- Illusions of Equality: Deaf Americans in School and Factory 1850–1950
Illusions of Equality belongs to a growing body of literature that examines deafness (and disability more generally) as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon. Hearing people are inclined to view deafness merely as a defect to be ameliorated by specialized techniques and technologies, and since most deaf people are born to hearing parents and taught by hearing teachers, deaf children often think of themselves in these terms. By the time they reach adulthood, however, they usually have come to see themselves very differently, as members of a cultural and linguistic minority. Indeed, for the past century and a half deaf Americans have behaved as an ethnic group, with their own clubs and associations, a thriving periodical press, and a distinct language and set of cultural values.
This aspect of deafness has caught the interest of scholars in the humanities in recent decades, beginning with linguistic research into American Sign Language in the 1950s. Historical research has not kept pace with contemporary studies, however, perhaps in part because this is a culture handed down primarily via a visual language with no written form. Of the few published historical accounts, most have relied on more readily available sources such as records of professionals who serve deaf people, in particular educators. And since deaf education has long been dominated by hearing people, these histories have tended to emphasize what hearing people thought and said about young deaf people. Buchanan’s book marks an important departure by focussing on the working lives of deaf adults and using sources generated by deaf people themselves—periodicals such as Deaf Mutes Journal and Silent Worker, and records of organizations such as the National Association of the Deaf, the state associations, and the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf.
Buchanan begins with the establishment of bilingual (English and American Sign Language) schools in the early nineteenth century and the losing struggle by deaf people to preserve that bilingual approach when national sentiment turned against it later in the century. The subtitle of the book, Deaf Americans in School and Factory, seems at first glance to bring together disparate topics, but as Buchanan makes clear, in the minds of deaf community leaders school and factory were integrally related. One of the greatest obstacles to success in both education and employment, as they saw it, was the increasing refusal of educators to use sign language in the late nineteenth century. Requiring students to communicate solely by lip-reading and speech undermined vocational and academic instruction for the majority and hampered the acquisition of skills essential to success in the work place. [End Page 490]
While the early chapters on education present some fresh information and previously untapped source material, they largely recount a story already told in greater detail elsewhere. However, when Buchanan turns to the struggle of deaf people against employment discrimination, he breaks new ground. He argues that deaf leaders throughout this period advocated what he terms a “code of personal responsibility,” similar to Booker T. Washington’s message to African Americans, that emphasized individual initiative rather than group rights. When deaf people faced discrimination in employment, their reflexive answer was to educate employers about the abilities of deaf people and to exhort deaf people to demonstrate their worth by working harder.
Occasionally, however, events roused the deaf community to take political action, and these occasions provide the most interesting parts of the book. In 1906, for example, when deaf people were barred from applying for Civil Service jobs, deaf community leaders swiftly organized to overturn the policy. Buchanan describes their eventual success—after a two-year campaign of lobbying officials, writing letters, gathering endorsements from employers, and extracting promises from presidential candidates—as a turning point in “organizing ability and consciousness,” an “intellectual and tactical break from the self-limiting and conservative approaches typically used against recalcitrant employers.”
Another story of political activism involves a fascinating character, Anton Spear, who after graduating from the Minnesota...