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Signs of Resistance

Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to World War II

Susan Burch
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 230
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  • Book Info
    Signs of Resistance
    Book Description:

    ChoiceOutstanding Academic Title 2003

    During the nineteenth century, American schools for deaf education regarded sign language as the "natural language" of Deaf people, using it as the principal mode of instruction and communication. These schools inadvertently became the seedbeds of an emerging Deaf community and culture. But beginning in the 1880s, an oralist movement developed that sought to suppress sign language, removing Deaf teachers and requiring deaf people to learn speech and lip reading. Historians have all assumed that in the early decades of the twentieth century oralism triumphed overwhelmingly.

    Susan Burch shows us that everyone has it wrong; not only did Deaf students continue to use sign language in schools, hearing teachers relied on it as well. InSigns of Resistance, Susan Burch persuasively reinterprets early twentieth century Deaf history: using community sources such as Deaf newspapers, memoirs, films, and oral (sign language) interviews, Burch shows how the Deaf community mobilized to defend sign language and Deaf teachers, in the process facilitating the formation of collective Deaf consciousness, identity and political organization.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8998-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Abbreviations Frequently Used
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    This book reexamines U.S. social history from 1900 to the Second World War through the experiences of an often overlooked minority—the Deaf community. The relationship between Deaf citizens and mainstream society highlights important conflicts over the concepts of normality, citizenship, culture, and disability. This study emphasizes Deaf people’s self-advocacy in the face of intense Americanization campaigns that sought to assimilate and acculturate them to the majority hearing society.

    In 1919, one Deaf man advised other Deaf people, “By and by maybe society will recognize the fact that deafness is neither a crime nor a mental defect which separates those...

  6. 1 The Irony of Acculturation
    (pp. 7-41)

    In the decades that surrounded the turn of the century, America faced a crisis of identity. To many Americans, achievement of social and cultural unity seemed more imperative than ever. The still recent Civil War had pitted citizens against one another in the bloodiest battles the nation had ever experienced. The rise of industrialization had sparked the movement of thousands into the cities. Others had poured into the western territories seeking greater opportunities. In the west, newcomers faced off with Native Americans in wars for land and cultural domination. Emancipation and citizenship laws opened new opportunities, and renewed conflicts, for...

  7. 2 Visibly Different: Sign Language and the Deaf Community
    (pp. 42-66)

    Attempts to Americanize all citizens intensified at the turn of the century, and these efforts directly affected the Deaf community. Although recently formed, this cultural minority group had created a community distinguished from mainstream society. This separateness became increasingly unacceptable to reformers and educational specialists. They likened being “other” to being un-American. Many groups resisted aspects of Americanization, rallying to protect treasured parts of their non-American cultural identities. Several key factors particularly disadvantaged Deaf people in their attempts to remain culturally autonomous. Because most deaf people have hearing parents, siblings, and children, their access to adult Deaf role models historically...

  8. 3 The Extended Family: Associations of the Deaf
    (pp. 67-98)

    Communication cements every community. During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Deaf people in America defined themselves primarily as a linguistic and cultural group. For them, the use of sign language served not only as a facile means of communication. The need for signed language largely motivated and framed other Deaf cultural expressions, including the establishment of Deaf clubs. In addition to providing a signing sanctuary for members, associations stood as a testament to Deaf cultural autonomy. Activities of clubs, from the local to the national level, reveal a carefully crafted image of Deafness as well. This “public face” of...

  9. 4 Working Identities: Labor Issues
    (pp. 99-128)

    By maintaining a separate cultural community, Deaf people resisted complete assimilation and acculturation into mainstream society. Particularly after leaving school, Deaf adults assumed greater control over their lives. They possessed the ability to express their cultural identity. As evidenced in the preceding chapters, they clearly did so.

    As workers, though, Deaf people faced special challenges. Like most Americans, Deaf people espoused the value of self-sufficiency. Although Deaf and mainstream American ideals coincided in this regard, hearing employers frequently rejected Deaf workers, undermining their status as independent, productive citizens. Many of the discriminatory practices that faced Deaf workers resembled those experienced...

  10. 5 The Full Court Press: Legal Issues
    (pp. 129-167)

    Deaf people’s legal status had improved considerably during the nineteenth century. Many Deaf citizens could vote, write legally binding wills, file civil suits, be tried for offenses like other citizens, and testify in court.¹ Deaf advocates actively encouraged these legal changes and enjoyed this “assimilation” into America’s civic world. Such improvements suggest greater respect for the rights of Deaf persons, yet by the turn of the century different social-legal trends undermined Deaf citizens’ rights. Legal restrictions on Deaf people struck at the heart of the contest over identity, culture, and citizenship. The Deaf community successfully resisted linguistic assimilation. Nevertheless, the...

  11. Conclusion: The Irony of Acculturation, Continued
    (pp. 168-174)

    Before the Second World War, mainstream society increasingly attempted to assimilate marginalized groups, including Deaf people. Like other minorities, Deaf Americans resisted aspects of assimilation that challenged their core cultural identity. At the same time, however, they sought greater recognition and opportunities in political, social, and economic venues. Activists challenged not only overt discrimination but also the frequent neglect and ignorance that limited their opportunities to pursue full, fulfilling lives.

    Much of Deaf self-advocacy was defensive. Given the barriers and expectations placed before it, however, the community proved itself to be tenacious, as well as complex. Thus, while facing challenges...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 175-214)
  13. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 215-223)
  14. Index
    (pp. 224-229)
  15. About the Author
    (pp. 230-230)