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Introduction to Deaf History & Culture


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In this course, you will examine the background to deafness today and you will consider the position of deaf people in the world today. People still claim today that technology and medicine are the ways to make it easy for deaf people to be part of society. But all these efforts are doomed to failure if people in general, do not understand deafness and deaf people. This understanding begins when deaf people themselves have a sense of their own history and culture. But deaf people often have no real knowledge of their own history. Do you?

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Try writing down the most important event in deaf history. What is it?

Many people will choose the conference of Milan (but that was a hearing event which excluded deaf people). Others might choose the setting up of the BDA - but do you know when that was, and how it happened? (We will discuss it later). Very few deaf people know about their own history. Sometimes they believe they have no history since they had hearing parents. Many deaf people do not know that there have been famous deaf people in the past. How could this have happened?

Up to now, education, in particular, has worked very hard to deprive deaf people of any realisation of their history and their culture - because they wanted deaf people to just accept that they are part of hearing history. Nowadays, although the language of deaf people is tolerated and sometimes even encouraged, it is still seen as a temporary thing - something which is needed for a short time and as a way of introducing deaf people to the world of the hearing people.

Nowadays we talk about access - the need for access. But access to what? Is it purely the access to the society of hearing people? If so, we need to know why deaf people have been excluded in the first place.

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Is there no world of deaf people and does that world if it exists, have no value? Until very recently, deaf people did not figure in this - that is, no one asked deaf people about this discussion. No one thought it was a good idea to ask deaf people about what they thought about history and culture. In fact, deaf people did not have access to their own history and culture.

So this course is about this history and culture. It has to start by explaining what we mean by history and it will end by exploring culture. The two are connected and the two are distinct from just language. We say this because often deaf people have been fooled into accepting only their language as their common factor. Because of this deaf people have been arguing over what the language is. Is it signed English, or SSE or Pure BSL? In fact, these are cultural arguments. The fact that deaf people are having them, shows the strength of the cultural argument. Deaf people just like every other group, need a deep understanding of their own beginnings and the reasons why they have developed in the way they have. They need to know about the community and the characteristics of themselves and others, which go beyond labels and hearing losses, and which reflect the experiences and histories of all deaf people. This is what this course will deal with.

There are three main themes in the course:

The course will consist of a number of notes in five parts and when you have part of it in Bristol, you will also have discussions, practical work. You should also aim to have visits and explorations, and study and thinking at home. As the field is so new, it is important that each person taking this course, contributes more to the knowledge of deafness. We hope that the history which it will create can be stored for use with future classes.

The aim is to collect historical data and to use it to build a picture of different aspects of the deaf experience. The main part of the course is really outside of the classes and outside of these notes. Each member of the group is expected to meet with deaf people, to conduct their own historical research and to present it in a form which the others can use - ie in BSL. This is live history rather than the history which is given to you in books. In the field of deafness, there has been only a limited amount of history available, and so it is necessary for you to begin to create it.

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For some of your work in the course you will work in a groups of 5 or 6. The second part of the assessment will require you to research a story and to produce a live performance which illustrates a particular story of a person or an event in deaf history. You can do this individually or as part of a group and present it on video. If you are in a group, all members of the group will have to participate and the group will receive a score based on the research carried out and how good the overall presentation is.

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The sections in the course will have written and video content and discussions; there will also be reading to be done by you at home or in the library. You can start with the Chapter 3 in Kyle and Woll (1985) for some aspects of the history. You should also read sections of Lane’s books on deaf history and especially Fischer and Lane (1993) Looking Back, Hamburg: Signum Press, which has articles from many countries. You will find Peter Jackson’s book, Britain’s Deaf Heritage, Edinburgh: Pentland Press, very useful and important for the history exam.

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There are these course notes for you to work on. There will also be video recordings which relate to the notes and these videotapes are very important to your revision. There will also be an questions appendix which will show you a range of questions which you can work on. Try to work on these at a regular time. You will find all the answers in the course notes but you have to work them out for yourself. The exam will be in a similar format (multiple choice questions) and there are examples of previous examinations in the questions appendix. We hope also to give you notes separately for the video recordings.

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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