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Part 1: How to begin a Deaf History and Culture


In this part, we will introduce the idea of history of deafness. Most of this history has been based on the writings of hearing people. As well as these general papers and books, there are many writings by medical people and by educators - in most cases, they were trying to prove a point in relation to improving the situation of deaf people. They spoke about deaf people’s need to be part of the whole world - the world where all of the normal people lived. Other hearing people tried to learn about deaf people first. It is sometimes hard to know which group is which.

A number of basic points have to be made:

In this section, we will cover the accounts which are based on the hearing perspective and only a little of what is in the recent texts written by Lane e.g. Fischer and Lane(1993) or by Jackson (1990). We will gradually make a new account of the story and attempt to understand what they said about deaf people. The course is all about understanding historical sources and finding a way for deaf people to use the sources.

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History - So What?

One of the first things to do is to find out what you know about history in the UK.

This is a history which is in the past - the roots of our society. This is the story of war and migration and laws and languages. It is what we most commonly think of as school history. Each country tells the history differently, even when it covers the same time period. As time moves on the account of history develops and changes to fit our current views. We need to be consistent and it is this which shapes our view of history. There has to be a consistent story - a view of the past which is reflected in what we do in the present. There are some key elements in this history - key events - key dates.

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Activity: Here are some examples. Write down the answers. The answers will be at the end of the section. Give yourself ten minutes maximum.

  1. Who fought in the Civil War in England and when was it ? (3)
  2. When did Britain join the EEC? (1)
  3. Where did Bonnie Prince Charlie reach when he invaded England? (1)
  4. When did the Romans invade Britain - 1st century, 3rd century or 5th century? (1)
  5. What was the War of the Roses? (1)
  6. Which King died in the Battle in 1066? (1)
  7. Who was in the Gunpowder Plot? (1)
  8. What did the Fire of London get rid of? (1)
  9. In which War was Florence Nightingale famous? (1)
  10. Who was the Prime Minister during the Suez crisis? (1)
  11. Who was Genghis Khan and what did he do? (2)
  12. In which country was Hitler born? (1)
  13. In which countries were these people famous? Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Nelson Mandela, Mussolini, William Wallace, Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Ghandi, Martin Luther King. (10)
  14. What did the following people discover? John Cabot, Marco Polo, Captain Cook, Christopher Columbus. (4)
  15. What was the Berlin Wall?

These are the sort of questions which appear in the GCSE history course and would be answered by pupils aged 14 or 15 years. How many did you get right?

Deaf people often get low scores in this. Why should it be? Usually it is because of the teaching they received at school and because of the fact that most books are hard to read. However, if deaf people are supposed to be part of English culture, they really should know the answers. Something is going wrong. If the point of education is to ensure that deaf people are full members of society then they should be able to explain some of the history of their own country. But it is rarely the case that deaf people are comfortable with the questions on history. We can compare the situation of deaf people to that of other minority groups but there are differences.

a. Other minority groups do at least, have access to the English history which they are taught.
b. Other minority groups are often able to organise their own meetings and to teach themselves about their own history and culture.
c. Other minority groups usually have a homeland where they are in the majority. In that case they have a strong historical base, even when there has been oppressions.
d. Other minorities have parents who come from that minority and there are usually family links to the homeland.

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Activity: Stop for a moment and write down the names of three other minority groups in the UK and check whether all four points (a-d) apply and then compare this situation to deaf people.

You will find that this is broadly true. Deaf people are a different sort of minority who do not have the advantages of the other minorities.

The questions about history which you worked on, seem to give the flat view of history, where the dates are more important than the experiences of people. Nevertheless, they are part of our heritage. They give meaning to our living in this country, rather than somewhere else. They are a source of nationalism and the root of our culture. But do deaf people know the answers to these questions? If not, does it mean that deaf people are excluded from this sense of identity and nationalism. Yes it does, in many ways. But not completely.

Often people see history only in the flat form - where it consists of a chronological account of what has happened in the world. Most people through this, think of history as something which is known and factual. History in school used to teach people the dates of events and used to present a single account -

Scotland invaded England in 1745 and marched as far south as Derby. London prepared for occupation as its armies were unable to create defensive positions in time. Surprisingly, the Scots turned and went home and as a result lost the war, in a terrible battle at Culloden.

This all seems true because that is our conventional account of this part of history. However, we have to understand from where the information came.

Was it an eye witness?
Was it someone in government - a politician?
Remember that each reporter adds some of his or her own account.
Remember that ach has access to different information.

As a result history is different according to the sources which you use.

Although we often trust the people who write down our history, we should still know that it is biased in some way. People report the things which they think are most interesting or most important at the time (it can change if the priority changes). They usually miss out the features which are embarrassing or which show themselves in a bad light. When people deliberately try to distort the picture, it is called propaganda. In wartime, this happens a lot. It happens in deaf history as well.

All of this is to say that deaf people’s history has been written by those who have a particular view and so not surprisingly it is built around the institutions which hearing people created to deal with the problem of deafness - hospital and schools. We will talk about these in the next part of the course.

History is not fixed. There are some factual details which we can use and there is always the possibility to use dates, but most of the time we are dealing with people’s views. It is just as reasonable to have deaf views as it is to have hearing views. Deaf people can begin to record their own history. This is starting to happen.

In the second part of the course we are going to look at these accounts. There are many names and dates to deal with which will come up in the exam.

For now, you should try to be clear on the way a history is presented and you should realise that some parts are missing and other parts are altered slightly. You should look at the account of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, which is in the additional material. Try to work out how accurate it might be and try to think about what it shows about this person’s life.

When it comes to the analysis of historical information, we have to consider whether the eye witness is unbiased and then as we move away from the eye witness, we want to know how the researcher has used his sources. History is abut sources and trying to use them. There are sources like old people, like books written at the time and there are other media such as newspapers and radio recordings. All can be taken into account, but we need to understand how each source is influenced by people’s attitudes and expectations.

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This course was prepared by
Centre for Deaf Studies
1997 Centre for Deaf Studies
University of Bristol

This course was funded under
the FORUM Project
in the EU Horizon Programme