I recently visited the National Association of the Deaf's main office in Silver Spring, Maryland to do some archival research. On the wall in the waiting room is a mural which includes an image of a Deaf man holding a sign that proclaims "We can drive ourselves." The very real issue of deaf people's historical fight to gain access to driver's licensing is an apt metaphor for the broad categories of agency and citizenship for deaf people who have wanted to steer their own lives.
This issue of deaf agency in a hearing world is the central theme of In Our Own Hands: Essays in Deaf History 1780-1970, edited by Brian H. Greenwald and Joseph J. Murray. In this book of deeply researched essays, each chapter illustrates ways in which deaf people made sustained efforts to manage their own political, social, or religious lives—and how these efforts were repeatedly contested, ignored, or absorbed by the larger social structures of hearing people. The first essay in the volume establishes this theme in the broad context of mainstream periodicals. In "Why Give Him a Sign Which Hearing People Do Not Understand…? Public Discourses about Deafness, 1780-1914," Anja Werner writes on her examination of 1200 newspaper and journal articles for information about deaf people. By the mid-nineteenth century, Anja reports, articles on deaf people in the mainstream media decreased significantly. She explains that many deaf periodicals were being founded at that time, clearly representing deaf self-awareness and agency. Yet, this development of the deaf press was only one reason for the decline in mainstream coverage. Another was the enforcement of oralist methods in public education, which diminished public attention to sign language. This push-and-pull of deaf agency and hearing control permeates all the essays in the volume, most of which examine American subjects, with the exception of one essay on Australian Deaf citizens' groups. The overall effect is a sense that deaf people have often taken two steps forward while being pushed one step back by the larger community.
Citizenship is a major concern for several of the essays. Joseph J. Murray's contribution, "Enlightened Selfishness: Gallaudet College and Deaf Citizenship in the United States, 1864-1904," examines the college's annual Presentation Day (or Charter Day) as a public relations tactic during those years. Every U.S. president from Ulysses S. Grant to Theodore Roosevelt, except for William McKinley, visited Gallaudet, and most made use of the federally-supported college as a political statement in one way or another. At first these events framed Gallaudet as an example of democracy, since democracy requires an educated citizenry and, ideally, all citizens should participate in the process, even those who used sign language. Eventually, though, social Darwinist thought and the idealization of fitness for citizenship tempered the image deaf people presented to the public. Events maintained a discourse of co-equality, but brought in a rhetoric of normalcy to promote deaf fitness for "winning in the race of life." Other essays further illustrate this focus on participating as citizens, particularly in the context of education. I found particularly interesting Motoko Kimura's article "From Deaf Autonomy to Parent Autonomy in the Chicago Public Day Schools, 1847-1920," which describes the migration of deaf students from Chicago's residential deaf school into self-contained, sign-method sections of newly founded public schools—a phenomenon we more often associate with contemporary times. Kimura describes deaf parents' initial agency in governing the policies of these deaf departments, but then a loss of autonomy followed as a result of oral methods. Deaf parents of hearing children also lost footing in the shared governance of school policy as a result of dwindled deaf representation in this public sphere.
Three more essays deal specifically with issues of citizenship. The contribution of Carolyn McCaskill, Cecil Lucas, Robert Bayley, and Joseph Hill specifically examines lagging equality in the history of the Black deaf community. Breda Carty's essay looks at small deaf citizens' groups that formed (for a time) from larger mainstream groups in Australia. Octavian Robinson writes about deaf campaigns against peddling in pursuit of a public image for deaf people as contributors to society rather than burdens, in his essay, "In Pursuit of Citizenship." And Kati Morton Mitchell makes a contribution that is as valuable to deaf history as it is to the history of rhetoric. Her biography profiles Alice Taylor Terry—an active turn-of-the-century deaf journalist and activist who aimed to correct erroneous information, support citizens' rights, and incite other deaf people to do the same.
While most books on deaf history have approached the subject on a national level, this volume contains several essays that look closely at local or institutional histories, making use of previously untapped archival resources that are specific to their subjects. Two chapters examine controversies surrounding deaf communities in churches: one in the Southern deaf community (Jean Lindquist Bergey's contribution), and another in New York, where Edwin Allen Hodgson used the public press to protest the sale of the historically deaf St. Ann's Church, and also to advance arguments for an independent deaf church.
Three essays present fresh material on deafness and eugenics. Brian H. Greenwald revisits Alexander Graham Bell's Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race, noting though his close reading that Bell's eugenic approach also challenged sign language and social relationships among deaf people. Melissa Malzkuhn notes certain compromises suggested by the NAD at the turn of the century, when abstaining from marriage was promoted as way of emphasizing the value-added contributions of deaf citizens. Marion Andrea Schmidt's contribution looks at a research department which operated at the Clarke School between 1929 and 1950. The all-hearing researchers used new genetic and medical knowledge to learn more about hereditary conditions of deafness and, through parent and student counseling, attempts to reduce their incidence in the future.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of deaf people in public life. It makes an important contribution to the growing scholarship in both disability studies and deaf history, especially the struggles of deaf people to participate in regional and local institutions.
On a personal note, one thing I find frustrating in deaf history (in general) is the inconsistent capitalization of "Deaf" or "deaf". This is a thorny issue. As capitalization gained popularity among Deaf people and in Deaf Studies in the late twentieth century, more historians began to use it. Presently, however, there seems to be a united effort not to capitalize willy-nilly. In this particular collection, the introduction and all essays except the last two use the lowercase. These last two, however—Breda Carty's "The 'Breakaways'": Deaf Citizens' Groups in Austrailia in the 1920s and the 1930s" and Jean Lindquist Bergey's "Divine and Secular: Reverend Robert Capers Fletcher and the Southern Deaf Community, 1931-1972"—capitalize the "D" consistently except in historical quotations. There seems to be no sure rule based on medical or cultural designation or historical development for deciding for or against the capital "D". While it's admittedly a small thing, probably just a pet peeve, it's enough to make a writer looking for models pull out her hair in editorial angst. Perhaps it is just one more sign of the complex nature of deafness and deaf history.