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REVIEWS Forbidden signs: American culture and the campaign against sign language. By Douglas C. Baynton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Pp. xi, 215. $27.50. Reviewed by Carol A. Padden, University of California, San Diego Through American history, the deaf community has lived in the shadow of questions about the language they use, American Sign Language (ASL): Should deafpeople sign? Wouldn't itbe better if they spoke English? Questions like these permeate almost every aspect of deaf people's lives, from the schools their parents choose for them to the friends they choose to spend their time with. Douglas Baynton argues in his book that these questions emerged most prominently, and perhaps most dangerously, in the period between the end ofthe Civil War and about 1920. At that moment, the country underwent a broad intellectual and thematic shift, exposing new tensions and new conflicts . One battle would pit advocates of sign language against advocates of the teaching of speech to deaf children in a long drawn-out battle that has yet to end. America first began educating its deaf children at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As part ofalarge impulse ofinstitution building that wouldbring new hospitals, public school systems, and prisons to the emerging America, the first schools for the deaf were founded in Connecticut, NewYork, andPennsylvania during 1814-1820. AttheConnecticut school, the directorsemployed a deafFrench educator who brought the sign language ofhis former school in Paris to the American school. This language commingled with the indigenous sign languages ofthe area and became the basis of the national sign language that exists today in the United States. For the most part, the presence of sign language in these early schools was not problematic. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, the sentiment began to shift. The book is a carefully constructed history explaining why and how sign language became an issue and a problem. It is also a very good history of a greater event: the nation's changing ideas about humans and their symbolic capacity. The introduction begins with definitions for the reader: of deafness itself, of sign language, and of the people who use it. In contemporary terms, deaf signers constitute a community and share a culture, but this vocabulary of cultures and communities is very recent, used only in the last 30 years. The novel vocabulary is made possible by ideas that emerged in the 1960s which broadened the traditional concepts of culture and cultural behavior. B explains that by the traditional definition of culture, deaf people represent an odd case. Very few deaf signers are bom to parents who sign; only approximately 10% of all deaf children have deaf parents. Most deaf children are born to parents who do not expect deafness in their family and have no prior cultural contact with sign language. As a result, cultural transmission is largely intragenerational rather than intergenerational, that is, most deaf children learn sign language from peers or adults not their own parents. Further, though deafness may occur by genetic transmission, which it has in common with ethnicity, it also manifests itself in illnesses such as spinal meningitis and other childhood diseases common at the tum of this century. It is this dual cause of the condition that makes a definition of deafness slippery. Before 1960, definitions focused on deafness as an affliction ofthe senses; today definitions also refer to deafness as it expresses itself in the cultures and societies of deaf people. The prominence of one or the other type of definition, or even a mix of the two, is a matter of cultural construction, B explains. Deafness is not simply a condition of the senses; it is also a way of life including, of course, the use of a sign language. As he lays the foundation for the emergence of what is called the 'manualist-oralist debate', B asks: Since there is evidence that the seeds of the oralist position were present at least through the early part of American history, why did it take so long for oralism to take hold, and how was it able to become so dominant by the end of the century? The short answer is that the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-0665
Print ISSN
0097-8507
Pages
pp. 120-123
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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