In Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture, R.A.R. Edwards vividly recreates the mid-nineteenth-century Deaf world. 1 She presents the early decades of deaf education in the United States as a high-water mark for the American Deaf community and its relationship with the hearing world. In this "bilingual-bicultural manualist era" of deaf education, sign language was the primary mode of instruction (6). Using sign, students learned to read and write in English. This approach made possible the formation of a common Deaf identity, and, Edwards argues, also encouraged their active participation in the hearing world as proud Deaf adults. Deaf people in this period and their hearing instructors rejected the notion that speaking or lipreading was a requirement for success in the hearing world and workforce. Literacy, not speech, they argued, was the common ground on which the Deaf and hearing could and should meet.

The predominance of this bilingual-bicultural manualist approach was short-lived. In the 1840s, almost as soon as Deaf culture had taken shape, hearing educators and reformers began promoting oral education. This discouraged sign language in favor of speech and lip-reading. Although the literature on the shift from manualist to oralist approaches to deaf education is quite vast, Edwards tells the story with a determined focus on the Deaf, offering a unique interpretation of how they identified as citizens of both the deaf and hearing worlds before the Civil War. Edwards argues that only by understanding early Deaf identities can we understand the debate over manual versus oral methods that followed, for that debate was rooted in hearing leaders' direct opposition to cultural Deafness.

Words Made Flesh contains seven chapters that proceed chronologically from the founding of the first school for the deaf in the United States in 1817 to the ascendance of oral education following the Civil War. Edwards relies primarily on published sources such as annual and legislative reports, the American Annals of the Deaf, and writings from the collection of deaf-led publications called the "Little Paper Family." Chapter one describes the well-known journey of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet to Europe and his return with Frenchman Laurent Clerc. Edwards argues that because Clerc was a deaf man who obtained great respect from hearing people by communicating in sign language and written English, Clerc's "role in brokering the acceptance of the manual method in the United States cannot be overestimated" (25). The second chapter explains the different approaches to sign language first used in American schools for the deaf and identifies 1833 as the beginning of truly bilingual-bicultural education. That transition was marked by schools abandoning "methodical signs"—signs that had been altered to adhere to the grammar of spoken language—as a step toward English-language acquisition.

The most original and exciting chapters describe how residential education transformed the lives of students from the moment of their arrival at school through their experiences as Deaf adults. Analyzing samples of published student writings, in chapter three Edwards reveals students' simultaneous enthusiasm for forming community with their Deaf peers and anticipation of participating in the hearing world. Chapter four shows how the Deaf identity forged in residential schools fueled the creation of Deaf associations, newspapers, marriages, and even a short-lived debate over the creation of a separate "Deaf State" in the American West (98). These chapters also include brief but impressively researched investigations of Black student involvement with the American School for the Deaf and its alumni associations, which suggest a "tolerant attitude toward race among the deaf" in the nineteenth century (136). Chapters five through seven delve into the debate over manualism versus oralism, which began in the 1840s. Edwards's careful tracing of these debates highlights the importance of the re-adoption of methodical signs as a concession toward oralist thinking that predated the post-Civil War triumph of oral education.

Edwards explicitly incorporates disability studies into this narrative. Insights from foundational disability studies theorists—among them Simi Linton, Rosemary Garland-Thomson, and most prominently, Lennard Davis—inform her analyses of identity, staring, passing, and normalcy. Edwards makes the case for understanding the politics of deaf culture and education in the nineteenth century as a first case study in disability activism in the United States. This effort is valuable given the historical resistance of many Deaf people to the label of disability. However, Edwards's analysis could have been strengthened by more thoroughly engaging disability history in order to connect nineteenth-century deafness to other contemporaneous disability experiences. For example, Edwards briefly describes the oralist movement as one piece of a broader effort to render disability invisible, manifesting in the rise of custodial institutionalization for the so-called "feeble-minded" (158). Although this is an accurate overall picture, her use of Samuel Gridley Howe as the symbol for this cultural impulse is problematic: at the same time that Howe advocated deaf integration by means of the oral method of instruction, he also argued that the "feeble-minded" should be educated in public schools and live in their communities as adults. 2

Words Made Flesh is written in accessible language, helpfully defines specialized terms, and clearly explains the disability studies scholars and frameworks upon which it draws. These definitions and explanations are repeated throughout the book, which makes it a convenient work from which to assign individual chapters. Edwards is also refreshingly forthright about her methods and often includes long block quotes from her sources, which makes Words Made Flesh particularly useful for discussing interpretation and analysis with undergraduates and graduate students.


  1. Following Edwards's lead, in this review I endeavor to use lower-case d to indicate a physical lack of hearing, and the upper-case D to mark the identity and culture formed by deaf people. As Edwards puts it, before the founding of the American School for the Deaf in 1817, all that existed was deafness, but Deafness emerged in the decades that followed.
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  2. Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth, Twenty-Seventh Annual Report (1874), 22-24.
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