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A Struggle for Identity

The American Deaf Community

By Paulette W. Campbell | HUMANITIES, March/April 2001 | Volume 22, Number 2

When Gallaudet University took on the task of creating an exhibition on deaf America a little more than a decade ago, the initial concept was to show the distinct culture that has evolved within the population of American deaf people. Some of the “culturally Deaf”—indicated with an initial capital letter—argue that deafness is not a disability, but simply another realization of the human condition.

“This is not to say that all deaf people are part of this community or that the linguistic community of Deaf people who use American Sign Language are the majority of deaf people,” says Jack R. Gannon, curator of the exhibition. “But we envisioned an exhibition that would help people understand that deaf people created, by choice and by necessity, a close linguistic community.”

“For millions of people, deafness is not only a disability,” says deaf actress Marlee Matlin. “It is a rich, beautiful language of signs that is over two hundred years old. It is culture and the arts.”

This culture is illuminated in “History through Deaf Eyes,” a traveling exhibition that explores the social history of deaf Americans. The exhibition will illustrate the shared experiences of community and family life, education, and work, as well as the divergent ways that deaf people define themselves, communicate, and employ available technology.

“Any community attempting to record its history will experience such conflicts of opinion,” says Gannon, who is deaf. “Culturally Deaf people are not the only people calling themselves ‘deaf.’ A lot of people—deaf and hearing—have a vested interest in how deaf people are portrayed in a public forum. As the first major exhibition on deaf life, this exhibition became a new battleground for an old argument.”

The old argument—more than 130 years running—deals with how deaf children should be taught and how deaf people should live. Is it better to teach deaf children to speak, or should they be taught sign language as their primary means of communication? Oralists advocate speech and speech reading without using sign language; manualists advocate the use of a visual language, such as American Sign Language.

According to the exhibition, advocates of oralism believe that speech provides a means for deaf people to participate in their local hearing communities, and that signing damages a child’s ability to speak and assimilate into society. Advocates for signing argue that visual language provides clear and effective communication and is a natural language for those who cannot hear.

Although the exhibition addresses this controversy, it takes a broader approach by placing the social history of deaf Americans within the overall context of American history. It explores the development of the deaf community and identity, language as a cohesive and a divisive force, the impact of technological change, and the struggle for self-determination.

“The little-known history of the American deaf community parallels the experiences and struggles of other minority groups,” project director Jean L. Bergey points out. “Deaf Americans have formed local, state, and national organizations, established newspapers and magazines, founded schools, gathered in churches where ASL was the language of song and sermon alike, and organized politically to protect and promote their interests.”

“Deaf Eyes” consists of sixty panels, each about the size of a door. Several objects and images are attached to the panels, as are replicas of “touchable” art including bronzed hands depicting letters in American Sign Language.

Panels on the formation of community include images depicting schools for deaf children, relating how deaf children were prepared
for the workplace and the “silent press,” and illustrating periodicals and national newspapers such as Silent World developed by the deaf to communicate local and national news.

There are images of students at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, the first permanent school for deaf children in the United States. “Thousands of young deaf people came to these schools and spent years living and studying together,” Gannon says. “The culture that developed from generation to generation included folklore, poetry, oratory, games, and jokes in sign language, as well as distinctive rules of etiquette.”

“What is important to note is throughout our history deaf children often did not have a choice of free and open communication. Serious attempts were made to ban sign language, and oralism was forced on deaf children,” says Gannon. “What we are trying to do is to emphasize that deaf individuals should have the right to choose—and to llustrate some of those choices they have made for whatever reason.”

With the Civil War and increasing levels of immigration, many Americans began to equate diversity with divisiveness. Some educators condemned the “clannishness” of the deaf community. Schools added lipreading and speech to the curriculum, and advocates of oral education pushed to eliminate sign language, comparing the deaf community to a community of immigrants. By 1920, 80 percent of deaf students were taught in oral education programs, without sign language, and the percentage of deaf teachers actively teaching deaf students—as opposed to hearing teachers—declined from 40 percent in the 1860s to less than 15 percent.

Alexander Graham Bell, who is best known as an inventor of the telephone, was one of the most renowned proponents of oralism. He
said sign language was “essentially a foreign language” and believed that “in an English speaking country like the United States, the English language, and the English language alone, should be used as the means of communication and instruction.”

Nonetheless, sign language maintained a vigorous presence outside the classroom, and organizations of deaf people such as the National Association of the Deaf rose to the defense of sign language, arguing that oral communication alone was inadequate for many deaf people.

The portion of the exhibition that deals with “Awareness, Access, and Change” includes scenes from the 1988 Deaf President Now protest, which led to the selection of Gallaudet University’s first deaf president. As the Civil Rights Movement led to legislation regarding the status of blacks in America, the Deaf President Now protest also brought about legislative and social change in the United States. In the months and years immediately following the protest, bills were passed and laws were enacted to promote the rights of deaf and other disabled
people. Two that are mentioned in the exhibition are the Television Decoder Circuitry Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Television Circuitry Act required that all televisions with thirteen-inch screens and larger be equipped with a built-in decoder chip able to display the closed captions on television programs.

At the day’s end, Gannon feels that the organizers have put together a fair and honest history of deaf America. “We want
people to know that deaf history is U.S. history and that by learning about our community they will learn a great deal about American
history,” he says. “We want people to walk out of that exhibition with a better understanding of deaf life.”

About the Author

Paulette W. Campbell is a writer in Burtonsville, Maryland.

Funding Information

The exhibition opens March 5 in Hartford, Connecticut. Other cities to host the exhibition for 2001 and early 2002 are Lexington, Kentucky, Fulton, Missouri, and Rochester, New York. Gallaudet University has received $150,035 in grants from NEH for “History through Deaf Eyes.”