Words Made Flesh

Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture

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Rebecca Edwards, associate professor and chair of the history department, explores 19th-century deaf culture in her book, Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture.

During the early 19th century, schools for the deaf appeared in the United States for the first time. These schools were committed to the use of sign language to educate deaf students. Manual education made the growth of the deaf community possible, for it gathered deaf people together in sizable numbers for the first time in American history. It also fueled the emergence of deaf culture, as the schools became agents of cultural transformation.

Just as the deaf community began to be recognized as a minority culture in the 1850s, a powerful movement arose to undo it, namely oral education. Advocates of oral education, deeply influenced by the writings of public school pioneer Horace Mann, argued that deaf students should stop signing and should start speaking in the hope that the deaf community would be abandoned and its language and culture would vanish.

Words Made Flesh explores the educational battles of the 19th century from both hearing and deaf points of view. It places the growth of the deaf community at the heart of the story of deaf education and explains how the unexpected emergence of deaf culture provoked the pedagogical battles that dominated the field of deaf education in the 19th century, and still reverberate today.

“A pediatric audiologist commented that ‘children who learn language through hearing have much better language than most children who learn using ASL.’ To read such comments is to be reminded that even today, deaf people face linguistic prejudice from hearing teachers and doctors,” Edwards says. “My hope is that exploring the history of these bad ideas will help to dispel them at last. As historians, we need to make clear the positive power of ASL in the life of the deaf community and set the record straight.”

“Certainly at RIT, a campus with so many deaf and hard-of-hearing students, we are obligated to understand and explore deaf history in a serious way, to better serve our deaf students,” Edwards adds. “We should also encourage our hearing students to take advantage of the opportunity of living in a deaf place like Rochester to learn more about deaf people, their culture and their history.”