child, only some 5% of Deaf people have Deaf parents. For the remaining 95% of Deaf people, the traditional vehicles for passing on Deaf culture, and for learning ASL, in particular, have been Deaf schools and the Deaf club. With the advent of educating Deaf students in mainstream schools, most Deaf children have not had the experience of attending Deaf schools, and have been taught using simultaneous communication (speaking with signing following the sentence structure of English). With so many technological advances (captioned television programs, pagers, videophones), we see a decline in attendance at Deaf clubs, which used to be the hub of the Deaf adult community. In order for Deaf culture to be maintained, enriched and shared, there must be new mechanisms and spaces in place for enculturation to occur. Just as the telephone was a revolutionary communication device for Hearing people to use to network and connect, we are now seeing the internet and its myriad facets (email, instant messaging, videochats, blogs, and vlogs) as ways to help preserve and promote Deaf culture and ASL. As a result of Deaf families, educational programs, community events, and Deaf-centered internet spaces, a kind of kinship has continued to develop, an interconnectedness is established, and a collective consciousness is fostered.

Lane, Pillard, and Hedberg in their book The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestrycontend that ASL signers are an ethic group and state “cultural traits are embedded in language and in behavior. In brief, shared culture is the cohesive force in an ethnic group and one that differentiates it from other such groups” (2011: 1).

In addition to noting that all the above cultural characteristics are features of ethnic groups, Lane, Pillard, and Hedberg estimate that three-fourths of the children in the ASL Deaf community are Deaf due to heredity. Even if ASL and Deaf cultural characteristics are not immediately passed on because generations are “skipped” — the ethnicity persists and frequently resurfaces.

“All of the different functions of language — expressing individual and cultural identity, purveying cultural norms and values, linking the present & the past-sustain an ethnic group’s love of its native language as the central symbol of its identity and fuel the minority’s resistance to replacement of its language by more powerful others.” ~ Lane, Pillard, and Hedberg (2011: 8)

The characteristics of any culture includes a particular language or languages, a set of values and beliefs maintained by that group, customs and norms of behavior deemed appropriate by the people, as well as traditions which have been created and passed down as part of the group’s shared heritage. Material culture for many cultural groups evolve around culturally specific possessions and artifacts: food, clothing, music, literature, and visual arts.

Table I: Characteristics of Deaf Culture

Characteristics of a Culture Examples within U.S. Deaf Culture
Language American Sign Language
Values / Beliefs Receiving and expressing information via visual / tactile means, collectivism…
Norms of Behaviors / Customs Eye contact, introducing each other by Deaf schools or other affiliations, name signs…
Tradition / Heritage Folklore, Deaf schools, Deaf clubs
Possessions / material culture Literature, visual arts, cinema…

With the spread of oralism (speech as the vehicle of instruction), mainstreaming, cochlear implant surgery, and developments in genetic engineering, a cultural and linguistic genocide is becoming a very real threat to Deaf people and our culture. As Paddy Ladd states in his interview, which accompanies this text, the repression of creativity is another symptom of cultural destruction. As an antidote, this project examines how the artistic and literary expressions–the possessions/artifacts of Deaf culture– have served and continue to maintain the culture, and thus are the heART of Deaf culture.

Just as the cave paintings of prehistoric times functioned to document and communicate ideas, so do Deaf visual art and literary expressions. The crafters of these art forms serve as modern day shamans, enlivening ASL and other mediums with artistry and conscious + conscience raising –creating a culturally rich heritage of messages and symbols. As people gathered around the fire in times past to watch, learn, and internalize cultural information from shamans, storytellers, and elders, so do contemporary viewers of Deaf artistic expression. These audience members become equally important in sharing and disseminating the culturally rich visual stories – passing on the torch to the next generation of keepers and carriers of the culture.

Heart on X-Ray by Chuck Baird

What is Deaf View / Image Art?

We are going to be looking at Deaf visual and literary expression through a special lens that helps us see the cultural information in these works. Drawing on the Deaf View / Image Art (De’VIA) manifesto, works to be examined will be those made “with the intention of expressing innate cultural or physical Deaf experience. These experiences may include Deaf metaphors, Deaf perspectives, and Deaf insight.” (De’VIA Manifesto, 1989).

Although the De’VIA manifesto was originally created by a group of nine Deaf artists in 1989 and specifically concerned with visual arts, its overriding definition and framework—the intention of expressing the Deaf experience artistically—can be applied to all of the other literary and artistic categories examined in this project. (See The De’VIA Framework Across Genres in this overview section).

De’VIA can be and is created by Hearing visual and literary artists. However, this Project is focusing largely on the works of Deaf artisans in an effort to showcase their works and examine how one’s cultural center may shape and inform the group’s artistic expression. We feel it is important to contribute to increasing the visibility of Deaf-centered works by Deaf creators. Furthermore, we need to point out that some Deaf literary and visual artists prefer not to affiliate themselves with Deaf-themed works regardless of the content or origins of their works. Some feel that being labeled– by themselves or by others– as a ‘Deaf’ artist can, in effect, result in artistic ghettoization. Many other artists have grappled with this dilemma–women, African-American, and Lesbian/Gay artisans. Clearly, these artists have all wanted to be respected and accepted based on the merits of their work rather than solely on the basis of their group status.

Langston Hughes, the great African-American poet, offered a thoughtful response to this dilemma, when he stated that African-American poets who say “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet” subconsciously are saying “I would like to be like a white poet.” Hughes went on to say, “no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America-this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization” Despite some poets saying, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” Hughes says it is the “duty of the younger Negro artist…to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white…” to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro and beautiful!” (Hughes 1926)

Underrepresented artists who embrace Hughes spirit are committed to making their people’s experiences part of the human landscape in the literary and art worlds. This project is designed to celebrate the Deaf artists and literary creators who have also taken up this call to put a spotlight on their heritage and beauty.

These literary and visual expressions of Deafhood fit within the framework of affirmation and resistance art similar to the art of other disenfranchised groups. They exemplify the experiences of a people who may be described by colonialism, post-colonialism and liberation theory.

Disenfranchised groups can be defined as a group of people who have been deprived of their rights and basic human privileges by those in power. Art takes on important significance in many cultures; especially for disenfranchised groups who have been oppressed in their educational experiences and do not traditionally have full access to tools for disseminating information. The use of murals and other visual art forms to communicate political information in cultures and countries where illiteracy is high illustrates this point. They use their art as a visual testimony of their shared experiences. Visual art serves as a pictorial text for many cultures in which written language is not accessible to the disenfranchised. As bell hooks notes in Killing Rage, “[i]t is the telling of our history that enables political self-recovery.” (hooks 1995:47) (Durr 1999)

Affirmation visual and literary arts are works that depict a celebration, highlighting the beauty and strength of a group; whereas, resistance art features work that examines how a disenfranchised group has resisted oppression by the dominant group or even by forces arising within their own group (internalized oppression). Liberation art, which represents the successful struggle for empowerment and the Deafhood journey, occurs within some of the genres.

While the HeART of Deaf Culture project focuses primarily on De’VIA works within North America, we are seeing many commonalities and universalisms emerge in the Deaf-world globally. Further analysis of De’VIA principles that cross national boundaries can provide a valuable contribution to our understanding of Deafhood and Deaf collective consciousness.

“Art No. 2” by Chuck Baird

What does a culture promise?

Drs. Carol Padden and Yutaka Osugi framed their presentation on the “Future of Sign Language and Deaf Culture” at the 14th World Federation of the Deaf Conference (2003) around the three promises of culture: history, imagination, and justice. In their paper, they explain how at the cultural sites of Deaf schools – generations of Deaf people passed down traditions including ASL, poetry and storytelling, strategies for Deaf children learning to read and ways of interacting with the world. Further, they showed that by employing imagination Deaf people utilize their history, language, and arts to “give voice to the hidden or the unconscious, and give us ways to reorganize and reshape our future.” The third promise, justice, refers to the ability to control one’s own future. With the push for implanting Deaf children with cochlear devices coupled with oral/aural only education (forbidding signing) and the advent of genetic engineering and stem cell experimentation, Deaf people’s future is taken out of their hands. Predictions coming from the medical profession of what the future will look like for Deaf people does not match the desired future that Deaf people are seeking. Padden and Yutaka close their paper by asserting that the three promises of a culture are: the history to understand, imagination for solutions to our common problems, and justice to guide us as we make changes in our world and our communities.

The Expressions of Deafhood project sets out to examine the cross-section among these promises of Deaf ASL culture by exploring more in-depth socially engaging art and literature of Deafhood. Beverly Naidus provides us with a clearer idea of how the arts contribute to social justice when she describes the intentions of socially engaged art:

  • to process or document something that the artist has experienced or witnessed,
  • to offer questions about or solutions to particular problems,
  • to foster dialogue between polarized groups,
  • to awaken those who are numb or in denial,
  • to compensate for social amnesia,
  • to heal the maker,
  • to make the invisible visible,
  • to express outrage, alert and alarm,
  • to stretch the mind,
  • to develop positive images of the future and to envision a different reality
  • to find others of like minds, to make what is most compelling and beautiful in image, object, word, motion and sound.

(Naidus, 2009, Arts for change: Teaching Outside the Frame)

As Lane, Pillard and Hedberg point out “The arts enrich the lives of ethnic groups, bind their members, and express ethnic values and knowledge. The Deaf-World has a rich literary tradition including such forms as legends and humor.” (2011: 42)

Visual stories of the Deaf experience—whether visual art works, films, performances, or literary arts–can all be socially engaged art and De’VIA. These expressions of Deafhood are how our Deaf ancestors and current artisans serve as keepers of the culture: by examining, documenting, and sharing our kinship as we quest to understand our history, imagine solutions and seek social justice.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” ~ Albert Einstein

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” ~Bertolt Brecht

“Artists are here to disturb the peace.” ~ James Baldwin

“I think much of the appreciation of literature relates to culture. People who are able to understand the value of Deaf people and our experiences, the value of our stories and our literature, as well as how our experiences are deeply rooted in our culture will be able to have a greater appreciation of our literature.” ~ M.J. Bienvenu, 2008


Durr, Patricia. “Deconstructing the Forced Assimilation of Deaf People Via De’VIA Resistance and Affirmation Art.” Visual Anthropology Review 15.2 (Fall 1999): 47-68

Hughes, Langston. The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. The Nation, June 23, 1926.

Humphries, Thomas. 1977. Communicating across cultures (deaf-Hearing) and language learning, Ph.D. dissertation, Union Institute and University, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Humphries, Thomas. 1991. An Introduction to the Culture of Deaf People in the United States: Content Notes and Reference Materials for Teachers. In Sign Language Studies, Fall 1991, Vol. 72, p. 209 – 240.

Ladd, Paddy. 2003. Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood. Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters LTD.

Lane, Harlan, Pillard, Richard, and Hedberg, Ulf. 2011. The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry. NY: Oxford University Press.

Naidus, Beverly. 2009. Arts for change: Teaching Outside the Frame. Oakland, CA: New Village Press.

Padden, Carol. 1980. The deaf community and the culture of deaf people. In C. Baker and R. Battison (eds) Sign Language and the Deaf Community. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of the Deaf.

Padden, C. and Osugi, Y. 2003. The future of sign language and deaf culture. 14th World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf. Montreal, Quebec: World Federation of the Deaf.

Vedtiz, George. Proceedings of the Ninth Convention of the National Association of the Deaf and the Third World’s Congress of the Deaf, 1910. Los Angeles, CA: Philocophus Press, 1912, p. 30.


Baird, Chuck, “Art No. 2,” 1993.

Baird, Chuck, “Heart on X-Ray,” 1999.

By Patti Durr and Karen Christie


The collective experiences of all cultures have been preserved, recorded, and conveyed via visual art, literature, and performance.  Throughout history, the arts (storytelling, poetry, theatre, fine arts, and film) have been valuable for preserving the traditions, heritage, language, values and norms of cultural and disenfranchised groups. For those cultural groups that possess a strong oral (face to face) language tradition, the arts take on an even more vital role.  All people have generated artistic expressions that are unique to their culture and which can be interpreted as markers of belonging and/or markers of group boundaries.

All peoples create A-R-T for aesthetic purposes.  In addition, artistic works express a group’s shared collective experiences, record and preserve their culture and history, communicate their cultural values/world view and advocate for sociological and political changes.  In the Plenary Address on Language and Culture at the 2003 World Federation of the Deaf Conference, Dr. Carol Padden and Dr. Yutaka Osugi spoke about the three promises of Deaf culture: history, imagination and justice. That is, “the history to understand, imagination for solutions to our common problems, and justice to guide us as we make changes in our world and our communities” (Padden & Osugi, 2003).  They describe how indigenous forms of storytelling in natural signed languages have traditionally incorporated “strategies for Deaf children learning to read and ways of interacting with the world.” Thus, the linguistic and artistic products of Deaf people’s imagination “give voice to the hidden or the unconscious, and give us ways to reorganize and reshape as we look to our future.”

Deaf-Themed Framework

In order to look specifically at how visual and literary arts carry cultural meaning and communicate collective experiences of a group of people, we have worked from analysis of Deaf artists themselves.  The Deaf View/Image Art (De’VIA ) manifesto was written in 1989 by nine Deaf artists in order to recognize and promote a particular genre of artworks by Deaf people:  “De’VIA represents Deaf artists and perceptions based on their Deaf experiences. It uses formal art elements with the intention of expressing innate cultural or physical Deaf experience. These experiences may include Deaf metaphors, Deaf perspectives, and Deaf insight in relationship with the environment (both the natural world and Deaf cultural environment), spiritual and everyday life” (De’VIA Manifesto, 1989).

Clearly, literary works by Deaf people can incorporate cultural and physical experiences, Deaf metaphors, Deaf insight, and Deaf perspectives of the world. In this way, De’VIA can be seen as parallel to a post-colonial analysis of literary works.  Like many post-colonial peoples, Deaf people express feelings of exile, alienation, and experiences of colonialization of one’s language and educational systems.

As with feminist, Harlem Renaissance, Chicano, and other art and literary movements, this representation can further be viewed in terms of the cultural themes of affirmation, resistance and liberation. Both artistic and literary works incorporating  De’VIA resistance themes can cover audism, oralism, mainstreaming, cochlear implants, identity confusion and eugenics.  Affirmation and liberation themes can further address subthemes related to empowerment, ASL, affiliation, acculturation, acceptance and Deafhood (see Durr, 1999/2000; Durr, 2007, and Christie & Wilkins, 2007)2

Thus, rather than focusing on artistic and literary works created by, but not about, Deaf or hard of hearing people, we focus on Deaf-themed works themselves–highlighting those works of art and literature which address and record one’s Deafhood journey and/or “Deaf worldview.”  Deafhood is a term coined by British scholar, Dr. Paddy Ladd, to describe the de-colonialism process the individual and collective Deaf group travels through as they shift from a medical / pathological understanding of deafness to a cultural, linguistic, political and spiritual understanding of what it means to be people of the eye  (see Ladd, 2003).

Visual Arts of Deafhood

While Deaf people have created literary and cinematic works about the Deaf experience prior to the De’VIA manifesto, the visual arts have led the way because there was a collective and conscious effort to NAME Deaf-themed expressions within the visual arts.  The term De’VIA itself is interesting because it initially followed the ASL signing of the concept and the English “gloss” came about afterwards.  Deaf (culturally centered) View (meaning perspective) / image (meaning the representation) Art (meaning visual art).  After coining the term and creating a gloss,  the acronym–De’VIA was created giving it a foreign flavor —showing its uniqueness and its roots in a language other than English while also serving as a nod to Laurent Clerc who brought FSL to the United States

The conceptualization of De’VIA likely originated in the late 1970s, during the time the Spectrum Deaf artists’ colony in Austin, Texas.  Yet, it was not named until the gathering of artists before the Deaf Way I conference in 1989.3 Throughout time, Artists have been striving to represent the Deaf experience via paintings, illustrations, photography, sculpture, mixed media, textile art, printmaking, ceramic, digital arts, and other mediums.  No medium appears to be absent from De’VIA representation although painting seems to be the most frequently utilized. Below we discuss a number of De’VIA works and explain how they address the theme of the Deaf experience in terms of resistance, affirmation, and liberation.  (see also Durr, 2007, “De’VIA:  Investigating Deaf Visual Art” which examines many more De’VIA visual artworks).4


The visual art works above by Martin and Ford both depict evolutionary processes and different stages of metamorphism. Martin has a series of busts which overemphasize the neck and mouth and often de-emphasize the eyes. However, a few of the busts that have more normal-sized necks and eyes also have a smaller self emerging from the consciousness of the bust. Ford‘s ‘S KIN/Left has an emphasis on hands being interconnected to form a womb-like shape while his nude figure is in a gestational phase of becoming a new person. He emerges from the cocoon as a Deaf person after to loosing his hearing gradually due to an unusual illness. He is forming a new “skin” via his kinship with the Deaf community and, just as being left handed was stigmatized in earlier days, he is learning to embrace who heis today rather than succumb to the dominant culture’s characterization of him.


Thornley‘s famous “Milan, Italy, 1880” with its inspired composition following fellow Deaf artist, Francisco Goya‘s “Third of May, 1808,” puts ASL in the background and under fire during the uncivil war against sign language in deaf education. In contrast, Lentini‘s student self-portrait, “Snapshot Silent,” puts ASL and Deaf culture in the foreground and the hearing world and sound in the background.  Both utilize bright colors to communicate a message of hope and perseverance despite being a misunderstood minority.


Ivey‘s small “Why Me” sculpture and Clark‘s graphic design “iPain” both tie into iconic imagery and serve to record resistance to the forced hearingization of Deaf children.  Ivey‘s small child with the oversized headset, absent mouth and tied hands is clearly mute in this process.  Clark‘s silhouette of a child placed on a red background with a blazing white cochlear implant additionally illustrates how both children have become a pathology via the field of deafness to the point where the personhood, spirit, and voice of the child is voided.

“Evolution of ASL” by Dr. Betty G. Miller is a wonderful example of liberation De’VIA.  Miller is often referred to as the Mother of De’VIA because of the volumes of works she has created in this genre and for her endlessly advocacy for the examination of the Deaf experience via the arts.  The painting should be “read” from bottom to top.  The dark bottom with simplistic outlines of hand shapes shows the dark ages of oralism, when ASL was banned from the classroom.  Dr. Miller has incorporated her famous “Ameslan Prohibited” piece into this artwork as a testament to how oralism has enslaved Deaf people and arrested their potentiality.

Despite enduring oralism and audism, Deaf people have continued to be visual people and to cherish ASL and Deaf culture.  The middle section of the painting features a black hand in a Y handshape with glowing reddish yellow outline.  Further up are colorful handshapes, some with eyes in the center of the palm, with a bright rainbow-like background.  The black handshapes indicate a spiritual entity–perhaps, the center of Deafhood itself and from it spring up more liberated Deaf individuals who form the Deaf collective experience and the promise of our future.

With Joan Popovich-Kutscher‘s resistance piece “Anti-Prisoner,” she records and shares the unfortunate and traumatic experience of having been mis-diagnosised as severely developmentally disabled.  This was  due to the fact that she did not speak and respond in a time frame judged as age appropriate.  As a result of being placed in an institution with developmentally disabled individuals, Popovich-Kutscher was deprived of access to language and rendered mute.  Several years later after seeing her create a sculpture of a dog out of spare clay, it was determined that she was simply Deaf and did not have any biological cognitive difficulties.  Transferred to the California School for the Deaf, she was introduced to art as a way of to express feelings and as a communication tool.  It was a powerful stepping stone in her journey to language development and her Deafhood.  Years later after studying art at the California Institute of the Arts and the California State University, Popovich-Kutscher would utilized print making to represent her Deaf point of view and experiences.  Ropes, zippers, and puzzle pieces would become strong motifs in her work.

Pamela Witcher‘s painting “Sign Language, our roots.  Deaf children, our future,” is an affirmation De’VIA piece.  It shows a town in the distance, and  a natural setting in the middle which serves as a background for five Deaf figures. These Deaf individuals form a line to signify our Deaf heritage and the importance of ancestors in forming a community, preserving and fostering a sign language, and resisting oppression.  As in many of her paintings and other De’VIA artists’ works, the Deaf individuals are earless and bald – De’VIA artists often choose this representation to show a genderless construct and a foreign / alien composition.  From the hearts of these beings is again a glowing yellow light which is transferred onward from one individual / generation to the next with the smallest and nearest child looking back over this linage with a smile.  The yellow glow, which may be seen as forming the sign for Deaf over the heart, trails out of the frame toward us, the viewer and onto the next generation– an endless endurance of Deaf love and life.

Cinema of Deafhood

Three major types of cinema are narratives, documentaries and art films.  For the purposes of this paper, we selected an example of each type of film which depicted the Deaf experience.  “Don’t Mind?” is a 12-minute, short narrative film directed by Patti Durr and Lizzie Sorkin.  Patrick Graybill stars in the lead role as an older Deaf man set in his ways until a Deaf neighbor asks him to babysit her daughter.  Initially resistant, Graybill‘s character softens under the carefree guidance of the 5 year old girl, Samantha.  While the film represents a universal theme of the power of love and being youthful at heart, the movie also has some very specific Deaf experiences in it.  The Deaf community, rather small and close-knit, often results in people who do not know each other very well asking each other for some kind of assistance.  The film concludes with Bill wanting to stay on as Sam’s babysitter and then receiving a new visitor at his door who says, “I heard you babysit Sam and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind watching my son…”  Deaf audience members usually laugh as soon as they see this new person at the door with a young child on her hip, immediately recognizing how fast news travels via the Deaf grapevine.  This feel-good flick affirms the Deaf experience by normalizing it.5

“Exodus: A Deaf Jewish Family Escapes the Holocaust” is a 25 minute documentary produced by NTID.  The film features interview shots of Lilly Rattner Shirey re-telling her Deaf family’s flight from Nazi occupied Europe to their internment on Ellis Island for five months with the prospect of being sent back to Austria.  Intercut with Shirey‘s narrative are photos from their family album, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and other sources as well as a narrator.  The film is designed to give voice to the Deaf experience within the scope of Nazism, the Holocaust, and U.S. immigration policies. The film covers resistance, affirmation and liberation as the Deaf Rattner/Wiener family members forge a new beginning in their new homeland.  (The film is viewable at http://www.rit.edu/deafww2).6

A short scene from “Paper Airplane,” an autobiographical student art film by Adrean Mangiardi, shows the filmmaker turning the lens on his cochlear implant and giving it a life of its own. This 14 minute film is a mixture of home videos from his childhood, current interviews with different non-signing family members, and a mixture of contemporary footage all exemplifying a Deaf person’s attempt to get a hold on sound.  In the middle of the work, Mangiardi films himself placing and removing a safety pin to his skull – it sticks in place due to the magnetic effect of the internal cochlear implant unit.  He then films various tools and dangles his external cochlear implant unit with its magnet over them – one by one the objects are picked up and hang from this device.  Next, Mangiardi uses stop motion animation to show himself asleep being dragged out of his bed by his cochlear implant and down a flight of stairs.  The magnetic device finally comes to a rest on a metal stair rung having satisfied its thirst.  Given that the filmmaker concludes the film with a text frame explaining that he will be getting a second cochlear implant, it is unclear if the overall work is a form of resistance or affirmation.  It is clear that there are several moments of turning the lens onto the dominant culture and their artifacts, moments which shift the Deaf person from being object to being subject, and also examining the unexamined – the hearing gaze and its impact. (Film is viewable at http://vimeo.com/848365)7

As filmmaking has fallen into the hands of self-taught filmmakers and can easily be distributed via the internet, we see an explosion  of works that are exploring the Deaf experience.  (For a more in depth analysis of themes and symbols, discourse and aesthetics of De’VIA Deaf cinema, see ChristieDurr and Wilkins, 2007,  “Close-Up: Contemporary Deaf Filmmakers”).8

Literary Arts of Deafhood

Deaf literary artists, creating in both English and ASL, use language in a variety of ways to convey a Deaf world-view. English literary works written by Deaf people consist of conventional genres or categories which include fictional and nonfictional prose works as well as poetic works.  The genres of ASL literature include folklore which has been passed down in a face to face manner as well as those works recorded on videotape. Genres are useful for discussing and analyzing literary works by grouping together works that share similar forms.  Yet, genres are not static, and literary artists often strive to break forms, blend genres, or create new types of literary forms.

English Literature: A Poem of the Deaf Experience

The poem, “Lip Service” by Robert F. Panara which appears in No Walls of Stone (Jepson, 1992) represents one poem created by a Deaf writer about the Deaf experience. This short poem is  formatted with two stanzas, each consisting of eight lines.  The final stanza is presented here:

You want to rap
You said
you want to integrate
but you decline
to change your line
of crap
from speech
to sign.–From Robert F. Panara, “Lip Service”

Panara masterfully manipulates the language so that there is repetition
(the first two lines in each stanza are the same), rhythm (short lines), rhyming of words (gap/rap/crap), and skillful use of idioms and slang (line of crap/this thing about the communication gap/lip service).

The poem unfolds as a response to a stated desire for social interaction from a member of the speaking-hearing majority (“you want to rap/you said”).  In the course of the poem, the poet cleverly unmasks the insincere desire of the speaking-hearing ‘you’ to ‘integrate and communicate’ without any effort or intention to learn our language. Thus, the title of the poem reveals the hypocrisy of empty talk which comes from mouths and is not followed by earnest action.

This poem describes a Deaf experience in which there is resistance to the social pressures to assimilate, to use speech, and resistance to the pressure to deny a Deaf cultural center.  It is acknowledgement that at the cultural borders of interaction, it is the people from non-dominant cultures who are expected to defer to the dominant culture, its language, and its way of being.9

English Literature: A Short Story of the Deaf Experience

The short story, “Yet: Jack Can Hear!” was created by Douglas Bullard and published in the Deaf Way II Anthology (Stremlau, 2002). In this story, a young Deaf boy returns to school in the fall after undergoing an experimental operation in which he is given a pair of new ears. The story is clearly written with an ironic tone concerning the reverence toward the doctor-god, the desperation of the parents for a miraculous cure, and the description of the new ears  (a bit fake looking and hard to keep aligned perfectly on the sides of this head) . Thanks to the efforts of the doctor and the financial sacrifices of the parents, the experimental new-ear operation has been a success!!  Now Jack, the Deaf boy who is told he should be grateful, can hear everything perfectly, but, alas can understand nothing at all.  The sounds, which he cannot turn off, are with him all day and all night.  Finally, after another of many sleepless nights, Jack decides the only way to stop the noise is by jumping from his dorm window.  At the last minute, he is yanked back in, and the houseparent and other kids work to figure out how to remove the batteries carefully from the fragile ears.  The following is the ending of the story:

“…Jack beamed Me deaf!
Nothing wrong deaf, Casey agreed with an elaborate shrug that as much as said, what’s the big deal.
Me deaf!  Jack exclaimed again.Jaime made to toss the batteries in the trashcan, but Miss Racher said, “let me have ’em.  I’ll think of a way to make ’em dead and put ’em back in.  Nobody will know.”
Secret!  Exulted, the boys and Miss Racher swore to each other to keep the secret always…
Jack was very happy to be an object of a dangerous secret and to be deaf, finally.  Deaf at long last!–From Douglas Bullard, “Yet: Jack Can Hear!”

Bullard‘s short story includes italic renderings of ASL signs as a way of allowing characters to use their language and as a way of showing the insufficiency of English for rendering signed dialogue.  Bullard portrays the Deaf experience of the medicalization of Deaf identity and the glorification of attempts at ‘cures,’ as well as individual affirmation of Deaf identity as natural and desired.  The atmosphere of the story gradually transforms into a statement of personal liberation–a subversive liberation which celebrates a secret and collective act of resistance.10

English Literature:  A Novel of the Deaf Experience

In addition to short stories, Douglas Bullard wrote one of the first novels of the Deaf Experience Islay, which was published in 1986.  The novel is the story of one Deaf man’s dream to establish a Deaf state and his travels to gather support from other people across the country.  In doing so, he runs into a number of obstacles including those who wish to ban sign language.

“See what I mean!”  Doctor Hermann Masserbatt was saying indignantly to the Governor as they were walking from the Bandstand toward the Mansion.  “Sign Language is dangerous!  Contagious!  If we don’t watch what we’re doing around deaf people, why–”  he waved his hand around and seeing his hand waving around, threw it down in disgust.

“Why, we’d lose our speech.”

Governor Wenchell coughed politely.  “You said you’d bring me a copy of that law–”

“Oh, certainly!  It’s just that I’ve been so busy in the service to the deaf, no time!  I mean, I’ve not had the time.”

“Well, well,” the Governor arched an eyebrow and turned to B-52 on his right.  “It’s been a year since—?”

“Nearly a year,” nodded B-52.  “Last summer.”

“That long!” exclaimed the superintendent.  “I’ve been extremely terribly busy, what with all these deaf people moving in and taking over the schools.  They refuse to enroll their deaf children at the Institute for Communicative Disorders.”

The Governor stopped abruptly.  “Why would that be?” he demanded.

The man threw up his hands.  “Because we would not, ever, allow any sign language in any form at our institute.  You see, it is our job to cure communication disorders.  You can’t very well do that if you allow sign language.  Why, that’s like fighting fire with fire!  Our mission in life, I mean at the institute, is to teach the deaf to talk.  To speak like you and me.”  He made a choking gesture.  “It’s so frustrating!  Those children pick up sign language so fast, like wildfire it’s all over the place and next to impossible to stamp out.  That’s why we have this law to forbid sign language, to give these kids a chanceto learn to talk.”

–From Douglas BullardIslay

In this excerpt, Bullard clearly mocks the paranoia of oral-only educators and the medicalization of Deaf people with his intention to unmask the paternalism and audism behind such “benevolent” individuals.  As we can see, the Governor (a naïve Hearing person) does not naturally share the attitudes of such “professionals.”  Bullard‘s use of satire and irony is a technique used by many writers who wish to expose social injustice and communicate resistance to those in power.

Non-fiction Writing of the Deaf Experience:

Deaf people from diverse backgrounds have written autobiographies and memoirs relating their life experiences. These works provide a rich ground for Deaf-themed works.   One such work, “A Short Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Adele M. Jewel,” appears in the collection of early writings about and by Deaf people, A Mighty Change (Krentz, 2000).  This narrative is particularly precious because it is one of the earliest pieces of autobiographical writing by a Deaf American, and more so because it is written by a African American Deaf Woman who lived at the time (1834-?) when many African Americans were denied basic human rights.

Jewel shares a number of experiences including impressions and memories of her childhood before she had language.  In the excerpt below, Jewel records the first time she meets another Deaf person.

“She was the first mute I ever saw and the mysterious ties of sympathy immediately established a friendly feeling between us.  I was surprised and delighted at her superior attainments… and in a little while taught me the sign language….

…..After I saw Miss Knight I grew very anxious to become a pupil at Flint.  (After arriving at the Deaf school), I succeeded in making my self understood, and from being an entire stranger, soon became as a member of one large family.”

–From Adele Jewel, “A Short Narrative of the Life of Mrs Adele M. Jewel

Jewel shares the common Deaf experience of Deaf children growing up in a hearing family alienated from the majority and isolated from their own culture.11 In many Deaf literary works, the experience of meeting another Deaf person for the first time is a significant cultural moment.  Jewel describes the “immediate ..friendly feeling” and “mysterious ties of sympathy” of “self-sameness” (Rutherford, 1993) and DEAF-SAME (Padden & Humphries, 1990).  The metaphor of the Deaf school as home and the feelings of kinship which evolved among the students there reoccurs in other Deaf literary works (see also Christie and Wilkins12 for more on this).

Her work describes her early family history, her perceptions as a Deaf person, and her own struggles to support her family. Jewel‘s writing provides a glimpse into one Deaf person’s beginning steps on her journey to Deafhood.  While we don’t exactly know how her story ends, we do know that she was able to send her Deaf son to a Deaf school, demonstrating the enduring value of Deaf schools as places for cultural growth.

Performance Art Reflecting the Deaf Experience

Performance art which reflects the Deaf experience is also a place
where the intersections of Deaf people’s use of two languages often occur. Miss America” was created under the direction of Peter Cook and enacted by a group of female students from the Lexington School for the Deaf during the Second National ASL Literature Conference.  Its title, “Miss America” refers to the beauty pageant which was won the previous year by Heather Whitestone.

This performance takes on a feminist view of beauty contests as exercises in
superficiality (with Hollywood illusions, makeup, and ruffled dresses) and
in which one presents  a false-self to be judged.  Such references suggest for Deaf people, that false self is created by oralism with its focus on form rather than content, and surface appearances rather than the depth of reality.  We are judged by the dominant culture in superficial terms: our ability to use speech rather than by the substance of our thoughts.

The performers unmask Heather Whitestone as a speaking puppet (mouthing “Hello, I’m Heather Whitestone”) with the arms of another student draped through hers which sign.  Her one line is that she does not sign nor need an interpreter in response to a Deaf questioner. The Deaf questioner then smacks Heather Whitestone in her face -perhaps, an ironic comment on the passivity expected of Deaf women.  This performance of resistance clearly mocks the values of the dominant culture and others who get caught up in trying to act as “hearing” and “feminine” as possible.

Deaf Theatre:  A Play of the Deaf Experience

The classic play, “Tales from a Clubroom,” was created by Bernard BraggEugene Bergman and their original cast of actors.   The play gives the audience a glimpse into the lives of Deaf people set in the Deaf club–one of the pillars of Deafhood.  The play includes a variety of archetypes representing the diversity of Deaf people.  The scene below includes the characters of Mark Lindsay, a Gallaudet graduate (who “signs Englishy”) and Mary Brannon (the “club deadbeat”).

Lindsay:  I see you don’t want to become a member of this club. Neither do I.  But I am curious to know why you keep coming here.

Brannon:  (Ponders for awhile).  It’s a love and hate relationship.  The larger world–the hearing world–shuts me out, but I loathe the gossip and banalities that prevail in the small, constricted world of the deaf.  At the same time, I’m attracted to the deaf.  Why?  Because they represent my last human contact.  In spite of, or rather because of, their bluntness and candor they somehow seem more human than the hearing…. I can’t help coming here. They’re my last human contact.

–From Bernard Bragg and Eugene Bergman, “Tales From a Clubroom”

This brief interaction gives us insight into the contradictory feelings the character, Mary Brannon, has about the Deaf club.  For her, the experience of being in a small, intimate community, feels restricting.  It is a view that likely echoes her feelings about herself as a Deaf person–internalizing the belief that the hearing world is a better place where there isn’t any “gossip nor banalities.”  Yet, her description emphasizes that being able to interact naturally allows “human contact” and allows one to be viewed as “human.”  This affirms the Deaf cultural value of the Deaf club as a safe place with others like ourselves, the value of our right to a natural sign language and the right to personhood.

ASL Literature of Deafhood

ASL Presentations Related to the Deaf Experience.  In even the first filmed recordings of ASL by the National Association of the Deaf (1913), formal presentations play a significant role.  NAD President George W. Veditz begins by greeting “friends and fellow deaf-mutes,” describes the approaching endangerment of sign language by the forces of oralism and mentions by name several masters of sign language.  An excerpt, as translated by Dr. Carol Padden, appears below:13

“The German deaf people and the French deaf people look up at us American deaf people with eyes of jealousy. They look upon us Americans as a jailed man chained at the legs might look upon a man free to wander at will.  They freely admit that the American deaf people are superior to them in matters of intelligence and spirituality, in their success in the world, in happiness. And they admit that this superiority can be credited to – what? To one thing, that we permit the use of signs in our schools…

…we American deaf know, the French deaf know, the German deaf know that in truth, the oral method is the worst…..They have tried to banish signs from the schoolroom, from the churches and from the earth…. Enemies of the sign language, they are enemies of the true welfare of the deaf. As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs. And as long as we have our films, we will be able to preserve our signs in their original purity.  It is my hope that we all will love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.”

–From George W. Veditz, “The Preservation of Sign Language” 1913

In this rhetorical work, Veditz presents the Deaf experience in a historical context.  At the time of the presentation, the impact of the 1880 Milan conference was reverberating across Europe and making its dominating presence felt on the American continent.  Veditz shows the intimate connection between Deaf people and our sign languages.  Further, he argues that our sign languages are the key to our success and happiness, our intellectual and spiritual growth.   He affirms our collective value of sign language as liberating, and naturally bequeathed to Deaf people.  Like many other powerful presentations, his ideas communicate across the generations to Deaf people today–concluding with a plea that we will cherish and defend our language.

ASL Folklore of the Deaf Experience

The Folklore of Deaf people includes ASL narratives, form-driven stories, folktales, Deafsong/cheers and Deaf jokes.  Because of the social functions of folklore, “to serve as a metaphor for the group’s experience, to transmit group customs, values, and behavior norms, to serve as an educative tool…and to maintain group identity” (Rutherford, 1993, p. ii), this is an area of literary arts which should be rich in Deaf-themed works.  One well-known joke  goes by a variety of titles such as “Which Room Was it?” “The Honeymoon Joke” or “The Deaf Couple at the Motel.”

A Deaf couple arrives at a motel for their honeymoon.  After unpacking, the nervous husband goes out to get a drink.  When he returns to the motel, he realizes that he has forgotten the room number.  It is dark outside and all the rooms look identical.  He walks to his car, and leans on the horn.  He then waits for the lights to come on in the rooms of the waking, angry hearing guests.  All the rooms are lit up except his, where his Deaf wife is waiting for him!

—from Bienvenu 1989

While the origin of the joke seems to be lost, this is characteristic of folkloric works from cultures with face to face language traditions.  Yet, the joke clearly continues to live on in various retellings and manifestations.  Over the years, the motel key becomes a key swipe card and the reason for leaving the room ranges from the need for a corkscrew to the need for a condom.  The recent Pepsi commercial, “Bob’s House,” is still another manifestation of the joke created for television advertising.  MJ Bienvenu‘s analysis (1989) of Deaf humor, highlights this as  “creative problem solving” by Deaf people.  Our own students call this a Deaf Zap joke or a joke which celebrates the convenience of being “hearing free and totally visually intune.”  While being Deaf in a world dominated by those who hear is often shown to be a disadvantage, our survival humor communicates the positive value of being Deaf and of claiming a sense of justice.

ASL Poem of the Deaf experience

A significant number of ASL poems address the Deaf experience (see Christie and Wilkins, 2007).  The poem we have chosen here is “Hands Folded” by Clayton Valli.  The poem appears in his Selected Works of Clayton Valli (1995) and is signed by Mel Carter, Jr. Below is a description of selected parts of the poem in English for discussion purposes (It does not represent a poetic translation).

Ah, these folded hands…Where did that come from?
Folding my hands…..Ah, if I think back
To my Deaf school in the dining hall, I remember ….
we  kids sign-chatting around each table,
To which the houseparents’ glared:  fold your hands like this and be quiet, fold your hands and be quiet, fold your hands and be quiet.
Looking up at them we exasperatingly surrender, complying our hands to fold. And fold, and fold…
Three times a day, folding hands morning, noon and night…
from elementary to middle school to high school…Much later in life, when I went out to eat with groups of friends at restaurants,
I’d find myself sitting there with my hands folded.
When I went to family gatherings, amidst our visiting,
I ‘d be oblivious to my hands sitting folded in my lap….
…Will I ever break this habit, this habit of folding my hands??
(The persona ends the poem by smiling compliantly and unselfconsciously folds his hands)–a partial English description of the ASL poem,  “Hands Folded” by Clayton Valli

In this poem, the persona bemoans his inability to break the habit instilled in him from his Deaf school days when the students were forced to fold their hands to prevent signing while waiting for meals.  The original ASL poem consists of visual images that are expressed with a clear rhythm in their repetition: the number of tables, the number of meals, the number of situations, and the number of times the gesture of hands folding occurs.  This rhythm is further reinforced by the frequency of meals and the passing of years which communicates -via the rhythmical form of the poem– the reinforcement of a behavior which becomes an unconscious habit.

From a Deaf cultural perspective, the shackling or quieting of hands is both a linguistic silencing and a physical silencing.  The houseparents’ demands for folded hands is institutionalized audism which is internalized, and persists years after graduation.  In this resistance poem, we see how folded hands can further symbolize the linguistic, mental, and physical colonialization that Deaf people must become aware of and examine before liberation can occur.


It has been shown that De’VIA as a recognized genre of Deaf-themed visual art can be extended to examine works in Deaf cinema, Deaf Theatre, English literature, and ASL literature. Such artistic expressions serve to record, preserve, disseminate, nurture and valorize Deaf culture. In addition, these cultural artifacts express the collective imagination of Deaf people by reaffirming our shared history, celebrating our cultural survival, and reminding us of our responsibilities to work for social justice for future generations. Hence in many ways, the center–heart of Deaf culture– is her art.  By looking deeply at these visual and literary expressions, we learn how Deaf people have viewed the world, how we have struggled against audism, and how we have celebrated our group identity on our journeys to Deafhood.


  1. This paper was originally presented at the Deaf Studies Today Conference in Orem, Utah, April 2008. At that time, we paid homage to two Deaf visual and literary artists who have been true keepers of Deaf culture: visual artist and advocate–Dr. Betty G. Miller and ASL poet and linguist–Dr. Clayton Valli.
  2. For pdfs of the Durr 1999/2000 and Durr 2007 article, see Deaf Visual Art: Text in this Project. For a pdf of the Christie & Wilkins, 2007 article, see ASL Literature: Text in this Project.
  3. For more information on Specturm, and the Deaf Way I Conference gathering of Deaf artists, see Deaf Visual Arts: Timeline videos section of this Project.
  4. This article is accessible in PDF format in the Deaf Visual Art: Text section of this Project.
  5. The film is viewable via Deaf Cinema: Short Films section of this Project.
  6. A short clip of the film can also be seen in the Deaf Cinema: Clips from Films section of this Project.
  7. A short clip of the film can be seen in the Deaf Cinema: Clips from Films section of this Project.
  8. This article is accessible in PDF format in the Deaf Cinema: Text section of this Project.
  9. For more information on this poem, see the English Literature: Sample Works section of this Project.
  10. For the complete story, “Yet: Jack Can Hear!” see the English Literature: Sample Works section of this Project.
  11. For the complete text of “A Short Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Adele M. Jewel,” see the English Literature: Sample Works section of this Project.
  12. This article is accessible in PDF format in the ASL Literature: Text section of this Project.
  13. For the full presentation and its translation see ASL Literature: Sample Works/Sample Works Text section of this Project.


Bienvenu, M.J.  (1989).  Reflections of Deaf culture in Deaf humor.  In C.J. Erting, R.C. Johnson, D. L. Smith, & B.D. Snider (Eds.), The Deaf Way:  Perspectives from the International Conference on Deaf Culture.  Washington DC:  Gallaudet University Press.

Bragg, B. and Bergman, E.  (1981).  Tales from a clubroom.  Washington, DC:  Gallaudet College Press.

Bullard, D.  (2002). Yet: Jack can hear!   In. T. Stremlau (Ed.), The Deaf Way II Anthology.  Washington DC:  Gallaudet University Press.

Bullard, D.  (1986).  Islay.  Silver Spring, MD:  TJ Publishers.

Chrisite, K., Durr, P. and Wilkins, D.  (2007).  Close-Up: Contemporary Deaf Filmmakers.  In. B. K. Eldredge and M.M. Wilding-Diaz (Eds). Deaf studies today: Simply complex:  Conference proceedings .  Orem, UT:  Utah Valley State College.

Christie, K. and Wilkins, D. (2007).  Themes and symbols in ASL poetry:  Resistance, affirmation and liberation.  Deaf Worlds, 22,

Christie, K. and Wilkins, D. (2007).  Roots and wings:  ASL poems of coming home. In. B. K. Eldredge and M.M. Wilding-Diaz (Eds). Deaf studies today: SimplycComplex:  Conference proceedings.  Orem, UT:  Utah Valley State College.

Durr, P.  (1999/2000, Fall).  Deconstructing the forced assimilation of Deaf people via De’VIA resistance and affirmation art.  Visual Anthropology Review 15 (2), 47-68.

Durr, P.  (2007).  De’VIA: Investigating Deaf visual arts. In. B. K. Eldredge and M.M. Wilding-Diaz (Eds). Deaf studies today: Simply complex:  Conference proceedings.  Orem, UT:  Utah Valley State College.

Jewel, A. M.  (2000).  A narrative of the life of Adele M. Jewel.  In C. Krentz (Ed.),  A mighty change:  An anthology of Deaf American writing. 1816-1864.  Washington, DC:  Gallaudet University Press.

Ladd, P. (2003).  Understanding Deaf culture:  In search of Deafhood.  Clevedon:  Multilingual Matters.

Miller, B. G.  (accessed 3/12/08).  DeVIA manifesto. http://bettigee.purple-swirl.com/DeVIA/DeVIA.html

“Miss America.” (1996, March 28-31).  Performance by students from the Lexington School for the Deaf.  Second National ASL Literature Conference. Rochester, NY. (videotape and film still).

Padden, C. A.  (accessed 3/12/08). The preservation of the sign language.  http://www.rid.org/UserFiles/File/pdfs/veditz.pdf.

Padden, C.A. and Humphries, T., (1990).  Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture, Boston: Harvard University Press.

Padden, C. A. and Y. Osugi (2003).  The Future of Sign Language and Deaf Culture.   Plenary Address at the 14th World Federation of the Deaf Conference Proceedings.  Montreal, Quebec:  Canada.

Panara, R.  (1992).  Lip service.  In J. Jepson (Ed.), No walls of
.  Washington DC:  Gallaudet University Press.

Valli, C.  (1995).  “Hands Folded,”  In ASL Poetry:  Selected Works of Clayton Valli.  San Diego, CA:  DawnSign Press.  (videotape and film still).

Vedtiz, G. W.  (1913–accessed 3/12/08).  The preservation of sign language. http://videocatalog.gallaudet.edu/player.cfm?video=2520 (videotape and film still).


Baird, Chuck.  “Art No.2,” 1993.

Baird, Chuck.  “Heart on X-ray,” 1999.

Clark, Adrean, “iPain,” 2005.

Ford, Allen, “‘S KIN/Left,” 2001.

Ivey, Lee, “Why Me,” 1992.

Lentini, Camela, “Snapshot Silent,” 2003

Martin, Thad, “Articulatus (Read My Lips),” 1994.

Miller, Betty G., “Evolution of ASL,” 2000.

Popovich-Kutscher, “Anti-Prisoner”

Thornley, Mary, “Milan, Italy, 1880,” 1994.

Witcher, Pamela, “Sign Language, our roots.  Deaf children, our future,” 2004.

Film Stills:

Durr, Patti, “Exodus: A Deaf Jewish Family Escapes the Holocaust,” 2006.

Durr, Patti and Elizabeth Sorkin, “Don’t Mind?” 2005.

Graybill, Patrick (director). “Tales of a Clubroom.”   Rochester, NY: Lights On! Deaf Theatre, Spring 1992.

Mangiardi, Adrean, “Paper Airplane,” 2005.

Part One
Part Two

The Chain of Remembered Gratitude:

The Heritage and History of the DEAF-WORLD
in the United States


Note: The names of Deaf individuals appear in bold italics throughout this chapter. In addition, names of Deaf and Hearing historical figures appearing in blue are briefly described in “Who’s Who” which can be accessed via the Overview Section of this Project.

“The history of the Deaf is no longer only that of their education or of their hearing teachers. It is the history of Deaf people in its long march, with its hopes, its sufferings, its joys, its angers, its defeats and its victories.” Bernard Truffaut(1993)

Honor Thy Deaf History © Nancy Rourke 2011


The history of the DEAF-WORLD is one that has constantly had to counter the falsehood that has been attributed to Aristotle that “Those who are born deaf all become senseless and incapable of reason.”1 Our long march to prove that being Deaf is all right and that natural signed languages are equal to spoken languages has been well documented in Deaf people’s literary and artistic expressions.

The 1999 World Federation of the Deaf Conference in Sydney, Australia, opened with the “Blue Ribbon Ceremony” in which various people from the global Deaf community stated, in part:

“…We celebrate our proud history, our arts, and our cultures… we celebrate our survival…And today, let us remember that many of us and our ancestors have suffered at the hands of those who believe we should not be here. We are here to remember them…to pledge…to fight to end that oppression now for all the world’s Deaf children and the others still to come.” Paddy Ladd (2003)2

These words emphasize the importance of history to Deaf people: like other oppressed groups, members of the DEAF-WORLD have the need to remember our ancestors, recognize the challenges of past generations of Deaf people for cultural survival, and confirm our shared history. At the same time, it shows the need for Deaf people to come together in the present to celebrate our endurance as a people, and share a responsibility for future generations. The questions guiding this chapter are:

  • Who are the ancestors of Deaf people?
  • How did Deaf people develop a sense of solidarity?
  • How has the survival of Deaf people and Deaf culture been threatened?
  • How have Deaf people advocated for our rights?
  • What obligations do Deaf people feel for Deaf children and their future?

Ultimately, this section serves as a historical framework for understanding the time and conditions in which the visual and literary arts of Deaf people have been created.

Native Americans

“The Whites have had the power given them by the Great Spirit to read and write, and convey information in this way. He gave us the power to talk with our hands and arms, and send information with the mirror, blanket and pony far away, and when we meet with Indians who have a different spoken language from ours, we can talk to them in signs.” Chief Iron Hawk

Prior to the arrival of Europeans in America in the 1600s, various tribes of Native Americans likely had Deaf members and families of Deaf people. Oral histories and more current research have noted that signs developed within and among tribes of Native Americans, particularly for communication between tribes that did not share a common spoken language. Melanie McKay-Cody (1996) as well as Jeff Davis (see http://sunsite.utk.edu/pisl/index.html) have noted that signs used by Native Americans, with particular reference to Plains Indian Sign, “was also used within native communities as an alternative to their spoken languages and as a primary language for deaf people.”

Since much of the Native American history is one of oral traditions and likely because Native Americans did not focus on individual accomplishments, we have little information about early Deaf Native American ancestors.3 One can imagine that being born Deaf into a Native American community where some form of signing is already used, would be a much more Deaf-friendly place.

“I have met Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, Caddos, Snakes, Crows, Pawnees, Osages, Mescalero Apaches, Arickaress, Gros Ventres, Nez Perces, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Sacs and Foxes, Pattawattomies, and other tribes whose vocal languages, like those of the named tribes we did not understand, and we communicated freely in sign language.” Chief Little Raven

Deaf Islanders Heritage © Nancy Rourke 2010

Martha’s Vineyard

One early European settlement in America was in Martha’s Vineyard, an island just off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Because of a number of factors,4 the community on Martha’s Vineyard became a community in which a significant number of families consisted of both Deaf and Hearing members over several generations. This led to Martha’s Vineyard eventually becoming known as the place where “everyone spoke sign language.”

It was recorded in 1692 that the first Deaf person arrived on the island, Jonathan Lambert.5His parents immigrated to the colonies from an area in England (the Weald, in Kent)which had a high population of Deaf people. Lambert had come from Barnstable, Massachusetts and bought 60 acres of land from Native Americans in an area that is still called Lambert’s Cove.Lambert had served in a military expedition to Quebec, where he was the master of a sailing ship. Like many military men, he was awarded with some land (in Maine) after his service. However, he decided to settle in Martha’s Vineyard, his wife’s homeland, and worked as a carpenter and farmer. There, they raised seven children of which two where Deaf. Thus, it may be that Beulah Lambert was the first child born Deaf on Martha’s Vineyard in 1704. While neither of his Deaf children married, his Hearing niece had 11 children, three who were Deaf.

Jonathan Lambert died a relatively wealthy man. Because he signed his will and had books listed in his possessions, it is likely that Lambert could read and write (Carroll, 1997). Did Jonathan Lambert use sign language? While there are no records confirming this, a number of factors point to the likelihood he did. His parents had immigrated from an area of England where there were Deaf people who were reported to have used sign language. Even if he did not learn to sign from his parents or others from that community, it is difficult to imagine that he would not have signed with his own two Deaf children and extended family members.

Jonathan Lambert, as well as his early Deaf and Hearing descendents on Martha’s Vineyard, did not have formal schooling, but they did show evidence of being literate, independent, and contributing members of their community.

European Educational Roots

“Wherever the deaf have received an education the method by which it is imparted is the burning question of the day with them, for the deaf are what their schooling makes them more than any other class of humans. They are facing not a theory but a condition, for they are first, last, and all the time the people of the eye.” George Veditz (1910)6

To trace the educational history of the DEAF-WORLD in the United States, we must journey back to roots in eighteenth century France. In Pre-Revolutionary America, there were sporadic reports in historical records about the lives of particular Deaf individuals and related to families of Deaf people (see Lang, 2006; and Lane, Pillard, & Hedberg, 2011). However, it was the founding of institutions of education, where significant numbers of Deaf people would come together, establish relationships, and discover the ways of being Deaf in the world.

Many individuals played an instrumental role in the education and advancement of Deaf people. We focus on France because it had a history of Deaf teachers, it lead the way in public education for Deaf children in which signed languages were used for instruction, and its teaching methods and sign language were promoted through international demonstrations as well as published scholarly works. Furthermore, our American Sign Language and Deaf education system is built largely on its foundation. France’s DEAF-WORLD, additionally, has a wealth of early examples of literary and artistic works about the Deaf experience.

Prior to the 1700s, a scattering of teachers tutored Deaf individuals from wealthy or royal families in Europe. These early educators focused on the mechanics of teaching speech so that their students would be able to claim their titles, inherit family property and/or participate in religious activities. The laws of the government and the laws of religion had long been influenced by earlier philosophers, such as Aristotle. Thus, the early emphasis on speech training was vital to proving “humanness,” as the ability to reason was believed to be something that set people apart from animals. Several of these early educators claimed to have “secret methods” for teaching speech although it is believed that these methods included at least some signing and fingerspelling.

The Age of Enlightenment,7 beginning in the late 1600s, played a major role in stimulating the interest in if and how Deaf people could be educated. Traditional beliefs and attitudes were being challenged, and support for the education of all citizens became a new goal. As a result, the stimulating new ideas of this time impacted the visual and literary arts.

The first person known to have educated a group of Deaf students using signs was Etienne de Fay, a French Deaf monk, sculptor, and architect, in about 1730.8 Not much is known about how de Fay was educated himself other than having received a strong education from the monks at his abbey from an early age, and later that he was “very skilled at explaining himself in signs” (Mirzoeff, 1995, 40). De Fay‘s students included the Meusnier brothers and M. Azy d’Etavigy who later appeared as a demonstration student9 for Jacob Pereire. Pereire, sought praise for his method of teaching speech to Deaf individuals, and d’Etavigy was one of his students. It seems more likely that de Fay truly educated d’Etavigy whereas Pereire taught him to speak. There were reports that d’Etavigy’s achievements in speaking were impressive; however, later in life it was noted that he did not use his speech skills in his daily interactions.

In Etienne de Fay, we find our first Deaf role model and ancestor, an educated person who used sign and who felt an obligation to teach young Deaf students.

Roots of Controversy in the Education of Deaf People

Oralism vs Manualism © Nancy Rourke 2010

Even in this brief piece of history, we see the contrast between the philosophy of educating Deaf students collectively in subject areas using sign as opposed to the philosophy that Deaf people need to be taught individually and that education is primarily related to the ability to learn to speak. This contrast in attitudes shows how deep the roots are of the controversies in the education of Deaf people which have been called by many names, and persist even to the present day: the German vs the French method of education of Deaf students, of oralism vs manualism, and of English-only vs bilingual approaches. Yet until pressured by oral-only mandates, there existed spoken language approaches which utilized fingerspelling. In addition, the type of educational program a Deaf student participates in is strongly influenced by the attitudes and politics of the majority culture at a particular time. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that this controversy has also been an important theme in literary and visual creations of Deaf artists.

The First Public School for Deaf Students (1760)

“…once Épée had conceived the noble project of devoting himself to the education of the deaf, he wisely observed that they possessed a natural language for communication to each other. As this language was none other than sign language, he realized that if he managed to understand it, the triumph of his undertaking would be assured. This insight has been justified by success. So the abbé de l’Épée was not the inventor or creator of this language; quite the contrary, he learned it from the deaf.” Pierre Desloges (1779)10

Abbé Charles Michel de l’Épee © Nancy Rourke 2011

The folktale of Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée has been retold with great reverence by generations of Deaf French people.11 Épée is known, even today, by an abbreviated version of his name sign, which indicates a sword, the English translation of his last name. Carol Paddenand Tom Humphries, contemporary American Deaf linguists and educators, translated and described this folktale which they saw enacted while they were traveling in France:

“The abbé de l’Épée had been walking for a long time through a dark night. He wanted to stop and rest overnight, but he could not find a place to stay, until at a distance he saw a house with a light. He stopped at the house, knocked at the door, but no one answered. He saw that the door was open, so he entered the house and found two young women seated by the fire sewing. He spoke to them, but they still did not respond. He walked closer and spoke to them again, but they failed again to respond. The Abbé was perplexed, but seated himself beside them. They looked up at him and did not speak. At that point, their mother entered the room. Did the Abbé not know that her daughters were deaf? He did not, but now he understood why they had not responded. As he contemplated the young women, the Abbérealized his vocation.” Padden and Humphries (1988)

It has been shown that, while somewhat romanticized, many of the details of this story are true.Épée did meet Deaf sisters and their mother requested that Épée take on instructing them. She wished him to continue their religious instruction that had begun under another priest. Most importantly, the meeting did seem to have sparked in Épée an eventual recognition of the need to educate Deaf people in France, a recognition which seemed to arise from both his religious beliefs and the political beliefs emerging in the age of enlightenment.

In 1760, Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée founded the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets á Paris.12 Many in America today often refer to it as the “Paris Deaf School.” Unlike those before him, Épée founded a school that was both free and public. Thus, he wished to educate ALL Deaf citizens (rather than just the royal or wealthy) and believed that all should have both religious education and education in trades which would make them productive citizens. His educational approach also was of no secret, and he invited foreign visitors to his school and encouraged them to establish Deaf schools in their own countries using methods like those they observed at the Paris Deaf School. Épée established the tradition of hosting student demonstrations to royalty and the public for the purpose of showing “his pupils were capable of understanding the principles of grammar and metaphysics, which both Enlightenment philosophy and public opinion put far beyond their reach” (Mirzoeff, 1995, pg. 35). While initially Épée supported the school himself, the government agreed to take over funding the school by the time of his death.

Épée understood the importance of educating Deaf students “through the eye what other people acquire through the ear” (from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05484b.htm accessed 8/13/11) and thus, used signing. Historians and others have mistakenly attributed Épée with creating Old French Sign Language. Yet, even Épée, himself, wrote that Deaf people in France were already using sign language before they arrived at the new school. That there existed a Deaf people who used sign language in Paris prior to the establishment of the Paris Deaf Institution was confirmed by Pierre Desloges, one of the first published Deaf writers, a Frenchman and contemporary of Épée. For educational instruction, however, Épée did create a type of “signed French” (or methodical signs) which conformed more easily to oral/written French and included signs created to represent French grammar such as articles, verb forms and prepositions. Outside of the classroom, it appears that both teachers and students at the school used a natural Signed Language.

Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée continues to be revered by Deaf people in France, as well as America, for establishing not only a school, but also a special place for sign language to flourish and be used in the classroom. Épée has been called by Deaf people one who promoted the recognition of signed language (Padden and Humphries, 1988) and our ‘spiritual father,’ (Berthier, 1852 as cited in Hartig, 2006). Because Épée‘s established the first known public Deaf school in the world and because he encouraged opening its doors to others, many countries began to follow France’s lead to establish schooling for Deaf children which used signed languages. As a result, the Deaf students would recognize their solidarity, and communities of Deaf people would be formed which endured past schooling. Within one generation, this would also include the United States.

The folktale of Abbé de l’Épée “…has come to symbolize in its retelling through the centuries, the transition from a world in which deaf people live alone or in small isolated communities to a world in which they have a rich community and language. This is not merely a historical tale, but also a folktale about the origin of a people and their language…” Padden and Humphries (1988)

The Next Generation in France

As Deaf students at the Paris School were educated, a number of them were recognized for their intelligence and achievements. This led to younger Deaf students benefiting and being able to look up to graduates of the school, as many became teachers themselves. The earliest and most recognized of these Deaf role models was our ancestor, Jean Massieu.

Left to Right: Jean Massieu First (2010) and Abbe Sicard (2010) © Nancy Rourke

Following the death of Abbé de l’Épée who secured government funds for further support of the school, the Abbé Roch-Ambroise Sicard took over as director. Sicard had established a school for the Deaf in Bordeaux following Épée‘s model, and this is where Jean Massieu along with his two Deaf sisters, Jeanne and Blanche were educated.

When asked if early in his life he knew “what it meant to hear and how he learned what it meant,” Massieu responded:

“A relation (a relative) who could hear, and who lived in the house told me that she saw with her ears a person whom she did not see with her eyes, when he came to see my father. Persons who hear, see with their ears during the night those who are walking…(and this walking) tells their names to those who can hear.” Jean Massieu (from Clerc, 1849)

Jean Massieu was born Deaf into a family of all Deaf siblings, educated at the Paris school, and became a master teacher of Deaf students–including Laurent Clerc who helped establish the first Deaf school in America. Massieu came to the Paris Deaf School with Abbé Sicard.Massieu later wrote of his Deaf siblings, his family “home signs”13 and his great desire to be educated as a young boy:

“I expressed my ideas by manual signs, or gesture. The signs which served me then to express my ideas to my parents, my brothers and sisters, were very different from those of instructed deaf-mutes. Strangers never comprehended us when we expressed our ideas by signs to them, but the neighbors did…I had a desire to read and write. I often saw boys and girls going to school: I desired to follow them, and I was very jealous of them. With tears in my eyes, I asked permission of my father to go to school; I took a book and opened it here and there, to show my ignorance; I put it under my arm as if to go; but my father refused…saying to me, by signs, that I should never be able to learn anything, because I was a deaf-mute…(Later) I went to school without telling my parents: I presented myself to the master, and asked him by signs, to teach me to write and to read. He refused me roughly, and drove me from the school.” Jean Massieu(from Clerc, 1849)

Fortunately, not long after this event, a stranger informed Massieu‘s family about the Deaf school established by SicardMassieu, later in life, reports that it required him about four years to achieve literacy similar to those who could hear and speak. An outstanding pupil, Sicard choseMassieu as his demonstration student in order to secure his directorship at the Paris School, and had Massieu move with him to Paris. We are left to wonder about Massieu‘s Deaf sisters, what happened to them, and whether their gender and the conventions of the time may explain why Sicard did not also bring them.

After he graduated from the Paris school, Massieu was hired by Sicard–the first Deaf person to become an instructor in an educational institution. In addition, Massieu remained a demonstration student. Like ÉpéeSicard had used the brightest students as demonstration students who participated in public lectures where the students answered questions by writing or signing responses to demonstrate the success of their education at the Paris School.14

Laurent Clerc v.2 © Nancy Rourke 2010

For Deaf people in the United States, the most famous and important person from the Paris Deaf School was Laurent Clerc. At about age 11, Laurent Clerc arrived at the school and met Massieu who was by then 25 years old. In later years, Clerc described Massieu as “my first teacher” who had “not only intelligence, but genius” while also noting Massieu was somewhat eccentric and considered socially unsophisticated. Like Massieu, after his schooling ended, Clerc was first hired to stay on as a tutor, and finally as a teacher in 1806.

Laurent Clerc had been born and raised near Lyons, France and was told he became Deaf after falling from a chair near the fireplace as a one-year-old. In addition to being Deaf and unable to smell, the experience left a scar on his cheek. Thus, this unique facial feature became the source of his name-sign. Before being brought to the Deaf school in Paris by his uncle, Clercreports he “…did nothing but running about and playing with other children. I sometimes drove my mother’s turkeys to the field or her cows to pasture, and occasionally my father’s horse to the watering place.” (Clerc, 1852)

In addition to MassieuLaurent Clerc came to know others who had attended the school before him. The oldest of these were pupils of the first generation at the Paris School, pupils of Épée. These Deaf men had worked in various capacities and included a grocer, a printer, a painter, and a sculptor.15 Deaf girls were educated at the Paris School from the beginning, but like the Deaf sisters who inspired Épée‘s establishment of the school, most remained nameless and their accomplishments unrecorded for a number of generations.16

At this point in history, both writing and art were ways of recording events. Two paintings by Jerome-Martin Langlois recreated scenes of the Paris School under Sicard. Both these paintings included misrepresentations. The earliest of these, painted in 1806, shows Sicard in a classroom, at the center of the composition, teaching a young Deaf girl to speak. In the background is Jean Massieu gesturing to a phrase written in French on a blackboard. Translated as, “Means of making sounds articulated by the feeling of pressure,” this phrase is found in one of Sicardbooks. However, it has been discovered that underneath this writing in the painting was another, original sentence. This sentence read “La reconnaissance est la mémoire du coeur.17For those who attended the many demonstrations given by Sicard and his students, the original sentence would seem familiar–one that clearly came from Massieu. Why did the painter replace Massieu‘s words with those of Sicard? There are many ways to interpret this action, but clearly Massieu is silenced into being someone used to call attention to Sicard, rather than the other way around. There is no known record of Massieu‘s reaction to the painting; however, Lanlois would know of the negative reaction of Deaf people to his second painting.

Created seven years later, Lanlois’ second painting had a similar composition as his first, with Sicard instructing a young boy in writing. This time, the figure in the background is a young Laurent Clerc. This painting was eventually purchased and donated to the Paris School, and so it is likely that Clerc and the students saw this painting on a daily basis. This lead to what is likely the first known act of protest against artistic representation by a group of Deaf people. In writing to the painter, Clerc stated that the Deaf students were upset because “The young Grivel [who appears as the student being taught in the picture] is hearing-and-talking….he is no longer part of the class of the deaf…The deaf demand therefore that his portrait be effaced and that a deaf student from the school take his place.”18 One can imagine the Deaf students’ outrage at the painting, and their pleas to Clerc to protest on their behalf. Clerc must have felt indignant enough himself to write to a well-known Hearing painter with criticism which was very bold for that time in history. What was the painter’s response? We do not know, but the painting was never altered.

In 1814, Abbé Sicard traveled with Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc to England. There, Sicard gave a series of public lectures, and included demonstrations of Clerc and Massieu‘s abilities to intelligently answer questions put to them in sign and writing. At one of these demonstrations, they met a young American named Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.

The European Oral schools

“If in the education of the deaf we suppress the use of signs, it is impossible to make the pupils anything but machines that speak.” Pierre Desloges (1779)

Speech Therapist © Nancy Rourke 2010

After the Paris School was established and began to expand, the oral tradition of individual education through speech training of Deaf members of the upper classes continued. Samuel Heinicke of Germany came from this tradition and trained a number of individual Deaf children using fingerspelling and gesture to support the development of speech. His belief was that only speech was truly connected with thought. Signing was considered “subhuman” and could not be a way that Deaf people could develop intelligence. (Rée, 1999) He was familiar with Épée and his school challenged Épée‘s methods and considered Épée‘s and Sicard‘s work misguided.

Late in his career, with the support of a member of the royal family, he established the first pure oral school–which banned signing–in Leipzig in 1778. Heinicke’s school, “The Electoral Saxon Institute for Mutes and Other Persons Afflicted with Speech Defects,” began with nine students. A number of teachers were trained there, learning his method of speech training for the Deaf by connecting various sounds with various tastes. After Heinicke’s death, a great number of the oral schools in Germany were headed by Heinicke’s relatives. Thus, on the European continent there were two very different types of schools for Deaf students: the French schools with signing and writing which followed Épée‘s model and the German oral schools which followed Heinicke’s model (also known as the Prussian method). Until the latter part of the 1800’s, most of the schools followed Épée‘s model.

In Scotland beginning in the 1760s, Thomas Braidwood became the first of many in his family to work with Deaf students. Braidwood was a math teacher who was asked to teach a student who had become Deaf. Braidwood began to study articulation and developed his own methods for teaching speech. He believed that sign was limiting and could not be used to discuss abstract concepts. Braidwood sought out more Deaf students as well as Hearing students with speech problems. Unlike Heinicke and Épée, however, Braidwood was paid by his students’ parents. Within a number of years, he was able to set up a private school, Braidwood’s Academy. While Braidwood apparently used the two handed British fingerspelling alphabet and gesture initially, his other “secret” methods for teaching Deaf students to speak were handed down through family members. In fact, one of his relatives, John Braidwood, made an ill-fated, short-lived attempt to establish a school in the United States .19 By the time American Thomas Gallaudetvisited Britain, the extended Braidwood family members of the next generation had a well-developed system of oral schools throughout England and Scotland, still earning a profit.

In most of the early oral schools, speech was the goal but often signing, gesture, or at least fingerspelling was initially used. This would eventually change, and the climate of the times would shift in favor to the oral-only method of education. As with most of the accounts of oral education, the focus was primarily on the teacher and his methods rather than the students. After the Deaf students left the schools, we do not often know what happened to them. Yet, they too are our ancestors, those who were nameless, those who were denied a full accessible language, a community of others like themselves, and a true home in the world.

Beginnings of Deaf Education in America

While schools following Épée model were being set up in Europe as well as schools which came from the tradition of educating individual Deaf students orally, the newly established United States had no such schools. In the early years, the only way for American Deaf children to receive an education was if they were sent to a school in Europe. Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet hoped to change this situation for American Deaf children.

Left to Right: Alice Vase and Gallaudet (2011) © Nancy Rourke

Alice Cogswell, the daughter of a well-known doctor in Hartford, Connecticut, became deaf following an illness in 1807. This happened when she was a little over two years old and it is likely that as her playmates’ games grew more complex, she was more and more isolated. Her neighbor, a young man who had studied law, business and was currently studying at a seminary, watched his brother playing with the deaf girl from next door. Thereafter, Lane takes up the story, which has also become a folktale– echoing Abbé de l’Épée‘s meeting with the Deaf sisters.20

“The Gallaudet Garden, 1813. Theodore Gallaudet, eight, comes running around the side of the house (he’s the fox) with brother Edward and three Cogswells–Mason, Alice, and Elizabeth, six, eight and ten (the hounds)–in hot pursuit.Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, home from studies at Andover Theological Seminary, stands under an elm tree watching Alice….the young theology student decides to teach her to spell H-A-T…Thomas scratches the letters H-A-T on the ground while Alice looks on in puzzlement. To show that the two go together, he places the hat on the ground next to the words and points to them alternately over and over while imitating the action of donning his hat. Alice seems to understand. To test her, Thomas rubs out the letters with his shoe and scratches them again a few feet away. Alice picks up the hat and places it on its new label. Thomas runs, overjoyed, to the Cogswell home to announce his success.” Lane (1984, p. 174, 177-178)

Alice‘s father, Mason Cogswell, had for many years struggled with the question of Alice‘s education. He had a library with Épée‘s writings among others, and worked to determine how many deaf students in America there were.

His meeting with Gallaudet after the “hat” incident was likely encouraging, and Cogswellbegan to seek sponsors for a school for deaf children in America. By 1814, Gallaudet had tutored Alice when home, encouraged Alice‘s father to enroll her in Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s school, graduated from seminary, and met with Cogswell’s group of sponsors who wished to support the establishment of a school for Deaf children in the United States. With the support of Alice‘s father and other wealthy philanthropists, Thomas Gallaudet went to Europe to learn about how to educate Deaf students.

Thomas Gallaudet‘s Education

Thomas Gallaudet arrived in Liverpool, England and made his initial contact with the founder of a deaf school in London which was based on the Braidwood family’s oral method of instruction. As he awaited response, he learned that the Abbé Sicard happened to be in London. Gallaudetwas aware of Sicard‘s school in Paris and had bought with him on his journey Mason Cogswell‘s copy of Sicard‘s book on educating Deaf students.21 On meeting Sicard‘s secretary, Gallaudetwas assured that if he came to Paris he would receive “private instructions of the Abbé, who devotes a portion of his time to those who wish to acquire his art, for the sake of using it in their own country” (Barnard, 1850). The secretary, acting as an English-French interpreter, introduced Gallaudet to Sicard and gave him tickets to attend the London lectures.

Note: This handbill refers to the lecture in Brighton. Thomas Gallaudet attended an earlier lecture given in London, but likely saw a handbill similar to this. Used by permission from the American School for the Deaf Archives.

In just a little over two weeks after arriving in England, Gallaudet reported attending Sicard‘s lecture and demonstration with two Deaf individuals on July 10th in his diary:

“At two o’clock, I went to the Abbé Sicard‘s lecture in the Argyle rooms. His lecture which was in French, lasted more than an hour. Afterward there was some exhibition of the talents and acquirements of his pupils Massieu and Clerc. Many questions were put to them by the company, which they answered with great dispatch and propriety.” Barnard (1850)

After the lecture/demonstration, Gallaudet met Massieu and Clerc briefly. Gallaudet attended another of Sicard‘s demonstrations on July 20th and then spent almost four months trying to gain access to training in the Scottish and English schools for the Deaf overseen by the Braidwood family. (At that time. there were three: London, Edinburgh and Birmingham).

Question put to Massieu and Clerc during the Exhibition in London:
Q: Do the deaf and dumb think themselves unhappy?
Massieu: No…but should the deaf and dumb become blind, they would think themselves very unhappy, because sight is the finest, the most useful, and most agreeable of all the senses. Besides we are amply indemnified for our misfortune, by the signed favour of expressing by gestures and by writing, our ideas, our thoughts, and our feelings, and likewise by being able to read books and manuscripts.
Clerc: He who never had any thing, has never lost any thing; and he who never lost any thing has nothing to regret. Consequently, the deaf and dumb, who never heard or spoke, have never lost either hearing or speech, therefore cannot lament either the one or the other. And he who has nothing to lament cannot be unhappy…Besides it is a great consolation for them to be able to replace hearing by writing, and speech by signs.

During this summer, Laurent Clerc also visited one of these oral schools in London. A Frenchman who accompanied Clerc later wrote to Sicard: “…one hundred and fifty deaf and dumb (assembled in the dining room) fixed all their looks on your pupil, and recognized him as one of themselves. He made signs and they answered him by signs. This unexpected communication caused a most delicious sensation…” (Rée, 1999, pg 198). Here, we see the stirrings of a natural familiarity that arises between Deaf people–a recognition that would later lead to group solidarity which would cross national boundaries—a recognition of Deaf people as a community of global citizens. This event is informative for another reason: it illustrates that even though the students attended an oral school, they clearly knew how to sign and that Clercand the students were able to make themselves understood despite not sharing the same signed language and nationality.

Gallaudet‘s visits to the Braidwood schools were not as successful. He traveled to Edinburgh to the head of the Braidwood family. However, he was unable to agree to the demands finally made clear by the Braidwood family which included a lengthy training period and the promise to take one of their instructors back with him to the United States. With the open invitation to the Paris school, Gallaudet decided to travel to France. Yet, he was unable to leave for several months due to the “unsettled state” of politics in France and the winter weather.

On his arrival at the Deaf school in Paris in March 1816, Gallaudet was warmly welcomed. He stayed on for over four months, initially being instructed by Sicard and observing various classes. Eventually, Gallaudet spent most of his time being tutored in sign by Laurent Clerc. While Gallaudet clearly had limited exposure to the oral methods of the education of Deaf students, he seemed to have concluded that “the methods of Épée as matured by the Abbé Sicardwere of a higher nature, and capable of more extensive usefulness inasmuch as they could not only benefit the largest number of deaf and dumb but actually provided for the gradual and thorough evolution and discipline of all the intellectual powers.” (Barnard, 1852, pg. 89)

From Paris, Gallaudet wrote to Alice Cogswell:

“I want very much to go back to Hartford, and to begin to instruct you and the other deaf and dumb children…I must learn all that Abbé Sicard can teach me. Then I shall be able to teach you in the best way. I have seen the Abbé Sicard and Massieu and Clerc, two of his scholars. In the little book which I send you, you will see their pictures. When you write me again, tell me what you think of them. Do you think you can learn the French alphabet on the fingers?22 Try. Perhaps it will be the one that I shall use. The school for the Deaf and Dumb here is a very large building of stone. In front of it is a large yard, and behind it a fine garden. There are nearly ninety scholars, boys and girls…In the room are a number of large blackboards on which the scholars write with chalk. I wrote on these boards and talked with the boys. They understood me very well….You must write me long letters. I put your last letter into French and showed it to Clerc. He loved to read it….I shall remember what you wished me in your last letter to give the deaf and dumb scholars–your love.” Lane (1984)

Gallaudet and Cogswell © Nancy Rourke 2010

At some point, a homesick Gallaudet, perhaps frustrated with his lack of progress in signing and educational knowledge, decided that he needed to have a Deaf teacher accompany him back to the United States, an idea he had rejected in England. In Clerc, he saw one skilled in signing, teaching and a talented and accomplished individual with whom he got along. Gallaudet may have also chosen Clerc because he needed someone with experience as a “demonstration student” for convincing other Americans about the educability of Deaf people. Now thirty years old, Clerc, who had previously been denied the opportunity to help set up a school in Russia, agreed to commit to a period of three years to help establish the first school for the Deaf in the United States. Clerc still left with mix feelings ” I don’t want to leave, but I think I have to” (Hartig, 2006, pg.72)

On June 18th Gallaudet left France returning to the United States “with my friend, Clerc” (Barnard, 1850).23 The historical journey was described by Jack Gannon (1981):

“The wind billowed, filling the sails. The rigging snapped taut as the little wooden ship, the Mary Augusta, alternately floundering and plowing the seas of the Atlantic Ocean, made its way westward to the city of New York…Four of the passengers were Americas and the other two were Frenchmen, one whom, Laurent Clerc, was travelling with one of the Americans—the Reverend Thomas H. Gallaudet. In the beginning of the voyage, 30 year old Laurent Clerc…knew little English, and so he spent much of his time on the crossing learning the language from Gallaudet. In return, he taught Gallaudet the language of signs. He kept a diary of the trip, which lasted 52 days because of frequent calms and headwinds.”

(Left to right): Thomas Gallaudet 1816,
Laurent Clerc 1816 © Nancy Rourke 2011

On board the ship, Clerc‘s diary shows his practicing of English, his learning of American customs. He continued to tutor Gallaudet in signing and discussions of the French method of education of Deaf students.

Notes from Laurent Clerc‘s Diary on his voyage to America:24

Friday, June the 21st. I was up at eight o’clock…After breakfast, M. Gallaudetdesiring to encourage me to learn good English, suggested to me the thought of writing this journal, and it is in consequence of his advice that I do it…I was obliged, every moment, to seek in my dictionary the words which I did not understand…When I had finished my first day, I presented it to M. Gallaudet, praying him to correct it. He did it with his ordinary kindness. Saturday, June the 22nd. The weather being fair, I passed all morning upon deck to write my diary of the preceding days, and all the evening to talk with M. Gallaudet, who, at my request, gave me the description of an American dinner, of a marriage, and the manners and customs of the inhabitants of that country…
(Later,) M. Gallaudet made me acquainted with the different pieces of American money and with the value of each, and after supper he related to me the history, or rather he gave me by signs, the description of the manner in which the seamen make the passengers pay their tribute to Neptune…His account amused me much and excited my laughter a great deal… Thursday, June 27th…I talked with M. Gallaudet who spoke to me of the American deaf and dumb, and especially of Miss Alice…”

The First American School: First American Generation

After arriving in America, Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc‘s continued their travels in New England to gather funds for the establishment of the school in Hartford. With the support of a number of philanthropists, the American School for the Deaf25 opened on April 17, 1817.26

‘Same’ © Nancy Rourke 2011

Among the first class of seven students was Alice Cogswell and John Brewster Jr., a fifty one year old portrait painter. Others from this first class, Abigail Dillingham (from a Deaf family), George Henry Loring, and Wilson Whiton eventually became instructors themselves. By the end of the first year, with Gallaudet as principal and both Clerc and Gallaudet teaching, the number of students rose to thirty-three. This number included Sophie Fowler, the future Mrs. Gallaudet and Elizabeth Boardman, the future Mrs. Clerc as well as Levi BackusBackus became a teacher as well as a well-respected newspaper editor.

At the school, Clerc and Gallaudet taught using modified French signing with the one handed alphabet. There were no formal signing classes for the students as they were expected to adapt their home-signs and become fluent through exposure and interaction. In 1818, just a year after the school opened, Laurent Clerc noted that a large number of students were coming from Martha’s Vineyard, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, with a fully developed sign language (Rées, 1999). Thus, certain students coming from Martha’s Vineyard and others from Deaf families brought American signing traditions, which in turn, influenced the signing initially used by Clerc and Gallaudet in the classroom.

Within two years, the school became government supported with permanent funding available from the Connecticut Legislature. Thus, the American school became a model for other states in terms of both its operating structure and its method of teaching Deaf students.

While teaching at the Hartford school, Clerc and Gallaudet worked to help set up other state schools for the Deaf (including NY in 1818; Pennsylvania in 1820 and Kentucky in 1823).27 A significant number of teachers were either trained at the Hartford school or had been students there themselves.

By 1820, Clerc‘s contract of three years in America had passed. He had married an American Deaf woman, and was offered an extended contract with a salary increase. While Clerc returned to France to visit, he had made the United States his new home. He settled in America and influenced the first generations of Deaf Americans, many of who went on to teach or establish other Deaf schools in the United States. Thus, Laurent Clerc became our immigrant ancestor, arriving from France and settling in the United States.

Meanwhile Back on Martha’s Vineyard

The number of Deaf people being born on Martha’s Vineyard steadily increased with each generation after Jonathan Lambert‘s arrival. The Deaf population peaked in 1854 with 1 in 25 in the area of Chilmark being born Deaf.28 Primarily a fishing and farming area that remained cut off from the mainland until the 1900s, Deaf and Hearing islanders participated in community events with ease and married each other as communication was not a barrier. While only 20% of Deaf mainlanders had Hearing spouses, 65% of Deaf people on Martha’s Vineyard had a Hearing spouse. In addition, Hearing people on the island had a distinctly different view of Deaf people. Deaf people were not thought of as a group, but as individuals. When pressed, one elderly islander who was interviewed reportedly said “oh, those people weren’t handicapped. They were just deaf” (Groce, 1985, p. 5).

Because of the large number of Deaf children on the island and the growing importance of education, a significant number of these Deaf children were sent to the American School for the Deaf in Hartford beginning in the 1800s. Since the sign language used by these children had developed over several generations and a large number attended the school, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) impacted the signing that was used at Hartford.

What Martha’s Vineyard shows us is a different perspective toward Deaf people than the perspective and the place of Deaf people in a community as compared to most cultures. The early generation of Deaf students educated at ASD returned to the island often with greater literacy skills than their Hearing neighbors. It was reported that Deaf islanders had been asked by Hearing neighbors to explain newspaper articles and legal documents.

While Deaf people in Paris and in Hartford began to form signing Deaf communities as an extension of the Deaf schools, Deaf people in Martha’s Vineyard apparently did not form a separate community. And, in fact, it has been noted that many Deaf islanders who did attend the American School were known to loose contact with their schoolmates once they returned to the island. Their home community, made up of Deaf and Hearing neighbors and family members who grew up signing and interacting, was similar to any other bilingual community.

Thus, Martha’s Vineyard holds a special place in the history of Deaf people in America. It is a place where we are given an alterative view of how Deaf people can be members of a community. It is a unique place where Hearing people related to Deaf people as fully functioning individuals. It is a place where a signed language, indigenous to America was created and, along with the sign language brought by Clerc, has influenced our American Sign Language used across the United States today.

“A knowledge of history is extremely useful; it lays before our eyes the great picture of the generations that have preceded us; and in relating the events which passed in their time…it lays before us the precepts of the wise…of all ages…” Laurent Clerc

Clerc and Cogswell © Nancy Rourke 201129


  1. While some believe Aristotle has been mistranslated (see Bender, 1981), it has long been assumed that Aristotle’s assertion was that hearing and speech were physically connected by the same nerve, and therefore, that one who could not speak could not reason.
  2. See a filmed performance of the Blue Ribbon Ceremony under Deaf Theatre: Sample Performance Works in this Project.
  3. Harry C. Lang (2007) notes some mention of Native American Deaf individuals in historical documents from the early seventeenth century.
  4. These factors include the geographical isolation of those living in the community, tendencies to marry into a small gene pool with recessive deafness. Many who immigrated to the island had family who had ancestors from Kentish Weald, an isolated area in England where several families apparently carried the recessive deaf gene and where there were reports of sign language use in that community (Groce, 1985).
  5. See http://history.vineyard.net/b2wtres.htm#Lambert (accessed 8/13/11) and Groce (1985).
  6. For a more complete version of this text, see English Literature: Sample Works in this Project.
  7. The age of enlightenment, also known as the age of reason, occurred from the late 1600s until 1789 in France and the newly established United States. It promoted the belief in human progress through education, human rights, social reforms and provoked questions concerning religion, science, and government.
  8. See an artistic rendering of de Fay‘s life under Overview: Sample Works in this Project).
  9. A demonstration student was one who was presented to the public to show the success of the educational methods used by various programs/teachers.
  10. See a more complete text of Desloges‘ work under English Literature: Sample Works in this Project.
  11. See a filmed version of this folktale under Overview: Sample Works in this Project.
  12. Also known as Institut National des Jeune Sourds-Muets, the Royal Institute for the Deaf, and later called the “Institu St. Jacques”.
  13. Home signs are communicative gestures which develop between a Deaf person or persons for interaction often taking place in homes where there is not a fluent adult user of a standard signed language.
  14. Lane (1984) mentions that during Épée‘s time demonstration students memorized answers to specific planned questions. In contrast, Sicard let his demonstration students spontaneously answer questions from an audience.
  15. The sculptor, M. de Seine, had 10 busts shown at the 1793 Salon in Paris, including one of the Abbé de l’Épée. The painter, Paul Grégoire, exhibted his work at the Salon of 1814 (Mirzoeff, 1995).
  16. One exception to this was the mention of a female student named Le Sueur who took the lead by being the first student to sign a petition to the government to free Sicard (who had been imprisoned).
  17. Mirzoeff (1995) translates this as “Recognition is the memory of the heart,” but the English phrase most associated with Massieu is “Gratitude is the memory of the heart.”
  18. Mirozoff (1995) reprints and describes the paintings and the resulting reactions in much detail. He includes a note that the student, Grivel, also had a record of bad behavior.Clerc seemed aware of the earlier portrait as he additionally suggested to the artist he be shown writing something on the backboard in honor of Épée and Sicard.
  19. See an explanation of Braidwood’s short-lived Cobbs School under Overview: Sample Works in this Project.
  20. See Overview: Sample Works in this Project for an artistic rendering of this meeting as well as an ASL storytelling version of it.
  21. Sicard‘s “Course of Instruction for a Person Born Deaf” published in 1800.
  22. By this time Alice had learned the British two-handed alphabet from Lydia Huntley Sigourney.
  23. See Overview: Sample Works in this Project for the folktale of the Voyage of Clercand Gallaudet.
  24. From http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/lib/detail.html?id=687&&page=1 accessed 8/15/11.
  25. The Connecticut Asylum for the Education of Deaf and Dumb persons was the name of the school for the first year. Lang (2004) notes that “the first group of deaf students had also taken issue with the word ‘Aslyum,’ but the board saw a benefit in keeping the term–they believed it would make it easier to request funds” (p. 4)
  26. When working to get further government support, the name was changed to the American Asylum in order to show that students educated there were from a number of New England states. While today the school is known as ASD, it has also been referred to as “Old Hartford” or the Hartford school.
  27. See Overview: Timeline in this Project for a map pinpointing the Deaf Schools which
  28. Groce (1985) notes that almost all the island residents at this time, unknowingly, had at least two related ancestors. See Lane, Pillard, and Hedberg (2011) for more information on ancestry on Martha’s Vineyard.
  29. Artist Nancy Rourke replaces the iconic image of Thomas Gallaudet, teaching Alice Cogswell the first fingerspelled letter of her name, with Laurent Clerc teaching her the fingerspelled letter of their last names. In the background is the first building that housed the American School for the Deaf which symbolizes the origin American Sign Language and Deaf in the US.

The Chain of Remembered Gratitude:

The Heritage and History of the DEAF-WORLD
in the United States


Note: The names of Deaf individuals appear in bold italics throughout this chapter. In addition, names of Deaf and Hearing historical figures appearing in blue are briefly described in “Who’s Who” which can be accessed via the Overview Section of this Project.

“…we were isolated in the midst of society; today we are reunited…Today we have united our intellects, our efforts, our lights; today we constitute one body; all of us…today, we who were not, ARE!” Claudius Forestier (1838, from Mottez, 1993)

Left to Right: We are the Same (2011), Understanding Deaf Culture (2010) © Nancy Rourke

From Deaf Schools to Deaf Communities: The Emergence of Deaf Leaders/Activists in France and the United States

In 1834, three Deaf teachers along with seven other alumni of the Paris School formed one of the first social organizations of Deaf people–the Deaf Mute Committee. The three educators, Jean-Ferdinand BerthierClaudius Forestier, and Alphonse Lenoir proposed a banquet in order to honor the anniversary of the birth of Abbé de’L Épée. Because of the importance of this event, this first banquet has been described as the “birth of the Deaf-Mute nation” (Mottez, 1993) and a “first step in developing a conscious Deaf history” (Quartararo, 2002).

While Paris seemed to have a community of Deaf people and Deaf artisians prior to this, they did not appear to gather for organized events. The founding of the Paris school lead to lifelong connections between graduates. With the establishment of the Deaf-Mute Banquets, which became annual celebrations, the French Deaf community members became aware of their connections: their shared past, their need for fellowship, and their future goals. Ferdinand Berthier became not only a leader in the establishment of the Deaf Mute Banquets, but a biographer Deaf ancestors and one of our first true activists.

Ferdinand Berthier © Nancy Rourke 2012

Berthier had come to the Paris School in 1811 when he was about 8 years old. Jean Massieuand Laurent Clerc had been Berthier‘s role models and mentors. As a young student, Berthier was reported to have asked his teacher how he could “become a genius like Clerc” (Hartig, 2006). Berthier became a gifted student, who was by the age of 13 recognized by Clerc as the brightest pupil at the school just as Clerc was leaving to America. Berthier was a gifted artist and one of his student drawings was presented to the King. At age 20, he drew, “The man and the snake” in which a snake slithers from a man’s mouth, clearly symbolizing the sinfulness of speech.1

In addition to knowing them personally, Berthier wrote a biographical sketch of both Massieu and Clerc as part of his biography of Sicard. In the sketch of Massieu, it is clear that Berthieradmires Massieu‘s intellect while feeling that he lacked particular social skills that would make him a “gentleman” (Hartig, 2006). In his sketch of ClercBerthier finds a true role model, both socially and intellectually.

At the time of the establishment of the first Banquet, Berthier and others had been struggling for a number of years with the direction the Paris School had been taking since the death of Sicard in 1822. Questions concerning the role of sign language and Deaf teachers had arisen. One director with clear goals favoring oral education, Désiré Ordinaire, was hired. Also during these years, a true ally of Deaf people, Auguste Bébian was forced out. was one who openly criticized the Paris Schools’ neglect of the students, neglect of natural signs, and pathological attitudes of the Director and the Board. In 1830, Berthier had written to the King of France on behalf of Deaf students, teachers and community members to express support for rehiring of BébianBerthier‘s former teacher and colleague. This was followed by a letter from sixty students at the school protesting the unprofessionalism of many Hearing teachers and their inability to understand sign language (see Karacostas, 1993). As a result, the administration was furious and expelled three of the students.

At the time of the first Banquet, Berthier and the other Deaf instructors at the Paris School had been demoted to tutors or teacher’s assistants. The rationale for this was that these instructors could not teach speech and lipreading which was now declared a vital part of the Paris School’s curriculum.

By creating the Deaf Mute Banquets, Berthier and others established a tradition in which they could celebrate sign language and their community in the face of oppressive threats. This celebration included Hearing guests. While Désiré Ordinaire “refused to have anything to do with the banquets,” the following Hearing non-signing director of the Paris School was invited.2

“(..there have been) hearing-speaking people…(who) have wanted to suppress the language of deaf mutes…And yet deaf mutes have said to their speaking brothers: ‘come among us: join us in our work and in our play: learn our language as we learn yours.'” Berthier (1840, from Mottez 1993)

Ferdinand Berthier was a Deaf ancestor who was also a prolific artist, writer, orator, teacher, leader, and activist. When oralism threatened his job, his language and his people, Berthierfound a way to promote and strengthen the bonds of Deaf people. As Mottez states, (1993 p. 151) “Thus, the Deaf Mute nation was not born directly with the abbé de L’Épée, or shortly thereafter. It was born when his legacy was threatened and when Deaf Mutes themselves had to defend it.”

SECOND AMERICAN GENERATION: The Spread of Deaf Schools and Deaf Community

In America, the organization of the Deaf community also grew from the graduates of the schools for the Deaf coming together to recognize and honor a common history. This occurred in 1850 with the planning of a tribute to the aging Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc.

Thomas Brown © Nancy Rourke 2012

Thomas Brown, who had attended the Hartford school and met his future Deaf wife there, proposed the tribute. It was said that “in his graphic language of signs, that his spirit could find not rest, until he had devised some method of giving expression to the grateful feeling that filled his heart, and which the lapse of years served only to increase. He had but to suggest the thought to others of his former associates, when it was eagerly seized and made the common property of them all” (Barnard, 1853, pg. 193).

Brown had been a student of both Clerc and Gallaudet. As one of the “earliest and most intelligent pupils,” he had considered becoming a teacher himself.3 Brown, who had a Deaf father, Deaf sister, Deaf nephews and Deaf children himself, took over his family farm in Henniker, New Hampshire after graduation. His wife, Mary Smith had come from Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard and had numerous Deaf and Hearing relatives. It was noted that in the area around where Brown lived, there was quite a community of Deaf folks, numbering about 44 in all.

The tribute to Gallaudet and Clerc was held in Hartford on September 26, 1850. A gathering of over two hundred alumni and two hundred students from Hartford attended…”was probably the greatest (gathering of Deaf people), in point of numbers that ever took place anywhere in the world.” Like the first Deaf Mute Banquet in France, the celebration marked not only the recognition of a common history, but also seemed to stimulate thoughts about the future of Deaf people.

Brown and his committee raised six hundred dollars and presented to Gallaudet and Clerceach a silver pitcher and platter. Engraved on the pitchers were ships representing Gallaudetand Clerc‘s voyages as well as illustrations of the Hartford School. Gallaudet was thanked for procuring for Deaf people “…the blessings of education…” and Clerc for leaving his homeland because he was a “lover of his kind.”

Laurent Clerc in later years © Nancy Rourke 2010

The celebration after the formal presentations to Gallaudet and Clerc were described in Barnard’s writing (1852, pg. 205): “Former friends and fellow-pupils met again, after years of separation, with countenances, in many cases, so changed as to be barely recognizable, to recall ‘old times’ and old scenes; to exchange fragments of personal history; and to brighten a new the chain of friendship and gratitude that bound them to one another, and to the institution in which their true life began. And it was most pleasant to see the joy that beamed from all their faces, and gave new vigor and animation to their expressive language of signs.”

“We all feel the most ardent love to these gentlemen (Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet) who founded this Asylum, and to these our earliest instructors. This gratitude will be a chain to bind all the future pupils together. Those who succeed as pupils will be told of the debt of gratitude they owe to the founders of the American Asylum. Our ship, moored by this chain of remembered gratitude, will float safely hereafter…” Fisher Ames Spofford (1850, in Barnard 1850)

Within a year of the tribute, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet had died. The first formal society of Deaf people in America was formed and named in Thomas Gallaudet‘s honor–the New England Gallaudet Association (NEGA). Thomas Brown would be one of the founders of “a society in order to promote the intellectual, social, moral temporal and spiritual welfare of our mute community…” NEGA under Brown‘s leadership would begin publishing one of the first newspapers for Deaf people, The Gallaudet Guide and Deaf Mute Companion. Additionally, Brown called for a national convention of Deaf people, which eventually led to the founding of the National Association of the Deaf in 1880. Thomas Brown lived a long life, having been educated by the first American generation of teachers, Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudetthemselves. He became an activist and organizer of Deaf people, had a Deaf son who became a well respected educator, lived through the Civil War and died just after the establishment of the first national organization of Deaf people. As we will see, the National Association of the Deaf was established just in time.

While the Deaf school system across the United States allowed many Deaf Americans to be educated, job discrimination and other inequalities remained a common experience of Deaf people. John J. (Henry) Flournoy was a Deaf man who recognized and experienced such limitations, and thus proposed the idea of Congress supporting the establishment of a Deaf colony or commonwealth.

Flournoy, a graduate of the Hartford School, was from a wealthy family in Georgia. Later in life, he helped to establish the Georgia School for the Deaf, and unsuccessfully ran for office. His proposal for a Deaf state was one of the first public responses to discrimination and advocacy for separatism. In 1856, he wrote:

“…we do attest that we are capable of many (things) of which the prejudice, and sometimes even malignance of our hearing brethren deprive us!!” John J. Flournoy (in Krentz, 2000)

Toward the end of these “Golden Ages” of the Education of Deaf people in America, we would see the establishment of a National Deaf-Mute College (which later became Gallaudet College, and now is Gallaudet University). In 1864, Congress had authorized the institution to confer college degrees with President Abraham Lincoln signing the bill into law.4 At the inauguration of the college, John Carlin who was given the first honorary degree, said:

“On this day, the 28th of June 1864, a college for deaf-mutes is brought into existence. It is a bright epoch in deaf-mute history. The birth of this infant college, the first of its kind in the world, will bring joy…Is it likely that colleges for deaf-mutes will ever produce mute statesmen, lawyers, ministers of religion, orators, poets, and authors? The answer is: They will…” John Carlin (in Krentz, 2000)

The Age of Oralism : Attempts at the “Unmaking” of the Deaf Community, Culture, and Sign Language5

While most schools for the Deaf offered some form of articulation instruction for students who would benefit from it, there was a growing movement in Europe to ban natural sign languages from the classrooms, dorm rooms, and Deaf children’s lives in order to enforce the exclusionary, assimilitist practice of the oral-only method known as oralism.

Following the Civil War in the United States, there was a renewed desire for national unity which eventually impacted views toward Deaf people and sign language. This focus on nationalism meant that cultural and linguistic diversity were seen as threats. Immigrants and foreigners were treated with suspicion until they became assimilated. The goals at schools for Native Americans included the suppression of Native American cultural traditions and languages in favor of educating students to behave like White Americans and use only English. Along with this came the importance of creating citizens who could contribute and smoothly assimilate into the labor class.

Because of the cultural climate of the time, Social Darwinism became an attractive philosophy. As an idea, this meant that there were “civilized” people who were considered superior to others, but they needed to compete with those who were less civilized or less desirable. Eugenics resulted from actions, by the government or individuals, related to “improving the human race”; promoting stronger and “more perfect” individuals while doing away with people who would not be thought of as those who are “fittest” and should “survive.” Such people consisted of those who were poor, mentally ill, physically different, of nonwhite ancestry and Deaf. Signing became viewed as something uncivilized, inferior and primitive. Additionally, it was believed that by using sign language Deaf people became a group “isolated” from the wider Hearing community.

Over the next few decades, teachers at Deaf schools became caught up with these ideas and began to advocate for the exclusive use of articulation.6 Whereas Thomas Hopkins Gallaudetand the first generations of educators of Deaf students in the United States focused primarily on how sign language facilitated Deaf people’s religious and educational knowledge, the concerns of the post antebellum age related to building a more unified country, which most thought could only be achieved with spoken English. As Branson and Miller (2002) suggest this meant that the education of Deaf students had a different purpose than that of the education of Hearing students: “Speech and not knowledge was beginning to dominate the deaf child’s education” (pg. 168).

In 1867, the Lexington School for the Deaf, which was promoted as the first permanent pure oral school in the country, opened in New York City. This was soon followed in 1869 by the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Additionally, around this time a few segregated Deaf school programs were established to educate African American students such as the North Carolina State School for the Colored Deaf and Blind (1867) and the Maryland School for the Colored Deaf and Blind (1872).

As Baynton (1996) notes, in 1860 almost no Deaf students were taught by oral-only methods. Yet, by the end of the First World War (around 1918), oralism was the philosophy which dominated eighty percent of the schools, and maintained its hold until well into the 1970s. In addition, the number of Deaf teachers fell from almost half of all teachers to barely one tenth, many of whom were tracked into teaching multiply handicapped Deaf students or vocational trades (Lane, 1992).

It was the Milan Conference of 1880 that cemented this powerful shift from the Golden Ages of Deaf Enlightenment to the Dark Ages of Oralism.

Old Debate: Oralism vs Manualism © Nancy Rourke 2010

Vive la Parole! (Long live speech): The 1880 Milan Declarations of Phonocentrism!7

In 1880 in Milan, Italy at the 2nd International Congress for the Instruction of the Deaf (I.C.E.D), often referred to as the Milan Conference, passed resolutions which promoted “the incontestable superiority of speech over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society.” In truth, the Congress was made up primarily of voting Italian and French Hearing instructors.8 These instructors overwhelmingly had worked to advocate for oral only instruction. In truth, the organizers had manipulated the entire Congress.9 Some of the resolutions were:

The Congress–
Considering the incontestable superiority of speech over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society, and in giving him a more perfect knowledge of language
That the oral method should be preferred to that of signs for the education and instruction of the deaf and dumb.

The Congress–
Considering that the simultaneous use of speech and signs has the disadvantage of injuring speech, lipreading and precision of ideas Declares–
That the Pure Oral Method ought to be preferred

The Congress–
Considering that the teaching of the speaking-deaf by the Pure Oral method should resemble as much as possible that of those who hear and speak Declares–
The most natural and effective mean by which the speaking-deaf may acquire the knowledge of language is the ‘intuitive’ method..’

The Congress–
Considering that the application of the Pure Oral method in institutions where it is not yet in active operation, should be — to avoid the certainty of failure — prudent, gradual, progressive,
That the pupils newly received into the schools should form a class by themselves, where instruction could be given by speech. That these pupils should be absolutely separated from others too far advanced to be instructed by speech, and whose education will be completed by signs.
That each year a new speaking class be established, with all the old pupils taught by signs have completed their education.

The pure oral method swept over Europe like a dark cloud and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and spread its dark cloak over every school for the Deaf in the United States. Even the American School for the Deaf became and oral-only school. One very powerful man, Alexander Graham Bell, armed with funds, a formal association, and an interest in eugenics “cleared the way for its progress from east to west” (Lane, 1984).

Misguided Benevolent© Nancy Rourke 2010

Alexander Graham Bell was a Hearing oralist educator who advocated for pure oralism (oral / aural only education), the exclusion of ASL as well as Deaf teachers from the classrooms. In addition, Bell tried to dissuade Deaf people from marrying other Deaf people for fear of the possibility of a “Deaf variety of the human race.” He used his wealth from the telephone invention to establish the Volta Bureau, publications committed to promoting oralism, and the AG Bell Association (originally known as the Association for the Promotion of the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf). His life long work and his legacy has been to try to put forth the idea that Deaf people must learn to speak and hear so that they can be “restored to society.”

“The great object of the education of the deaf is to enable them to communicate readily and easily with hearing persons…that is what is meant by ‘restoring the deaf to society.” Alexander Graham Bell (from Winefield, 1981)

“…these symbols (signs) are of a nature to retard rather and advance speech…I should advocate its entire abolition in our institutions for the deaf…” Alexander Graham Bell (From Lane, 1984 and Winefield, 1981)

“We should try ourselves to forget they are deaf. We should teach them to forget that they are deaf.” Alexander Graham Bell (1884 from DeLand, 1922)

“The percentage of deaf teachers employed has steadily decreased, and must decrease still further….the employment of deaf teachers is absolutely detrimental to oral instruction.” Alexander Graham Bell (From Winefield, 1981)

In a presentation to the Literary Society at Kendall Green which consisted of Deaf Gallaudet students, Bell (in DeLand, 1920) stated:

“It is the duty of every good man and every good woman to remember that children follow marriage, and I am sure there is no one among the deaf who desires to have his affliction handed down to his children…You have to live in a world of hearing and speaking people, and everything that will help you to mingle with hearing and speaking people will promote your welfare and happiness. A hearing partner will wed you to the hearing world. …I therefore hold before you as the ideal marriage, a marriage with a hearing person.”

As the Dark Ages of Oralism dragged on, Deaf people were not mute and passive. They had formed the National Association of the Deaf, hosting regular conventions and World Congresses working to ensure that Deaf children would get fully accessible education by pushing for sign language and Deaf teachers to remain a part of Deaf schools. Deaf people began to organize to combat attacks on their language and human rights as well as their civil liberties.

See, Hear, Speak No Deaf © Nancy Rourke 2011

Long Live the Emancipation of the Deaf!10

“The FIRST great meeting of the class to be absolutely independent of leading strings held in other hands than their own. No superintendent or principal, no hearing teacher, had anything to do either with [the conference] program or arrangements. It was even regarded as unnecessary to provide interpreters. The members came, some from long distances, and instead of camping at some school, paid their hotel and transportation bills and possessed a new sense of independence and of sufficiency unto themselves.” George W. Veditz (1933)

The National Association of the Deaf, initially called the National Association of Deaf-Mutes was established during its first convention which ran from August 25-27 1880. The National Deaf-Mute Convention took place in Cincinnati Ohio and included Deaf people from 22 states and the District of Columbia. While many more attended, 81 individuals became members (Cloud, 1923). Theodore A. Froehlich‘s paper “The Importance of Association Among Mutes for Mutual Improvement” recognized “We have interests peculiar to ourselves which can be taken care of by ourselves.” The conclusion of the First National Association of the Deaf Convention was the chant “Long Live the Emancipation of the Deaf!”

Some key ancestor-advocates during this long, dark period of oralism were:

This is George Veditz © Nancy Rourke 2010

George W. Veditz was a multilingual Deaf man who advocated tirelessly for Deaf equality and language rights. One of his most ambitious and valuable contributions was to have had the foresight to use the new technology of film to record, document, preserve and share American Sign Language. In 1910 in Veditz‘s President’s Address at the 9th NAD convention and the 3rd World’s Congress of the Deaf, he stated,

“We possess and jealously guard a language different and apart from any other in common use – a language which nevertheless is precisely what all-wise Mother Nature designed for the people of the eye, a language with no fixed form or literature in the past, but which we are now striving to fix and give a distinct literature of its own by means of the moving picture film.”11

As president of the NAD (1904-1910), Veditz worked with Oscar Regensburg and RJ Stewart on the NAD Motion Picture project, raising $5,000 to film some of the best signers to preserve “the sign language” in its purest form. Veditz‘s classic presentation, “Preservation of the Sign Language” warned of the encroaching cloud of oralism.

Edward Miner Gallaudet 1865 © Nancy Rourke 2011

Edward Miner Gallaudet, the son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Sophia Fowler Gallaudet, founded the Columbia Institute for the Deaf and the Blind and the National Deaf Mute College [later renamed Gallaudet College in honor of his father]. He was the president of Gallaudet College for 46 years and attended both the 1880 ICED Milan Congress and the 1900 ICED Congress, where he advocated strongly for the inclusion of sign language in Deaf education and the firm belief that Deaf people be involved in determining the best method of instruction for Deaf children. EM Gallaudet, a native ASL signer, was one of the first to be filmed for the NAD Motion Picture Project (see the Gallaudet Video Library for this clip from the NAD Motion Picture Project).

“In the education of the deaf the aim should be to secure the highest possible development to the greatest possible number, morally, mentally, and physically.” EM Gallaudet (from Winefield, 1981).

A graduate of the America School for the Deaf and professor at Gallaudet College, John B. Hotchkiss was also included in the NAD Motion Picture project. In Hotchkiss’ “Memories of Old Hartford,” he mimics an elderly Laurent Clerc and demonstrates Clerc‘s bilingual teaching methods.12

Shortly after his death in 1923, it was written: “John Burton Hotchkiss learned in its purity the language of signs, the heritance of the Hartford School from France, as taught at the School by Laurent Clerc. This language he in turn bequeathed to generation after generations of students who flocked to Gallaudet. These signs, correct in etymology and sanctioned by tradition, the pupils of the Doctor took with them …Thus, every gathering place of the Deaf in America felt Dr. Hotchkiss‘ teaching” (Stevens, 1923).

Robert P. McGregor, the first president of the National Association of the Deaf (from 1880-1883) founded the Cincinnati Day School for the Deaf and the Ohio Home for the Aged and Infirm Deaf. McGregor was featured in the NAD Motion Picture project demonstrating his versatility in clips giving a sermon and telling humorous stories. As an educator and advocate, he was alarmed by oralism which banned sign language and Deaf teachers from the classroom.

“What heinous crime have the deaf been guilty of that their language should be proscribed?… By whom then are signs proscribed? By..educators of the deaf who boast is that they do not understand signs and do not want to… by parents who do not understand the requisites to the happiness of their deaf children…Professing to have no object in view but the benefit of the deaf, [educators] exhibit an utter contempt for the opinions, the wishes, the desires of the deaf. And why should we not be consulted in a matter so such vital interest to us? This is a question no man has yet answered satisfactorily.” Robert P. McGregor (from Lane, 1992)

Olof Hanson was a well established architect designing Deaf friendly spaces as well as president of the National Association of the Deaf (from 1910-1913). Like Veditz, he advocated for Deaf people to be allowed to become civil servants. Hanson wrote to AG Bell asking him to help advocate for the mandatory learning of the manual alphabet in all public schools. His letter to Bell suggested, “if you would lend your assistance, either by personally addressing a convention, or in any manner you think practicable, you would do a favor, which I think, the deaf would much more quickly appreciate than your past services.” Bell, however, would not perform such a service, arguing that the majority could not be expected to change for a minority (see Van Cleve and Crouch, 1989).

Hanson had married a Deaf woman, Agatha Tiegel, who was the first Deaf woman to graduate from Gallaudet College in 1893. She was Valedictorian and addressed the issue of gender equality in her speech “The Intellect of Women” concluding with,

“There yet remains a large fund of prejudice to overcome, of false sentiment to combat, of narrow-minded opposition to triumph over. But there is no uncertainty as to the final outcome. Civilization is too far advanced not to acknowledge the justice of woman’s cause. She herself is too strongly impelled by a noble hunger for something better than she has known, too highly inspired by the vista of the glorious future, not to rise with determination and might and move on till all barriers crumble and fall.”13

Andrew Foster © Nancy Rourke 2011

Andrew Foster became the first African American to graduate from Gallaudet College in 1954 after attending the Alabama School for the Colored Deaf. Foster went on to get a Masters degree (from Eastern Michigan University), and honorary doctorate from Gallaudet University for his work in Africa. Foster went to Africa in 1957 and eventually established over 30 schools for the deaf primarily in West Africa. Existing missionary programs apparently discouraged Foster and his work so he established the Christian Mission for the Deaf. A former student from Africa said at his memorial service (Foster died in a plane crash en route to Kenya in 1987),

“It was his opinion that a deaf person living in Africa who cannot read or write was like a piece of gold lost in a remote mine. That piece of gold had to be taken out and polished in order to reflect its true value.”14

There have been many other brilliant Deaf and Hearing ancestors who have seen the great potentials that Deaf signing people offer to the world and have worked endlessly to “cherish and defend…the noblest gift that God has given to the Deaf” (Veditz, 1913). So even though much GREAT creativity in the form of art, literature, and activism was squashed, denied, destroyed or stolen during the dark ages of Oralism, Deaf people and Hearing allies never surrendered and Oralism never won.

Resurgence and the Second Wave

The history of Deaf people has shown that the true disability that Deaf people have experienced is one of language bigotry and oppression. The recognition of ASL as a bonafide language is often hailed as the reemergence of Deaf people from the Dark tide of Oralism. It occurred during the years in the United States when the Civil Rights Movement as well as liberation movement for other disenfranchised groups began to assert their rights as full citizens.

William C. Stokoe 1965 © Nancy Rourke 2011

William Stokoe, a professor at Gallaudet University, noted that the signing he was being taught to use in his classroom and that which was taking place among his students outside the classroom were completely different. This lead to his analysis of that natural form of signing that was used by Deaf people outside the classroom. His initial analysis showed that individual signs were made up of smaller parts (a limited number of handshapes, locations and movements) , and when recombined they created new signs. Stokoe‘s research was accepted as proof by linguists that American Sign Language was a full-fledged language. In 1960, Stokoe published Sign Language Structure followed by the Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles in 1965 which was coauthored by two Deaf researchers, Carl Croneberg and Dorothy Casterline.

Left to right: Betty G. Miller and Clayton Valli © Nancy Rourke 2011

In 1967, the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) was formed and sign language was seen on national and international stages. At one point, the AG Bell Association unsuccessfully tried to prevent a TV broadcast of NTD due to its use of sign language in performance. The founding of NTD lead to the establishment of Deaf theatre groups at the community level that produced several important Deaf plays about the Deaf experience. It also sparked the beginning of a renaissance of Deaf expressions in 1970s-1980s as seen in the production of Deaf Visual artworks (particularly Betty G. Miller‘s 1972 solo exhibit)15 and ASL poetry (particularly Clayton Valli‘s 1980 NSSLRT Conference performance).16 The proliferation of expressions about the Deaf experience would not have been possible without first removing the stigma oralism imposed on ASL.

Left to right: Mask of Benevolence (2011), Oralist Child Abuse Painting No. 2 (2012 © Nancy Rourke 2011

Because the education of Deaf students was being deemed a failure under Oralism (see the Babbidge Report of 1965 and the Commission on the Education of the Deaf report of 1988) and because of the legitimization of ASL as a language, signing began to slip back into the classrooms across the United States under the Total Communication philosophy, which was introduced by Roy Holcomb. Total communication originally meant using any means necessary to communicate with a Deaf child including signing. In practice, Total Communication became “signing and speaking at the same time” with invented signed English systems. This allowed educators to essentially continue with a monolingual, piecemeal, and artificial way of instructing Deaf children. In addition, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), originally called the Education of all Handicapped Children Act (public law 94-142), pushed for mainstreaming Deaf children into public schools with little or no exposure to ASL or Deaf peers. Currently in the United States, the mainstreaming mandate and Second Wave of oral/aural only education and been threatening Deaf schools nationally.

With the linguistic emancipation of their language, Deaf people began to see they were entitled to certain inalienable rights and began to take a more active and visible role in advocating for Deaf rights especially as they related to the field of Deaf education. Veditz stated in 1910, “Wherever the deaf have received an education the method by which it is imparted is the burning question of the day with them, for the deaf are what their schooling makes them, more than any other class of humans. They are facing not a theory but a condition, for they are first, last and all the time the people of the eye.” Deaf people become conscious of their responsibility to advocate not only for themselves, but also for future generations of Deaf children. The struggle with who should decide and does decide about methods, subject matter, or even who is at the helm of the Deaf education system has become a very important topic to Deaf people and their family members.

Segregated schools for Deaf individuals continued until the last closed in 1978 (Louisiana) and in 1982 another important organization was founded. Kristi Merriweather describes the founding of the National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA):17

“The founding of NBDA wasn’t based on one clear-cut cause but on several factors that converged into a determined passion to forge this organization into existence. Some of the factors were historically long-standing, such as persistent systematic racism and audism in the deaf and hearing communities, which manifested itself in inequitable resources and racial disparities in education, employment, housing, legal protection, and health care. The dominant society’s devaluation and marginalization of non-conforming language (whether it be ASL, Ebonics, or black deaf dialect) along with the unique black deaf cultural features also planted the seeds for NBDA’s inception. Various types of resistance against oppression, exploitation, and degradation and has always been an impetus and mainstay of the Black American experience and its deaf members were no exception. W.E.B. DuBois summed the greatest problem of the 20th century as the color line (racism). For Black Deaf Americans, their challenge was the color line plus the hearing line (audism). Black-oriented organizations like NAACP were strictly combating the color line, and Deaf-oriented organizations like NAD were strictly contending the hearing line. But- who was going to address both? Where would they gather where their shared reality as a people was not going to be treated as a minority footnote? The answer would be revealed in 1981, in the form of a vision of an organization by, for, and about Black Deaf people.”

Deaf President Now

Deaf President Now © Nancy Rourke 2010

Even during the Dark Ages, Gallaudet University resisted the oral/aural only approach to educating Deaf students. When the Civil Rights era ushered in the movements for self-governance and the autonomy of African Americans, Women, Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual and Transgendered peoples, Gallaudet University became the place where the liberation movement for Deaf individuals was set in motion.

Hence, in 1988 when the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees selected a Hearing non-signing woman (Elisabeth Zinser) to lead the college over two Deaf signing men (Harvey Corson and I. King Jordan), Deaf Americans had been empowered sufficiently to recognize discrimination. There had been huge efforts advocating for a Deaf President prior to the interview and selection process. When Dr. Zinser was appointed, students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and community members protested calling for her resignation. The week-long Deaf President Now (DPN) protest peacefully and successfully resulted in Dr. I King Jordan ‘s appointment as the first Deaf President of Gallaudet University.

This was followed by other major events of cultural celebration and advocacy:

  • The Deaf Way I and Deaf Way II International Conference and Festival (1989/2002)
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990),
  • The certification of Deaf Cultural Studies/ASL Instruction in university programs
  • The inclusion of Deaf characters in Television, Film, and Theatre productions;
  • The increased accessibility and participation via captioning devices, pagers, and videophones; and,
  • The participation of Deaf people in more socially conscious grassroots activism.

In 1989, a group of linguists from Gallaudet University asserted that the Deaf education system in America had been largely a failure. “Unlocking the Curriculum: Principles for Achieving Access in Deaf Education” (Johnson, Liddell and Erting, 1989) became a ground-breaking document. Changes which had been implemented as a result of mainstreaming and the use of signed supported speech systems were shown to have resulted in a lack of achievement by Deaf children. After further review of research in the areas of language acquisition and education, the linguists called for educational reform which recognizes “deaf children’s need for early natural language competence (in ASL) and for communicative access to curricular materials.”


Coalition © Nancy Rourke 2011

After 18 years as president of Gallaudet University, Dr. I. King Jordan planned to retire. Gallaudet erupted with another campus-wide and community-based protest when then-provost, Dr. Jane Fernandes was selected over two other finalists, Ron Stern and Dr. Stephen Weiner, to be the next president of Gallaudet. All of these finalists were Deaf Caucasian administrators.

Deaf people of color were the first to contest the omission of Dr. Glenn Anderson, a Deaf African-American post-secondary administrator, from the finalist pool. Their concerns about a flawed search process were ignored by the majority of students, faculty, staff and community members. However, when Dr. Fernandes was announced as the next president, students locked down Hall Memorial Building. Dr. Fernandes, referred to as JKF, was not popular with many students due to her autocratic leadership style. She had been appointed as provost six years earlier without a search process or shared governance processes. Dr. Fernandes had talked of ushering in a “New World Order” at Gallaudet. Gallaudet protesters set up a tent city on the campus, and soon tent cities sprung up across the globe in solidarity with the protesters. Even after a summer break, the protests resumed in the fall. As with the 1988 DPN protest, the protesters locked down the campus. After IK Jordan ordered the arrest of over 130 peaceful protestors, letters and outrage from the community, and two votes of no confidence in Fernandes, the Gallaudet Board of Trustees terminated her contract in October 2006.

Milestone: We Came, We Saw, We Conquered © Nancy Rourke 2010

2010 ICED: The Rejection of Milan

In 2010, the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) during its 21st meeting in Vancouver, Canada presented along with the British Columbia Deaf community “A New Era: Deaf Participation and Collaboration” Statement. For almost 130 years, the Milan Congress resolutions of oralism stood. The 2010 ICED document stated, in part, that they…

  • “Reject all resolutions passed at the ICED Milan Congress in 1880 that denied the inclusion of sign languages in educational programmes for the Deaf children / students.
  • Acknowledge and sincerely regret the detrimental effects of the Milan conference…”

and further

  • “Call upon all Nations to include the sign languages of the Deaf citizens as legitimate languages of these Nations and to treat them as equal to those of the hearing majority;
  • Call upon all Nations to facilitate, enhance and embrace their Deaf citizens’ participation in all governmental decision-making process affecting all aspects of their lives;
  • Call upon all Nations to involve their Deaf citizens to assist parents of Deaf infants, children and youth in the appreciation of the Deaf culture and sign languages…”

The Second Wave

No to Eugenics, Painting No.2 (left, 2012), Struggled Puppets (2012) and Irony (2010) © Nancy Rourke

Despite the current popularity of American Sign Language (ASL) in the United States for Hearing people (i.e. baby signs, high school and college courses in ASL), young Deaf children are often still denied the right to acquire ASL at an early age. The backlash against Deaf people as an ethnic and linguistic group has been grounded in a pathological view of Deaf people which drives medical technology such as cochlear implantation and genetic engineering coupled with aggressive marketing and governmental lobbying. Thus, at a time when the language of Deaf culture has been accepted and legitimized by the majority culture, the right to be Deaf is being threatened and human cultural and bio-diversity is being endangered.

“When I lecture to my students in class, I always tell them, “You have ten years to build a mountain. Build it tall before the waves of cochlear implants, Oralism, and mainstreaming crash upon us. If you take your time and are busy partying, not building up the mountain, then the waves will wash away the little we have amassed. However, if you B-U-I-L-D a political discourse, through A-R-T and creative expression, you will be building an insurmountable mountaintop which the waves of oppression will not be able to dismantle. Then, we will survive.” Paddy Ladd (2009)

Left to Right: Precious (2010), We Must Act Together (2010) and Are We Much Different? (2010) © Nancy Rourke

“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”Margaret Mead (1935)


  1. See Hartig, 2006 pg. 37 for a copy of the drawing.
  2. Mottez (1993, p. 148). Mirzoeff (1995) notes that Ordinaire‘s successor was invited to the banquet.
  3. One of Thomas Brown‘s sons attended Hartford and later taught at the school for the Deaf in Michigan (Lane, Pillard, and French, 2000). Further study of the Brown family tree appears in Lane, Pillard, and Hedberg 2011)
  4. from “History of Gallaudet: The First 100 Years.” Accessed 8/13/11 from http://www.gallaudet.edu/about_gallaudet/history_of_the_university.html
  5. Baynton (1996) describes the late nineteenth and twentieth century rein of oralism as “…an attempt…to unmake that (newly established Deaf American) community and culture” (pg. 4).
  6. Baynton (1996) and Lane (1984) present deeper analysis of the historical contexts which influenced the education and attitudes toward Deaf people and signed languages.
  7. Vive la parole (Long live speech) was the phrase used at the Milan Conference which affirmed the resolutions supporting the pure oral method. Phonocentrism is the belief in the superiority of speech over other language mediums, including sign language (Bauman, 2004)
  8. James Denison, a Deaf American educator and principal of the Columbia Institution. Denison in 1881 wrote that he had seen oral demonstration students at the 1880 Milan Congress “sign-making” among each other.
  9. See Lane (1984) among others who describe this ‘conspiracy.’
  10. This phrase was used at the end of the first National Association of the Deaf (National Convention of Deaf Mutes) meeting in 1880.
  11. See ASL Literature: Sample Works in this Project for Veditz‘s famous Preservation of the Sign Language presentation and English Literature: Sample Works for Veditz‘s 1910 President’s Address.
  12. See ASL Literature: Sample works in this Project for Hotchkiss‘ “Memories of Old Hartford.”
  13. See Overview: Timeline in this Project for a modern ASL version of Agatha Tiegel‘s graduation speech and Overview: Text Summaries & Documents in this Project for the complete written speech.
  14. Quote and much of this information from http://www.america.gov/st/africa-english/2010/August/20100820153657SztiwomoD0.9400751.html
  15. See Deaf Visual Art in this Project for a more information on Betty G. Miller and her contributions to the field of Deaf artistic expression.
  16. See ASL Literature in this Project for more information on the 1980 NSSLRT Conference and other important events related to the development and celebration of ASL literature.
  17. From http://www.nbda.org/history_NBDA.html accessed 8.13.11


Bauman, H-Dirksen L. (2004). Audism: Exploring the Metaphysics of Oppression. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 9 (2), 239-46.

Baynton, Douglas, C. (1996). Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bender, Ruth (1981). The Conquest of Deafness. Danville, Ill.: Interstate Printers and Publishers.

Branson, Jan and Miller, Don (2006). Damned for The Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Carroll, Cathryn (1997, January/February). Deaf colonials: Evidence Suggests that Some were Literate. Perspectives in Education and Deafness, 15 (3), 8-11.

Chief Little Raven. http://www.comanchelodge.com/sign-language.html. Accessed 8/13/11.

Chief Iron Hawk. http://www.astonisher.com/archives/museum/iron_hawk_little_big_horn.html Accessed 8/13/11.

Clerc, Laurent. (1852). An Autobiography of Laurent Clerc. From H. Barnard’s Tribute to Gallaudet: A Discourse in Commemoration of the Life, Character and Services, of the Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet, LL.D. (pp. 106- 116). Hartford: Brockett & Hutchinson.

Clerc, Laurent. (1849). Jean Massieu I and II. American Annals of the Deaf, 2, (2 & 3), 84-89 & 203-217.

Cloud, James H. (1923, July). The National Association of the Deaf: A Historical Sketch. The Silent Worker, 35 (10), 408-413.

Davis, Jeff. http://sunsite.utk.edu/pisl/index.html. Accessed 8/13/11.

DeLand, Fred (1920, November). Whom Shall Marry Who? Silent Worker, 33 (2) 41-45.

DeLand, Fred (1922). AG Bell, An Ever-Continuing Memorial. Volta Review, 24 (2) 418.

Desloges, Pierre (1984). A Deaf Person’s Observations about ‘An Elementary Course of Education of the Deaf.’ In H. Lane and F. Philip (Eds.), The Deaf Experience (pp. 29-48). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gannon, Jack. (1981). Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf in America. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of the Deaf.

Groce, Nora Ellen. (1985). Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hartig, Rachel M. (2006). Crossing the Divide: Representations of Deafness in Biography. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Johnson, R. E., Liddell, S., and Erting, C. (1989). Unlocking the Curriculum. Gallaudet Research Institute Working Papers. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Research Institute.

Karacostas, Alexis. (1993). Fragments of ‘glottophagia.’ Ferdinand Berthierand the Birth of the Deaf Movement in France. In R. Fischer and H. Lane (Eds.), Looking Back: A Reader on the History of Deaf Communities and their Sign Languages (pp. 133-142). Hamburg, Germany: SIGNUM Press.

Krentz, Christopher (2000). A Mighty Change: An Anthology of Deaf American Writing 1816-1864. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Ladd, Paddy (2003). Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Lane, Harlan (1984). When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf. New York: Random House.

Lane, Harlan (1992). The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Lane, Harlan, Pillard, Richard C. and French, Mary. (2000). Origins of the American Deaf-World: Assimilating and Differentiating Societies and their Relation to Genetic Patterning. Sign Language Studies, 17-44.

Lane, Harlan, Pillard, Richard C. and Hedberg, Ulf (2011). The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lang, Harry G. (2004). Edmund Booth: Deaf Pioneer. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Lang, Harry G. (2007). Genesis of a community: The American Deaf Experience in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. In John Vickery Van Cleve (Ed.) The Deaf History Reader. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

McKay-Cody, Melanie Raylene. (1996). Plains Indian Sign Language: A Comparative Study of Alternate and Primary Signers. Masters Thesis. University of Arizona. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation Services.

Mead, Margaret (1935/2001). Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: HarperCollins.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. (1995). Silent Poetry: Deafness, Sign, and Visual Culture in Modern France. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University. Press.

Mottez, Bernard. (1993). The Deaf Mute Banquets and the Birth of the Deaf Movement. In R. Fischer and H. Lane (Eds.), Looking Back: A Reader on the History of Deaf Communities and their Sign Languages (pp. 143-155). Hamburg, Germany: SIGNUM Press.

Padden, Carol and Tom Humphries. (1988). Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Quartararo, Anne T. (2002). The Life and Times of the French Deaf Leader, Ferdinand Berthier: An Analysis of his Early Career. Sign Language Studies, 2 (2), 183-196.

Rée, Jonathan. (1999). I See a Voice: Deafness, Language and the Senses—A Philosophical History. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Stevens, Kelly (1923, January). “Memorial to Dr. John Burton Hotchkiss.” The Silent Worker, 35 (4) 125-131.

Truffaut, Bernard (1993). Eitenne de Fay and the history of the Deaf. In R. Fischer & H. Lane (Eds). Looking Back: A Reader on the History of Deaf Communities and their Sign Languages. (pgs. 13-24). Hamburg, Germany: SIGNUM Press.

Van Cleve, John V. and Crouch, Barry A. (1989). A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Vedtiz, George W. (1910). The Presidents Message. From Proceedings of the Ninth Convention of the National Association of the Deaf and the Third World’s Congress of the Deaf, 1910 (Los Angeles, CA: Philocophus Press, 1912, p. 30)

Winefield, Richard M. (1981). Bell, Gallaudet and the Sign Language Debate: An Historical Analysis of the Communication Controversy in Education of the Deaf (Doctoral dissertation). Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International.

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Paddy Ladd: Building the Mountain
The Role of Literature and Art in Deafhood

Length of Interview 18:48

Note: This is a summary of the signed commentary made during this interview and not a verbatim translation. Text summary by Karen Christie and Patti Durr.

Once an older Hearing woman said to me long ago, after I had been trying to explain about Oralism and everything, “oh, the first thing oppression kills is creativity.” And I was like–hmmm, I wonder if that is true or not? I don’t know, but I was struck by that statement and committed it to memory.

Title Frame:
Building the Mountain
The Role of Literature and Art in Deafhood

Interview with Dr. Paddy Ladd
Scholar, Professor, and Author

[Image of book cover — “Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood”]

My name is Paddy Ladd. I’m from England, specifically West England. My name sign is similar to the sign for ‘Jesus.’ Why? Because some Deaf youths saw my long hair, beard and sandals and decided to saddle me with the namesign ‘Jesus.’ I vehemently discouraged this but it was too late. It spread like wildfire and they’ve had a good chuckle over it.

Any time a group is oppressed, it means their identity is compromised. They feel their lives and their community is worthless, unimportant, and devalued. There are a number of ways to become empowered. There are political ways, spiritual ways, and the artistic way. With artistic empowerment, one’s perspective and view of the world is written about creatively, and is artistically expressed, projected for all to see. Others may come upon the works and say “oh, so that is a woman’s gaze. I never thought of that perspective.” So art can impact “the other.” Another impact art makes is when another woman looks at it, she may feel an affinity to it. She may have the experience of saying, “I thought women were insignificant, but now I see our importance.” Similarly with members of the Black community, they may feel that commonality when their own experience is put down for all to see. White folks may say “oh, I see what you mean.” Fellow Black people, however, may also have the experience of identifying with the work on the level of understanding that this means they can succeed and follow a similar path. It means a start toward examining who they are and what they are made of. This is a valuable step to begin to ask who one is related to the world at large and related to one’s community.

We see a similar process with Deaf folks. What does Deaf mean? To some it is a medical problem, a negative condition and all that la la la stuff. Deafhood means: who are Deaf people and what does it mean to be Deaf. Are we God’s mistake or God’s intention as part of the diversity of human beings? As part of God’s intention, how do people process this new meaning of the Deaf experience? Art is one very powerful way of examining and expressing what it means to be a Deaf signing person in the world. We can create powerful artistic expressions for ourselves using humor, storytelling, theatre, art and such that record our lives. Hearing people’s response is often “I never thought of that” and Deaf people’s response is often “I’m important? I’m worthy of having things created about my essence and about myself so that becomes part of the liberation process.

An important example related to this discussion would be Deaf theatre. Most Deaf theatre is Hearing plays that are interpreted.

That is fine, a decision made by the producers, but I am always asking, “what about your own values and your community? Why don’t you write about that? Are you saying your life experience is not important?” Those are the questions I’m always left with and leaves me feeling a bit frustrated. [The Deaf Experience] has been represented in American Deaf Theatre, and there are two or three examples that I really cherish. They communicate our essence and what is important about being Deaf. An example would be NTD’s production called “My Third Eye.” There is a scene where they are mocking Hearing people that demonstrates a real sense of self-confidence. They seem to be communicating, “I have a particular skill that they don’t have. That’s too bad for them.” That idea of feeling sorry for them is IMPORTANT. That is one work I can think of. Another important dramatic work is “Tales From a Clubroom.” I have never seen a production of it, I’ve just read the script which was written by Bergman and Bragg. When I was reading this script, I felt “YES that is the Deaf experience exactly.”

The reason that the play, “Tales From a Clubroom” is so important is because it’s set in a Deaf club. Today, some people say Deaf clubs are not vital to our culture anymore but the British perspective is that Deaf clubs are very important for carrying on traditions, continuity, passing on our heritage to new Deaf youth who enter the community and so forth. That play is just one of a FEW literary works that communicate our cultural experiences. Since that play, there haven’t been many others like it. It should instill a sense of pride and a yearning for such an experience but perhaps we still haven’t convinced Deaf people of its value.

We can imagine that when Deaf people see the Clubroom play or something else about the community, they begin to see patterns and characters. There is recognition that specific characters are “the same as you, or just like me…” They can start to question the representations and see themselves better, thereby gaining wisdom. For Hearing theatre that is a given — to see a play and then reflect and examine oneself. We are still operating on a superficial level, and we haven’t been introduced to that same depth and substance that allows us to examine ourselves. We do not trust our own Deafhood. We are forever looking outward with our eyes at the Hearing. It steals all our energy to focus on trying to be the same as hearing people, trying to negotiate with them while ignoring our own center and essence. We need to be defining and focusing on our own Deafhood.

Another example of a play of the Deaf experience that impacted me would be Gil Eastman’s work, “Sign Me Alice.” I’ve both read and seen the play. It is a somewhat time-specific play making fun of Signed English, but it is also a clever adaptation of a Hearing play to fit the Deaf experience. That is an important type of work too. Do I mean to say we should hate all Hearing plays? No, no. We can glean through them in order to adapt relevant stories that parallel our experience to show to the world. I think “Sign Me Alice” is a good example of this type of adaptation, and it still seems popular because there are many productions.

Often we talk of the different artistic expressions but we don’t discuss the audience’s involvement, what they take away from it, and how they process these various works. The Deaf community as an audience is still a bit tentative and insecure. What I mean by that is in Britain we have a number of Deaf artworks to which we give an automatic “thumbs up.” We feel we cannot criticize or evaluate Deaf artworks. We just support and do the “thumb up” thing without any further analysis and progress. Of course, this just the first step: creating works without permission to offer any critique or “good but my opinion is…” We are not quite there yet. Unfortunately, the Deaf community is not at the point yet to face those truths. An illustration of this would be the experience of folks getting together after a performance of “Sign Me Alice” and collectively exploring and discussing the meaning of the play. Like the journey of women in understanding and achieving confidence in themselves, we need this for the Deafhood journey. We need to center ourselves to counter and ward off negative influences from the male gaze or Hearing points of view.

Ironically, I have just thought of a parallel with the play “Children of a Lesser God.” The main character is a woman who is Deaf and strives to resist the overpowering influence of a Hearing man. I’m speaking in particular about the play, “Children of a Lesser God,” not the film adaptation. The movie sucked, it was just horrible. The play is very impressive because in the resolution the woman wins leaving the man dumbfounded and helpless. That is a very powerful message.

Related to Sign Language Poetry, Dorothy Miles, my good friend, seemed to pave the way at least from a British perspective. She was one of the first Deaf people to say that poetic works could be created from Deaf Sign Language. Initially, people laughed at her and brushed her off. When she returned to England and performed her poetry, folks often paused only briefly to watch her performance, drinks in hand, and then disregarded her and resumed chatting. That was pretty tough.

Which of her works has impacted me the most? Hmmm… I would have to say “The Hang Glider.” Why this one? Because when I watch it, I feel it is a very D E A F poem while also examining a very universal experience. It can resonate with each of us on various levels. Women can relate to that work in terms of what it says about confidence. In this, the poem describes standing on the edge and deciding if one should make the move, take the plunge, and consider the risks. At the same time, we know that Deaf people have such fears as well due to our upbringing. So the work will resonate with us without directly stating D E A F. That is the skill that many Sign Language poets offer. You don’t have to raise the political flag overtly. If it happens that is fine, but the subtlety of it adds layers of meaning and symbols.

Video excerpt of “The Hang Glider” performed by Dot Miles
Silent Perspectives Show 14 March 12, 1976

Excerpt text of “The Hang Glider” by Dorothy Miles

Here are my wings;
And there, at the edge of
wait the winds
to bear my weight.
My wings,
so huge and strong,
built with my life in mind …

I have made other wings
cast aside —
I searched, and asked and
and built again…
and here I stand.

The interesting thing about Dot’s work is that while it is very personal in nature, it has also served to inspire pride in our Sign Language. Many of her animal poems were created with culture of the Deaf community in mind and Deaf people’s goals. She includes powerful nuances, facial expressions and such in her poetry. She also created some more blatant political works for specific political situations.

For example, when the first college degree in BSL (British Sign Language) was awarded, Dorothy Miles created a poem in honor of that event.

Another poem Dot created for a specific even was for the BDA (British Deaf Association) Centennial — “BDA who you, me united will fight for equality … In this poem, the body movements and rhythm feel a bit like a rap construct to me. (Paddy demonstrates the beat and rhythm of the poem). That poem is still often quoted today so it is still being passed on. This illustrates how art can be political for different reasons. It has a power to encapsulate a message concisely as opposed to a long-winded rhetorical speech. This packaging of the message allows people to absorb it faster. It immediately is grasped by the mind as well as the heart and soul. That is another power of artistic expression.

If we look at each genre — poetry, theatre, film/TV, and storytelling — sharing our stories is an instrumental Deaf tradition – these are forms that need not be influenced by outside forces. For example, there is very little influence from the Hearing world in the art form of ABC stories. That for exhibits a deep celebration of Deafhood and Deaf artistic expression because it is unique to us — particularly as it exists in the U.S. as compared to U.K. ABC stories are very rich, and I’m fascinated with how that form developed and how members of the Deaf community developed the confidence to create those works. The traditional form of ABC stories emerged from Deaf school settings, which appeared to inspire the creative process. In contrast, England doesn’t have the same foundations for creativity and only a few stories in comparison with the U.S. We haven’t really had the same literary depth or body of folklore that covers the Deaf experience. That level of artistic expression is very empowering.

One thing that puts a bit of a smile on my face is to see the proliferation of Deaf film festivals spread like wildfire across Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Deaf people are really zeroing in on filmmaking. This year, there may be a few less feature-length films, but short films are taking off. Film is a medium in which we can literally show ourselves as Deaf people and appropriately represent our lives and ourselves. There is a real fire about it. It is obvious to me that Deaf people feel filmmaking is a significant medium in which to artistically express the Deaf.

In Mirzoeff’s book, he shows that 19th century French Deaf artists were significantly involved with Deaf celebrations, the Paris Salon and numerous exhibitions of their work before Oralism took over. After Oralism, one of the impacts was that Deaf people’s artworks were completely shut out and so their creativity faded.

We see the same thing happening during our time. Whenever Oralism arises Deaf A-R-T fades away, topples over, and dies. When TC (Total Communication) or Sign Language was awakened in the 1960s, really the 70s, Deaf A-R-T woke up! There is an obvious connection between the reign of Oralism with the suppression of Deaf creative expression. There is an obvious causal relationship. Yet, no one discusses it. I feel it is very important that academics in the field of Deaf Studies, zone in on the underlying dynamics at work and examine in depth the relationship between these movements and artistic expression. What happens when you kill a people’s creativity? You kill something inside of them. They experience a form of psychological murder.

Once an older Hearing woman said to me long ago, after I had been trying to explain about Oralism and everything, “oh, the first thing oppression kills is creativity.” And I was like, hmmm I wonder if this is true or not? I don’t know, but I was struck by that statement and committed it to memory. We need to explore this notion — why would they kill creativity first? Well, creative people value themselves. If you don’t have self-worth, you don’t feel you have anything of value to share. You keep everything underground and hidden like the shared clandestine dormitory storytelling.

When I lecture to my students (sorry a bit of BSL almost slipped out there) in class, I always tell them, “You have ten years to build a mountain. Build it tall before the waves of cochlear implants, Oralism, and mainstreaming crash upon us. If you take your time and are busy partying not building up the mountain, then the waves will wash away the little we have amassed. However, if you B U I L D a political discourse, through A-R-T and creative expression, you will be building an insurmountable mountaintop which the waves of oppression will not be able to dismantle. We will survive.

Note: corrections in the video version — “sing for interpreter” should read as “sign for interpreter” and “Hear” in Dot Miles’ poem should read as “Here”

The Power of Deaf Artistic Expression:
An Interview with MJ Bienvenu

Length of Interview: 27:40

Note: This is a summary of the signed commentary made during this interview and is not a verbatim translation. Text summary by Karen Christie and Patti Durr.

Opening Comment: “My life completely changed that day. I felt like a born-again Deaf person, know what I mean? It really blew me away. I sat there awestruck, taking it all in. Thereafter, I became thoroughly immersed in ASL.”

The Power of Deaf Artistic Expression: An Interview with MJ Bienvenu

My name is MJ Bienvenu, and I grew up in Louisiana, but today I am a Maryland woman in all legal respects.

The only name sign I ever had was MJ. After I was born, my parents called me MJ. During my years at the Deaf School (the Louisiana School for the Deaf), I was called Martina. At Gallaudet, I was called Bienvenu because it was a tradition at Gallaudet years ago to use one’s last name. I was known as Bienvenu until one day Marie Philip [name sign MP at inner elbow], who was in the room across from mine in the dorm at Gallaudet, said, “Hey, MJ!” After that, I never saw Bienvenu again. From then on, I was always called MJ.

Even though I didn’t sleep at the dorm at the Louisiana School for the Deaf, I participated in playtime after school. It was during this time that older boys and girls would tell stories to us younger kids. Often these kids would tell stories about movies they had seen, such as cowboy movies or war movies. We younger kids would watch them, completely engrossed in their storytelling. That was one way that I recall being exposed to storytelling growing up.

In addition, my school had what was called literary societies, where Deaf teachers would tell stories to the students, and I enjoyed this immensely. All these stories from the literary society were translated stories from books. I recall one teacher telling the story of how we got salt from the ocean, and I remember being fascinated by that story. I never saw that story anywhere again, but I’m sure he gathered the information for the story from a book. I was captivated by it. The other story I remember is the one about the misfortune of three wishes–both the positive and negative aspects of being granted these wishes. It was like the story, “Monkey’s Paw.” I can remember thinking, “Those three wishes are dangerous.” Those were two stories from that time which stayed in my mind. The name of the story about salt, I can’t remember. But I was obsessed with that story, “Monkey’s Paw,” for quite some time.

I was able to enjoy daily experiences with stories at school until 1962. After that, the school’s policy changed to the Rochester Method. Because this meant they used fingerspelling only and didn’t use ASL, stories rendered in this way couldn’t hold my attention, and I was easily distracted. Unfortunately, the amount of storytelling and literature became very limited at my school due to the insistence of using fingerspelling.

My family, family friends, and folks from the Deaf club were always telling stories. They told many real life stories and funny stories. When I was ten, my older sister went to Gallaudet, and I often went there to visit. Many of her friends at Gallaudet would tell stories to me, and learned a lot from them. On a visit to Gallaudet when I was about 12 years old, I met Bernard Bragg [name sign BB]. I remember being amazed to see a Deaf person up on stage performing and telling stories.

Born-Again Deaf: Recognition of ASL as a Language

At Gallaudet I studied for a Bachelor’s degree in English, and felt that signed English was very important. I was extremely adept at using signed English and never missed the correct use of verbs and morphemes like “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “–ment,” “–ance,” “–ing,” and so forth. At that time, I even taught signed English to my niece and nephew. With my BA in English, I had the attitude deeply engrained in me that English was exceedingly important.

After I graduated from Gallaudet in 1974, I started working at NAD [National Association of the Deaf] and this experience reinforced my views concerning the importance of English. Then in 1977, someone contacted me to teach ASL. While I felt somewhat puzzled by this request, the person said, “Your parents are Deaf so certainly you can teach ASL.” I accepted the job, and the salary, I remember, was $600 dollars. At that time, I thought, “Wow, with this money I’m gonna be rich!” I was so naïve that I thought I would become rich from $600 dollars. While I was teaching ASL, there was a workshop offered related to ASL. I remember the title of the workshop was “ASL Rules,” and I thought that was just ridiculous. At that time my attitude was, “Great, now there are ASL rules. Deaf folks have always had their English errors blown out of proportion, so if ASL has rules, then all the errors Deaf folks make using ASL will also be made a big deal of! Ugh, no way this is good.”

The workshop was being offered by Carol Padden. I thought I was pretty skilled at throwing verbal whops and accosting people, so I showed up at the workshop ready to challenge Carol Padden. After I sat down and Carol began explaining about rules, my hand went up and I asked, “How can there possibly be rules in ASL? That can’t be! Now, you are going to point out all of the mistakes that Deaf folks make signing?” Carol listened, considering my question. Then, she asked me if it was appropriate to sign a phrase like, “A long line up of water?” I looked at her puzzled and shook my head no. Would it be right, she went on, to sign a phrase like, “An extreme depth of cars?” No, I said, that didn’t make sense. Carol said, “That is exactly what it means to have rules in ASL.”

As a result, my life completely changed that day. I felt like a born-again Deaf person, know what I mean? It really blew me away. I sat there awestruck, taking it all in. Thereafter, I became thoroughly immersed in ASL.

I became fascinated with analyzing the language. I began to look at my parents with new eyes, as people who were full of language. It was mindboggling. Of course for a while, I went through an angry stage. I felt like all along people had been deceiving me. Why hadn’t anyone told me this before? All this time, I had looked down on my parents because of their signing, and looked down at members of Deaf community as a whole. That’s despicable. Now, I look up to these people with a great deal of respect once again.

Deaf Art/Deaf Artists

An artist whose works I’ve been impressed with is Ann Silver, who I have known for many years. I’ve been fascinated with her artwork, and some her works show a real sense of humor. Another artist is a newer, younger artist, Maureen Klusza. She is really clever at using humor, and has a powerful sense of irony in her art. In the past, Ann Silver did some drawings related to the Gallaudet Protest of 1988, the Deaf President Now [DPN] protest. It’s interesting that both of these artists produced works related to activism in the Deaf community: Ann Silver’s work related to the 1988 protest and Maureen Kluzsa’s work related to the 2006 protest [Unity for Gallaudet]. Thus, there are parallels related to the subjects of their artworks and their talents as artists.

(Images: “Victory” by Ann Silver, “Tinman” by Maureen Klusza and “DPN-Unity” by Maureen Klusza).

Oh my gosh, “Family Dog!” When I saw that painting, it really made a huge impact on me.

(Image: “Family Dog” by Susan Dupor)

When I saw that painting, it really touched me. At the same time, the painting does not represent my own personal feelings. One Deaf friend I have is from a Hearing family, and tends to be very protective of her Hearing parents. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with Hearing parents, I don’t mean to say that, but she was very positive about her parents and her family, including her extended family. Later, I went to the Deaf Women United Conference in Maryland, which hosted an art exhibit with the painting, “Family Dog.” I was awed by the power of this painting, and at the time I just wasn’t thinking and maybe wasn’t sensitive but I called my friend over. She was with another woman and when my friend looked at this painting she said to us, “That’s my family.” I was baffled at her response. She had always been so positive about her family, and yet she sees this picture and identifies with it! Maybe I wasn’t sensitive, but I had no idea she would react that way when I called her attention to the painting. It was surprising to me because, of course she loved her family, yet she still had this type of experience. Clearly, she reacted more strongly than I did because she could say, “That’s my family.” Thus, the painting, “Family Dog” touched me even greater when I saw another person who identified with it react so strongly to it. It does kind of prickle my conscious. I realized that I take things for granted growing up in a Deaf family. I grew up with complete access to language. Ninety five to eighty five percent of Deaf people have that experience which is depicted in the painting. It is truly one of the most powerful paintings I have ever seen.

Deaf Cinema

I know it deals with a sensitive issue for many people, but one of my favorite, newer films is “The Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.” It is truly entertaining.

[Image: Film poster from “Four Deaf Yorkshiremen”]

That film really struck me funny, and I laughed a lot watching it. Many folks warned me that Deaf folks from Hearing families would find this a sensitive film, but it is the story itself that is so very powerful. The use of humor in the film is great. In an ironic way, it pities those from Hearing families. One of the old men signed, “Oh! What a shame!” [MJ imitates the character’s use of British Sign Language]. That was priceless. I could watch this film three or four times and still be chuckling.

I analyzed each story told by the four Deaf characters, and because I enjoy British Sign Language it was also a good refresher in the language. I would try to watch it without captions, later checking my understanding of some signs with the captions on. The final punch line of the film really was hilarious.

A second film I love is also British; I forgot what was it is called. “Coming Out?”

[Image: Still from “Coming Out” A Film by Charles Swinbourne]

That film cracks me up. I can watch that again and again and still be laughing. I love that scene where the mother is so clueless and the father comes in and says, “Huh? What’s wrong?” It set up a perfect parallel situation.

British humor is simply different from American humor. Americans are more worried about offending people, but the British have a ‘devil may care’ approach. Those films were very funny and great examples of Deaf Cinema.

[Image: Film poster for “Audism Unveiled”]

The film that really touched my heart was “Audism Unveiled.” I saw the early student version first, which I was very partial to. The final version was professionally made, but the student version seemed more authentic. When viewing “Audism Unveiled,” the first part is always sad to me. It speaks of the loneliness, frustration, isolation, and hopelessness that many Deaf people have faced.

[Video clip from “Audism Unveiled” of various people sharing their disappointment and hurt at being left out and not being able to understand others].

It is heart rendering. Because I grew up in a Deaf family, life just went along as normal and I was pretty much unaware of anything else. This film, though, helped me understand better the situation of most Deaf people–Deaf people who grew up like those sharing their stories on camera. The film is profoundly moving all the way thorough.

Last summer, I showed the film at the National Association [NAD] of the Deaf Conference when Ben [Ben Bahan, one of MJ’s colleagues at Gallaudet University] couldn’t go. During the showing, I studied the reactions of the audience members. Toward the end of the film, where Deaf people began showing resistance to various oppressive situations, people in the audience began cheering.

[Video clip from “Audism Unveiled” where an individual proclaims that we need to unite together and put an end to oppression, which is emphatically reiterated by a number of others].

That cheering from audience members was the liberating feeling that comes from those acts of resistance described in the last part of the film. During the first half of the film, people were clearly very uncomfortable and shifting around in their seats because it was so painful and authentic. Many Deaf audience members would watch the film and be signing, “YES” to the screen. Others would acknowledge the film by squirming in their seats and signing, “Oh god, that just bugs the heck out of me when that happens.” While watching the film, Deaf people’s feelings of aggravation toward the school system and other situations came out because these were their real life experiences.

Intertitle: ASL Literature and the Value of Culture

What makes literature unique is the ability to use language in creative ways. Development of this creativity gives birth to literary expression. Literature doesn’t have to be ‘Deaf only’ or only about the Deaf experience. However, because one’s life experiences are internalized, they naturally are reflected in literature whether it be poetry or storytelling.

I think people need to understand that literature implies an appreciation. People must be able to see meaning in the work. It is not just random signing of ideas. If there is no meaning to it, then it isn’t literature. People sometimes overlook the fact that ASL literature is more than just signing ASL. It is ASL expression that has a message in which symbols are used, life experiences are incorporated, and all of this is manipulated into an overarching message that is meaningful to the audience, and is, therefore, a powerful experience.

Intertitle: ASL Literature: Storytelling

Both Ben Bahan’s “Bird” [full title: “Bird of a Different Feather”] and Sam’s [Sam Supalla] “For A Decent Living ” are ASL literary works with rich cultural information. Whereas Sam’s story includes more overt examples of culture, the cultural information in Ben’s story is subtler. In Ben’s story, he sets up an allegory, which allows much of the cultural meaning to be implied. People who are not familiar with the history of the DEAF-WORLD often overlook the importance of certain references in the story, such as AG Beak School. Those familiar with the history of the DEAF-WORLD would find it hilarious. In Ben’s story, cultural information is more covert; it is a great example of how symbolic meaning and allusions can be built into a story. In Sam’s story the meaning is more overt and transparent. Both are truly valuable literary works.

Intertitle: Cover of Teacher’s Guide to the ASL Literature Series–Bird of a Different Feather & For a Decent Living from DawnSignPress.

Ben and I have talked about Sam’s story and how it describes the visual behavior of Deaf people. In telling the story, Sam often illustrates a visual way of being in the world by describing what the main character is looking at or visually zooming in on. As a result, the story additionally communicates our people as visual beings.

Intertitle: ASL Storytelling: MJ’s Personal Narrative
“Stop the Music” Controversy

This is my memory of the event that came to be known as “Stop the Music.” I was responsible for coordinating the interpreting for that evening, and the weekend as a whole [Note: this was the 1988 Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf Conference in Philadelphia]. I had asked earlier about the Saturday evening performance, “It will be a musical performance, is that right?” The answer at that time had been, “No, no. It will be a humorous and sarcastic type of performance.” Clearly, I was working with this understanding as events unfolded. At the same time, I was mindful of the fact that the performance was an additional cost to the people who attended the conference. The fact that Deaf people had to pay for this evening really influenced my eventual resentment about the whole situation.

That evening came, and as I sat at a table with some friends I was somewhat curious waiting for the humorous entertainment to start. The performance began and the performer came out fluttering her hands around signing songs a bit dramatically. At that time, I thought to myself that I didn’t see anything funny about it really but I just decided to hold my judgment.

Then I got distracted watching Deaf people at various tables telling stories while the performance was going on, so my attention had drifted away from the stage. At the same time, I began to notice that many other folks were not paying attention, and I was a bit uncomfortable thinking they had paid twenty-five dollars for this. After the performance of signing songs went on for a bit, the performers announced, “Now, we are going to do a sad song about AIDS,” and they began signing with sorrowful overdramatized facial expressions. Deaf people at several tables continued to chat and laugh. The whole situation just struck me as so contradictory. Sitting next to me at my table was Ron [Note: Ron Coffey, an interpreter who had AIDS] who decided he couldn’t handle it anymore so he got up and left. Then, Betty [Colonomos] said she couldn’t handle it either and walked out of the room. It was so obvious that many of the Deaf folks were not paying attention, laughing and talking. So, I decided to get up and leave the banquet room as well. Out there in the hall, there were some folks mingling around making comments about not liking the performance. A number of Hearing folks were also complaining. Seeing all this, I thought, “What should I do about this situation?” I asked a few Deaf people in the hall what they thought, and many said they were bored by the performance and it was ‘putting them to sleep.’

I went back in the banquet room and waited until the performers finished their song. During a break that was to be between songs, I followed them on stage from the right as they were exiting to the left, and discreetly told them it would be best to end the performance. The lead performer had a few more songs she was planning to do, but she casually accepted it when I told her the audience didn’t want any more. Then, I signaled for the lights to be turned up and thanked everyone for coming, followed by announcements, and closed the event. The stage lights went down, everything seemed fine, and I thought that was it. I didn’t push the performers off the stage, run up on stage, or anything like that. One Deaf young man did say something to me about being “tough,”but really I didn’t pay much attention to it and continued to just mingle with folks who were standing around.

Then one woman, who was from Philadelphia and was from the group coordinating of the conference, came up to me and asked if I could meet with them the next day at noon. I told her to hold on while I checked to be sure I had a ride to the airport and to see if this delay would work out with those I was planning to travel with. One person from New York who just happened to be standing around near us asked what was going on, who was involved with the meeting the next day, and why they wanted to meet with me alone. I was not really thinking that they were all targeting me. I just thought they wanted to me to attend a meeting and that was fine by me. But this questioning about who would be attending the meeting caused a lively discussion. It never occurred to me that they might want to get me alone and gang up on me so it was decided that we would talk about the issue right then and there. I was completely dumbfounded at the outpouring of emotion that came from those folks from Philadelphia who had worked on the conference. One woman kept crying and sobbing, so I asked her what was wrong. I was trying to understand if the issue was that she really cared very deeply about the music and signed songs. It turned out that she was upset because she had paid two hundred dollars for a bunch balloons to drop from the ceiling at the end of the evening and it never happened. At that point, I truly lost it, “You mean to tell me all you are worried about is the fucking balloons?? Deaf people have suffered and been oppressed for two hundred years, but you are upset about a bunch of cheap balloons!” My outburst made her sob even worse. After more dispersed chatting, we agreed it would be best to wait and meet the next morning to discuss the whole situation.

During the meeting the next morning, we had a serious discussion about a number of issues, including the meaning of oppression of Deaf people, and Gary Mowl stood up to talk about how we oppress Deaf people. All in all, it was a very constructive meeting, which concluded on a positive note. I left feeling we didn’t leave any loose ends.

I drove home and then next week I got a call from Tom Willard [publisher of Silent News at that time] who asked me about what happened at the conference. We talked and I explained and clarified it all. Later, when I went into work at TBC [Note: The Bicultural Center] the secretary was sitting there shaking her head, rolling her eyes and nodding toward a paper. When I saw the words, “Stop the Music,” I knew it was bad news.

For quite some time afterwards people would say I ran up on stage and that I had ordered the performers to stop in the middle of their performance. Of course, I didn’t do any of that. Last summer at the NAD [National Association of the Deaf] Conference, one woman asked me if I had really run up on stage during that time. I patiently explained to her what happened and her response was, “That is all? That was it?” The old made-up version of what happened sounds so much more exciting than what really happened. The whole story was twisted around to be much more dramatic than the reality. Even recently, people started adding more to it, like, “I heard that MJ forbids Gallaudet to have any music on campus,” and other similar comments. What I did was really insignificant in comparison to what people imagined.

One interesting parallel is that I guess it is fortunate that I love English. People, of course, assume because ASL is my language and I teach in the field that I am lousy at English. Then, they find out that I have a BA degree in English and that screws up their expectations and perception of me. In the same way, people think I hate music, but ironically my absolute favorite movie is “The Sound of Music.” I used to love to watch it repeatedly, and learned a lot of the songs, like “do ray mi fa….” I loved that movie! It’s a funny, cute film and the story really fascinated me. The music in the film didn’t bother me at all. Now, people needed to reconcile the reported “Stop the Music” controversy with the fact that my favorite movie is “The Sound of Music!” This leaves people confused and puzzled. Also, some people believe that I don’t allow any music in my house, but my partner is a Hearing person who loves playing music. Sometimes, it is all kind of exasperating, but that is the whole story of the “Stop the Music” controversy.

It might be a condescending view, but I think ABC Stories have been one of the easiest forms of ASL literature to create by playing with the language. Today with more research and analysis, ABC Stories have become more sophisticated and challenging. For example, we used to accept the sports gesture “time out” for the letter “t” when creating ABC stories. So while the level of literary sophistication has changed the way we view ABC stories, it is still a wonderful form to begin literary experiments with and for learning to play with language.

In contrast, creating ASL poetry, I believe, requires a special skill. People ask me, “Why don’t you create ASL poetry?” Poetry is not my area, and I have no skill whatsoever. I don’t have that special creative mind that Ella [Note: Ella Mae Lentz, name sign “E” taps temple twice] or Valli have [Note: Clayton Valli, name sign “V” taps side of chin twice]. When I see them perform, I think, “I never thought of that.” Some individuals just seem to have that talent as part of who they are. In addition, it’s interesting that it is much easier to copy an ABC story than a poem.

ASL Literature: Poetry

I can look back at Ella’s development as a poet, beginning when I became good friends with her at Gallaudet College. Ella would sign stories and songs, which would be incredibly enjoyable. Of course at that time, we didn’t call it literature, but it was truly captivating. She would often entertain us with stories late at night or over beers. Again and again, she would perform creative signed versions of sign creative performances such as “I left my Heart in San Fran-cis-co,” and I would watch wide eyed over and over again. During that time, I never saw Ella’s own ASL literary creations; what I saw were always translations from English, but I could watch her perform them a million times without boredom and still appreciate them. After Ella began creating original poetry, I just fell in love with her work. Still today of all the Deaf poets, Ella is my personal favorite. Two of Ella’s poetic works that I love and can appreciate time and time again are “The Baseball Game” and “The Door.” Certainly, there are other poets who create beautiful poems, but I have seen Ella perform since 1971 so I understand the roots of her poetic style. I remember seeing Ella develop the poem, “The Door.” She was working on it for a friend’s wedding or birthday or some such celebration. It was awesome to watch. I could really feel the rhythm of the poem [MJ copies the repeated rhythm in the poem’s lines about forcing shackles onto wrists and tossing them; forcing shackles onto the wrists and showing identical ‘snapshots’ of a row of people with shackled wrists]. Watching that poem, I completely understood it. I could immediately relate to the poem knowing about speech/Oralism, forbidding sign language, using SEE [Signing Exact English, a signed code].

[Video excerpt from “The Door” created and performed by Ella Mae Lentz. The excerpt shows Deaf people meeting up, signing together, and then being forced to speak. The lines about being shackled are included —and at the end, when the Deaf people breaking free of the shackles, they bar the door and return to signing freely again].

I never tire of appreciating the poem, “The Door,” no matter how many times I watch it. The second poem I particularly like, “The Baseball Game,” I relate to because it is about womanhood. The language play incorporating the middle finger and the sign for understand at the end of the poem inspires one to stand up and cheer, “YES! YES!” I love that poem. I had never seen “The Baseball Game” until Ella performed it on stage, and it completely awed me. Other poems Ella created, such as “Circle of Life,” with its repeated circular signs and themes are also appreciated. Of course, how could I forget to mention her poem, “The Treasure.” That incredible poem also has a truly compelling message. I love “The Door” for how easily I can relate to it; I love “The Baseball Game” because it addresses women’s experiences, but “The Treasure” is the poem that I appreciate most because of its powerful message.

Intertitle: Excerpt from “The Treasure” created and performed by Ella Mae Lentz. The excerpt illustrates a number of people shoveling dirt down into a hole covering up and pressing down on the reburied treasure. The poet then proclaims that the glow of the jewels in the treasure chest is ‘still alive’ Gazing directly at the camera, she lifts up the treasure and offers it to the viewer. She then signs “decide for yourselves it’s up to you.”

I think one other poem of Ella’s that most people haven’t seen that was truly moving is the poem she created specifically for Marie Philip’s [name sign MP] funeral.

[Picture of Marie Philip (1953-1997)]

I can’t imagine how Ella was able to create a poem with such time constraints; she put it all together, composing it on paper and mulling it over in her mind, while flying to the funeral. The poem was especially effective at showing who Marie Philip was as a person. Fortunately, I found someone who had videotaped Ella signing the poem at the funeral, and as I studied it, it just blew my mind. In my class on literature discourse, we look at how Ella depicts Marie Philip without explicitly describing her in detail. For example, my students often ask me if Marie Philip was short and stocky as they are able to glean this from way that Ella personifies Marie Philip in the poem [MJ copies a section of Ella’s poem where descriptive information and facial expressions communicate certain physical characteristics of Marie Philip]. It’s really incredible. The poem opens with the sequence of actions of being born, eyes opening up, and visually taking in the signing environment. The poem then shows the actions of signing, chattering, socializing, and telling stories. If you look closer at each of the four signs from the previous sentence, you will see that each begins with a fingerspelled letter that together spells out the word, DEAF [that is the sign for SIGNING is made with the D handshape, CHATTERING with the E handshape, SOCIALIZING with the A handshape, and TELLING STORIES with the F handshape]. When Ella performed it, there wasn’t an obvious emphasis on the beginning handshape of each of these signs. They were simply smoothly incorporated into the poem. After watching the poem repeatedly and analyzing it, I asked Ella and she confirmed that indeed was her intention. This understanding led to a greater appreciation of how awesome that poem is.

[Excerpt from “The Rock’s Vision” created and performed by Ella Mae Lentz. This particular film was from the Utah Deaf Studies Today Conference held in April, 2008. The excerpt begins with a description of a small round rock, including the lines described above. The poem goes on to describe the rock sadly noticing two distinct social classes; one upper class, well educated and assimilationists, the other lower class and shown in a lower space using more indigenous ASL. The final clip shows the vision of the future–where Deaf people are inspired and free to sign; where Deaf people are happy, united, and equal; where children progress quickly in school learning and signing with ease; where life is perfect; where when parents give birth to a Deaf child, they accept him/her and join the Deaf community signing, socializing, and leading us to new heights. That is the vision.]

Intertitle ASL Literature: Oratorical Presentations

Yes, it is true that I am more comfortable with my skill in giving presentations. I am able to perform telling stories, but I agree that oratorical presentations are the area of ASL literature I feel most competent in. One of the reasons for this, I think, is because I truly enjoy teaching. With teaching, I feel it is important to further develop content information by adding my own way of thinking, elaborating using ASL discourse, and interspersing humor. I grew up with many experiences of informal teaching, and thus I developed a natural ability for this at a very young age. Teaching, for me, naturally manifests itself as oratorical presentations. Another skill involved in creating presentations relates to figuring out and examining the meaning of concepts, which I enjoy doing. As a translator, I appreciate the work that goes into analyzing the many levels of meaning of words and signs, and in particular in the work involved in translating literature.

[Video excerpt from “Deaf Culture and Deafhood,” MJ Bienvenu’s Keynote address during RIT’s Week of Dialogue, March, 2008].

I think it is important to challenge the oppression of language and the oppression of Deaf people. In challenging audism and colonialism, we begin to examine the ideology behind these terms. This week is a week of dialogue in which you have the opportunity to look at and analyze the meaning of audism. With the term audism, we finally have a word for what we have experienced. We have grown up experiencing oppression, but not knowing what to call it. For Deaf people, the word audism is instinctively understood. Audism is the naming of our experience. Linguicism identifies language oppression. By bringing these two terms to the forefront, we have the opportunity to look at them, examine their meanings, and become conscious of how all these various implications influence each other. I am not advocating for the rejection of Hearing folks or for the rejection of English. I am advocating that we communicate with each other, and thereby become more sensitive and aware of Hearing privilege. In the same way, people like me who are White have White privilege. This means I’m not generally aware of the life experiences of Black people or Hispanic people. For example, I don’t have the experience of going into a bank and having people communicate unease and fear of me. Once we look at racism and analyze it, I – as a White person – can become more sensitive and understanding. The same principle applies in that Hearing privilege allows Hearing people to continue to be unaware of the oppression of Deaf people. When one stops and deeply examines one’s own Hearing privilege, the meaning of audism becomes more transparent.

I’m not saying all Hearing folks are bad, but many are simply ignorant. That is why the discussions happening this week are important and the films you are viewing are important. This will the help you begin to figure out the meaning of audism and linguicism. You will begin to see that these terms are part of Deaf people’s reality. That will help explain who we are and why we react the way we do.

I think much of the appreciation of literature relates to culture. People who are able to understand the value of Deaf people and our experiences, the value of our stories and our literature, as well as how our experiences are deeply rooted in our culture will be able to have a greater appreciation of our literature.

Intertitle: Final Thoughts on Deaf Artistic Expression

[Various clips “That is amazingly powerful, I think; That is a powerful picture, truly powerful; British (films) tend to add humor and are really powerful; the MESSAGE is what makes it powerful.”]

Who’s Who

Who’s Who – Text

Who’s Who: French People

Text Summary

Names are listed alphabetically by last name.
NOTE: Name signs vary from signer to signer.
Explained by Guillaume Chastel

Text summary by Karen Christie.

Bebián, Roch-Ambroise Auguste (Hearing)

Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bebián’s name sign describes his tendency to wear a long straight-pointed shirt collar. He was a Hearing teacher of Deaf students who was also a scholar. Bebián taught at the Paris Deaf School and was assistant principal. He was a colleague and strong ally of Ferdinand Berthier at the Paris Deaf School.

He was an important person because he advocated against the use of methodological signs in the education of Deaf people and published pedagogical writings promoting language equality, the use of natural sign language in education, in addition to reading and writing.

Berthier, Jean-Ferdinand (Deaf)

Ferdinand Berthier is known by three name signs. P-on-side-chest was one name sign which symbolizes the fact that he was awarded the Legion of Honor because of his activism challenging the government on behalf of Deaf citizens. The second name sign is 5-palm-down-circles-top-of-fist-of-non-domiant-hand which indicates that Berthier was bald. The third name sign used for Berthier is flat-O-circles-near-ear. Berthier was a student at the Paris Deaf School under Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu (name sign: put-watch-in-vest-pocket). Berthier was a teacher and writer. His books were biographies honoring important educators of the time such as Abbé de’l’Épée (name sign: clerical-collar+SWORD) , Abbé Sicard (name sign: S-fist-shakes) and Bebián. Berthier was a strong activist for Deaf people’s linguistic rights and rights as equal citizens. Along with two other Deaf Frenchmen, Berthier founded the French Deaf-Mute Banquets in Paris and also an International Deaf organization to address global Deaf rights.
(Drawing of Berthier)

Clerc, Laurent (Deaf)

Laurent Clerc’s name sign is H-scar-on-cheek which refers to a scar he had on his cheek. When Clerc was a baby, he fell out of a high chair and landed near the fire which scarred his cheek. Laurent Clerc was taught by Jean Massieu at the Paris Deaf School before becoming a teacher there. Clerc and Massieu traveled with Sicard demonstrating the success of teaching Deaf students at the Paris School using sign language. Later, Laurent Clerc moved to the United States helping to establish the American School for the Deaf (ASD) and bringing LSF (French Sign language) as a teaching method. Clerc’s work in America lead to the founding of a number of schools for the Deaf.
(Drawing of Laurent Clerc)

Desloges, Pierre (Deaf)

The name sign used for Pierre Desloges is D-WRITING. Desloges was a Deaf Frenchman who was a bookbinder, writer, and activist. Desloges was the first Deaf writer who printed and distributed a book which included his personal experiences as a person who became Deaf at age 7 and found his way to a community of Deaf people as well as a defense of de l’Épée’s teaching methods, using sign language, which had come under attack in another publication.

Fay (Faye), Etienne de (Deaf)

Etienne de Fay was a Deaf French teacher, architect, sculptor and monk. Many people have believed that de l Épée was the first teacher of Deaf people in France, but quite a bit before him Etienne de Fay taught classes of Deaf students using signs. Thus, de Fay who was Deaf was the first known teacher of Deaf students.

Forestier, Claudius (Deaf)

Claudius Forestier’s name sign is the sign for FOREST due to the similarity of his last name to the word, Forest. A teacher from the Paris School for the Deaf, Forestier along with Berthier and Lenoir founded the Paris Deaf-Mute Banquets. Later Forestier moved to Lyons (namesign of town) and became the director of the school for the Deaf there. Claudius Forestier was one of the few Deaf people who were present at the 1880 Milan Conference.

L’Épée, Abbé Charles-Michel de (Hearing)

name sign is SWORD because his last name Épée is the word for sword in French. Épée was a Hearing priest, educator and founder of the Paris School for the Deaf. He was the director of the school for about 30 years and wrote about how to teach Deaf students written language using methodological signs.
(drawing of Abbé de l’Épée)

Lenoir, Alphonse (Deaf)

Lenoir was a Deaf teacher at the Paris School for the Deaf and an activist. Along with Berthier (name sign: ) and Forestier (name sign: FOREST), he established the Paris Deaf Mute Banquets. In addition, he wrote stories about Deaf people.

Massieu, Jean (Deaf)

Jean Massieu’s name sign was put-watch-in-vest-pocket . Massieu’s name sign was given to him by Deaf students who were describing his peculiar habit of having a number of pocket watches in his vest/coat. A teacher at the Paris School for the Deaf, Massieu taught both Laurent Clerc (name sign: scar-on-cheek) as well as Berthier (name sign: bald) and others. Abbé Sicard’s presentations proudly displayed Massieu to audiences to demonstrate how intelligent Deaf people who signed were and how they can be taught to write and give independent explanations for concepts.
(Drawing of Massieu)

Ordinaire, Désiré (Hearing)

Désir´ Ordinaire was a Hearing physician who became director of the Paris School for the Deaf about 7 years. During his time, he was responsible for a huge change in methodology at the school—banning the use of sign language and promoting oral only communication in the classrooms. In addition, he demoted the Deaf teachers at the school to tutors or assistant teachers.

Sicard, Abbé Roch-Ambroise (Hearing)

Abbé Sicard was a priest and the term abbé was used to address priests in France. Sicard’s name sign is S-fist-shakes-back-and-forth due to the fact that his head bobbed back and forth as he walked, apparently from a nerve condition due to overwork. Deaf children at the Paris School for the Deaf noticed this and bestowed upon him his name sign. Following Épée’s death, Sicard became the second Director at the Paris School in 1790. Sicard wrote pedagogical books and he invited American Thomas Gallaudet to visit the school to learn how to teach Deaf students.
(Drawing of Sicard)

Who’s Who: U.S. People

See Timeline Who’s Who for ASL

Text Summary

Names are listed alphabetically by last name.
NOTE: Name signs vary from signer to signer.
Explained by Kamau Buchanan

Text summary by Karen Christie.

Bell, Alexander Graham (Hearing)

A Hearing man originally from Scotland, AGB came to Boston as a young man and worked as a teacher of Deaf students. He had a Deaf mother and Deaf wife both of whom were oral. AGB advocated for pure oralism in Deaf education (oral/aural only) by promoting the elimination of the use of sign language and deaf teachers in the classroom. In addition, he believed that marriages between deaf people was detrimental to the goal of oral-only philosophy.

Brown, Thomas (Deaf)

From Henniker, New Hampshire, Thomas Brown was a Deaf man from a Deaf family who was educated at the American School for the Deaf. Later, he became a farmer, land owner, and leader of American Deaf people. With other graduates from the American School for the Deaf (ASD), Thomas Brown lead a movement to honor the founders of the school, Thomas Gallaudet (name sign: G-glasses) and Laurent Clerc (name sign: scar-on-cheek). The group organized to become the New England Gallaudet Association (NEGA) and Thomas Brown served as the first president. This organization was expanded and later lead to the establishment of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD).

Cogswell, Alice (Deaf)

Alice Cogswell’s name sign is A-on-the-side-of-the-chin. From Hartford, Connecticut, Alice was the daughter of Dr. Mason Cogswell (name sign: C-taps forehead-and-then-chin). She was the inspiration behind the founding of the first permanent school for the Deaf in the U.S. Alice studied and graduated from the American School for the Deaf. After her father’s unexpected death, she became depressed, refusing to eat and leave her bed. Her former teacher, Laurent Clerc (name sign: scar-on-cheek) pleaded with her to join the world of the living, but she died at age 25 having never recovered from the loss.

Cogswell, Mason (Hearing)

Mason Cogswell’s name sign is C-taps forehead-and-then-chin. Cogswell was a Hearing man who was a surgeon in Hartford, Connecticut. He recognized the need for and education for his Deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell (name sign: A-on-the-side-of-the-chin) and other Deaf children in America. Thus, he worked to establish the first permanent school for the Deaf, the American School for the Deaf (ASD).

Flournoy, John J. (Deaf)

John J. Flournoy, from Georgia. was an early graduate of the American School for the Deaf (ASD). Flournoy helped establish the Georgia School for the Deaf. In the 1800s, Flournoy proposed the idea of the establishment of a ‘Deaf state’ or colony. A flurry of letters supporting and challenging the desirability of a Deaf state or colony were published in the American Annals of the Deaf. Eventually, Flournoy’s proposal failed to gain support.

Gallaudet, Edward Miner (Hearing)

Edward Miner Gallaudet’s name sign is closed/bent-5-handshape-taps-left-then-right-side-of-chest. From Hartford, Connecticut, EM Gallaudet was the Hearing son of Thomas Gallaudet and Sophia Fowler Gallaudet. He was the founder of the Columbia Institute for the Deaf and Blind and the National Deaf Mute College [today known as Gallaudet University, named in honor of Edward Miner Gallaudet’s father, Thomas]. EM Gallaudet served as President of the Deaf Mute College for 46 years.

Gallaudet, Sophia Fowler (Deaf)

A Deaf woman from Guilford, Connecticut, Sophia Fowler was one of the first students at the American School for the Deaf (ASD). She met her future husband, Thomas Gallaudet there and together they had several Hearing children. Their youngest child was Edward Miner Gallaudet who later became president of the National Deaf Mute College. Sophia Fowler Gallaudet accompanied EM Gallaudet to the National Deaf Mute College where she worked as a matron for many years.

Gallaudet, Thomas (Hearing)

Thomas Gallaudet’s name sign is G-glasses describing the fact that he wore glasses. Thomas Gallaudet was a Hearing minister from Hartford, Connecticut. Along with a Deaf man, Laurent Clerc (scar-on-cheek), Thomas Gallaudet established the first Deaf school in America that educated students using sign language. From 1817-1830, Gallaudet served as the principal at the America School for the Deaf. Thomas Gallaudet married one of his former students, Sophia Fowler.

Hanson, Agatha Tiegel (Deaf)

Agatha Tiegel was from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and graduated from the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (WPSD). She was the first Deaf woman to graduate from Gallaudet with a bachelor’s degree in 1893. As the Valedictorian of her class, she presented a graduation address “The Intellect of Women.” Later she taught at the Minnesota School for the Deaf and married Olof Hanson.

Hanson, Olof (Deaf)

Olof Hanson was born in Sweden and his family settled in Minnesota where he attended the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf. After graduating from Gallaudet College, he became well known as a skilled architect designing buildings that were Deaf friendly spaces. Later he became the eighth president of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) where he championed ASL, Deaf rights, and opportunities for Deaf people in government jobs.

Lambert, Jonathan (Deaf)

Jonathan Lambert was a Deaf man who was an early settler of Martha’s Vineyard. He was an ex-military sailor, farmer and carpenter. As the first Deaf man on Martha’s Vineyard, he bought land from Native Americans and began a community that eventually became known as a place where everyone, Deaf and Hearing alike, knew and interacted using sign language. Lambert had two Deaf children and his niece had three Deaf children. The following generations on the island continued to consist of a significant number of Deaf people.

McGregor, Robert (Deaf)

Robert P. McGregor was a Deaf man from Ohio. He graduated from the Ohio School for the Deaf and later founded the Cincinnati Day School. McGregor was the first president of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) where he advocated for ASL, Deaf teachers and Deaf rights. He was one of those filmed in the old NAD motion picture project.

Stokoe, William (Hearing)

William Stokoe’s name sign is C-claw-cap-on-head. In the 1960s he researched and analyzed ASL proving that ASL was a full fledged language. He worked with two Deaf people Carol Croneberg and Dorothy Casterline, publishing the first Dictionary of American Sign Language. He also founded the journal, Sign Language Studies. (Drawing of William Stokoe)

Veditz, George (Deaf)

George Veditz’s name sign is V-clawed-taps-twice- side-of-chin. He was Deaf man from Maryland who attended the Maryland School for the Deaf. He was an educator and the 7th President of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). He was a strong advocate of the use of sign language in the education of Deaf students and the rights of Deaf citizens. Veditz was one of the founders of the NAD Film Project which included his well-know presentation “The Preservation of the Sign Language.”

Map of Deaf Schools Founded in the US

Click here for a listing of all schools by state

  Deaf schools founded by deaf persons
  Deaf schools founded by hearing persons/legislators

Sample Works

Across the Arts


Text Transcripts

Folktales of the Origins of Deaf Education in America

Length: 13:10
Note: This is a summary of the video performance and not a verbatim translation.
Text summary by Karen Christie and Patti Durr.

Intertitle: The Folktale of the Abbé de l’Épée
With portrait drawing of the Abbé de l’Épée

This story happened far away in Paris, France a long time ago. One dark night, a man whose last name was de l’Épée(namesign: CLERIC-COLLAR+SWORD)and who was a priest, had been traveling by foot through Paris. He became tired, needing to rest and began to seek a place to stay overnight. He was a bit lost and unable to find a place. From a distance, he spied a house with light behind the windows. He approached the house and knocked on the door, but received no response. Looking in through a window, he saw two sisters, sitting in front of a fire, sewing. Épée pushed lightly on the front door opening into the room. The abbé spoke to the sisters on the far side of the room. Getting no response, he walked closer voicing another greeting. He was perplexed when they continued to sew, seemingly unaware of his presence. At the moment the sisters finally glanced up at the abbé, their mother came into the room. She explained that her daughters were Deaf. The abbé then questioned the mother as to the girls’ spiritual education. The mother explained that previously another priest had taught the girls, but no longer. The abbé, thinking on the girls’ situation was struck with an epiphany, which marked the beginning of his life’s work with Deaf people.

Intertitle: Alice Cogswell Meets Thomas Gallaudet
With drawing of Alice Cogswell and Thomas Gallaudet

Long ago, there was a Deaf girl named Alice Cogswell who lived in Hartford, Connecticut. Her father, who was Hearing, was a wealthy physician who dearly cherished his daughter and worried about her lack of educational opportunities. One day, a young man who was a neighbor of the Cogswells, Thomas Gallaudet(namesign: GLASSES), sat watching the neighborhood children playing. Gallaudet, who was a divinity student at Yale, who while home on break, noticed Alicewandering on the edge of the group. Gallaudet approached Alice, and began talking to her. When Alice didn’t respond, he picked up a stick and wrote the word “H-a-t” in the dirt. He then took off his hat and placed it on the ground next to the word. At this, Alice looked up at him with a quizzical expression. Gallaudet erased the word in the dirt, picked up his hat, and again wrote “H-a-t.” Again, he took off his hat pointing back and forth between the word and his hat. Gallaudet did this all once more only this time Alice‘s eyes lit up with comprehension.

Intertitle: Drawing of Alice pointing back and forth between the word “hat” written on the ground and the hat in Gallaudet‘s hand.

Drawing of Alice—above her head is the highlighted image of a hat and an equal sign followed by the word ‘hat.’

Thus, Alice began to understand the link between objects and the written word Gallaudet provided. Alice‘s father was delighted to see that Alice—and therefore, other Deaf children—could learn. This set him to thinking. As time went on, Dr. Cogswell would meet with Thomas Gallaudet to discuss how they could provide Alice with an education. They agreed that Europe would be the best place to visit to established Deaf schools and gather information related to how to teach Deaf children. Gallaudet was asked if he would be interested to do this. As Gallaudetpondered this, he imagined a future where Alice would be the first Deaf student educated at a Deaf school in America.

Intertitle: Drawing of Mason Cogswell shaking hands with Thomas Gallaudet as Alice looks on.

Intertitle: Thomas Gallaudet‘s Journey
Portrait drawing of Thomas Gallaudet

Thomas Gallaudet agreed to go forward with the idea of traveling to Europe to seek the techniques he needed to help establish a Deaf school in America. During his voyage to Europe, he read a book given to him by Dr. Cogswell (namesign: C-moves from-center-of-forehead-to-chin). The book, written by Abbé Sicard (Namesign: S-handshape/’head’ shakes back and forth) explained how to educate Deaf children using sign language. Gallaudet read and studied Sicard‘s book all the way to England.

In England, Thomas Gallaudet met with people who represented the Braidwood family, which had a monopoly on the schools for Deaf children in that country. Gallaudet was told that in order to have access to their schools and methods of educating Deaf children, he needed to agree to a contract in which he would stay three years to be trained in how to teach speech to Deaf children and must pay dividends to the Braidwood family after returning to the United States and establishing a school or schools. While Gallaudet thought about this offer, he began to feel increasingly uncomfortable about being away from the United States and Alice for so long. In addition, he didn’t feel comfortable with getting involved with a business. At each Deaf school he went to in the UK, he was faced with the same Braidwood family proposition. As time when on, Gallaudet became increasingly discouraged by his failure to learn anything that would help with educating Alice. As he wandered dejectedly in England, he came upon a poster announcing a lecture by people from the National School for the Deaf in Paris, France. He recognized the name of Abbé Sicard from the book he had been reading on the voyage. The poster announced that he had brought two students for the demonstration/lecture to England. At the prospect of meeting up with Sicard, Gallaudet walked on feeling much more optimistic.

Intertitle: Portrait drawing of Laurent Clerc

Gallaudet entered the lecture hall where Sicard and his students were to appear and sat in the audience. After the lecture, Sicard introduced two Deaf teachers who were former students who had graduated from the Paris School, Jean Massieu(namesign: POCKET-WATCH) and Laurent Clerc (namesign: SCAR-ON-CHEEK).Sicard encouraged the audience to pose questions to Clerc and Massieu. Gallaudet watched in awe as Clerc and Massieu thoughtfully and intelligently responded to a number of challenging questions coming from the audience. Clerc wrote answers and engaged with the audience. At the end, Gallaudet was duly impressed and sought out Sicard. Gallaudet explained the purpose of his trip to Europe and his frustrations with getting cooperation of the Braidwood Family oral programs. He described their terms of requiring Gallaudet to pay them fees after returning to America and promising to not share with others the secret of the oral method of teaching Deaf students—all this after training with them for three years. Without hesitation, Sicardinvited Gallaudet to come to the Paris School. Thrilled at the prospect, Gallaudet went to Paris to work with Clerc. There, Gallaudet began to learn to sign and how to teach Deaf children. As his funds began to dwindle, he became more homesick and anxious to return to set up a school for Alice. Gallaudet, still feeling he needed more training in teaching and practice with signing, proposed that Clerc accompany him to America to set up a school for Deaf children. While Clerc felt he would miss his students at the Paris school, he also felt obligated to help establish a school in a place where no Deaf children had the opportunity. With the understanding that he would return to France after a period of three years, Clerc thus agreed to accompany Gallaudet to America.

Intertitle:Folktale of the Voyage of Clerc and Gallaudet

This folktale begins in the town of Havre in France. Laurent Clerc (namesign: SCAR-ON-CHEEK) and Thomas Gallaudet (namesign: GLASSES), excited to begin their voyage to America, arrived at the harbor in the early morning where their boat was docked. Because the tide was low, they had to wait until three o’clock in the afternoon when they finally set sail. This was on the day of June 18, 1816. There were other passengers who shared their ocean crossing; Clerc and another French man who was Hearing as well as Gallaudet and three other Americans. During the voyage, Clerc and Gallaudet made good use of their time. Clerc, who didn’t know a lot of English, set about learning English by writing everyday in a diary, which Gallaudetcorrected. By the same token, Gallaudet was not very familiar with LSF (langue des signes françasie). So Clerc taught Gallaudet an adapted version of LSF which was modified somewhat to fit American cultural conventions. In this way, they shared their languages with each other. Despite the fact the voyage was expected to be relatively short, the lack of wind delayed their arrival. After 52 days, Clerc and Gallaudet finally arrived in New York on August 9, 1816.

Note: The names of Deaf individuals appear in bold italics. In addition, names of Deaf and Hearing historical figures appearing in blue are briefly described in “Who’s Who” which can be accessed via the Overview Section of this Project.