At the moment, I'm working on a contemporary story that involves a deaf hero. It should have been a simple story, but it evolved into something much larger. So what does contemporary have to do with historical? Well, lots of things and nothing. Maybe it's what my brain does with information. Curiosity got me, and I started studying the history of deafness and Deaf schooling to see what once was and how it became what it is today.
Sign language has existed forever! The Deaf have congregated and formed communities since almost the beginning of time. Schools for the Deaf have existed for several hundred years in Europe. They were established to teach Deaf children so that their souls could be saved, which was the main reason for all schooling back then. Soon it became obvious that the Deaf could learn anything. They only needed the opportunity to be educated.
In the seventeen hundreds, a French priest, Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee, observed two children using sign language to communicate. He then realized there were about 200 people in Paris who used very similar signs. If they could communicate, then they could be taught the Bible. He established the first public school for the Deaf. Translated to English, the school's name was the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes. As children came from all over France, he began to realize the need to create a standardized manual system for them. And he created the langage de signes méthodiques. Today that is referred to as Old French Sign Language. He didn't invent it. He merely shaped it. His methods for teaching the Deaf by using their manual language spread across Europe. (Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris still exists, but its name has changed slightly over the years.)
In the United States, it was observed that deafness tended to be prevalent in certain areas. Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts was one such area. It is believed that some of the first settlers of that area in the 1690's were deaf. In a time when people lived, worked, played, and married within an area, there was barely a family there that was not affected by deafness. They all communicated using a sign language that evolved within the community. And being that they all "spoke" that sign language, no one ever saw a difference between the hearing and the non-hearing population. It was never considered a disability or in any way looked upon as different or a problem.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet graduated from Yale and went on to a seminary with the idea of becoming a minister. After his ordainment, he met Alice Cogswell the deaf child of a neighbor. While watching her play, he decided he wanted to teach her. Her father Dr. Mason Cogswell, offered to send Gallaudet to Europe to learn how the schools there were teaching the Deaf. The short version of a long story is in Paris, France, Gallaudet met Laurent Clerc, a teacher at that famous school for the Deaf. Gallaudet convinced the man to come to the United States and teach our Deaf students.
It took awhile to raise the necessary funds to create a school, but in 1816, they did, and within a year the school was founded. Little Alice Cogswell was one of the first seven students at the
|Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb courtesy of American School for the Deaf|
Deafness is a genetic roulette that has yet to be decoded. There are numerous genes and mutated genes known to cause deafness. Most children who are born deaf come from hearing parents. And many more will lose their hearing as a result of injuries, etc. So what happened in the 1800's when a child was born deaf or became deaf in a remote area of our west?
Life was pretty bleak for such a child. The majority of the families populating our west were trying to eek out a living. They couldn't afford to send a child off to a Deaf school in some big city. Chances are the local schoolteacher or schoolmarm had no clue how to teach a deaf child. So the child stayed home and watched siblings go to school. They learned to do basic chores, and in general, survive. Unfortunately if they couldn't hear, they probably never learned to speak. But the odds were the child could have spoken if he or she had been taught.
For many settlers of our west, schools and schooling didn’t exist. Lucky were the children born to educated parents who taught their children to read, write, and do simple arithmetic. It was more important for them to learn how to mend a fence, plow a field, birth a foal, or fix a meal beyond a can of beans. Today we think nothing of a school that contains 1000 or more students, but in the 1860’s,Wyoming Territory’s entire population was barely 2000 people. Even bringing in someone to teach was a huge financial responsibility. In small towns lucky enough to maintain an educated minister, that man usually functioned as a teacher, and an undertaker. A school might consist of four to ten students depending on the local population. Chances are that teacher never saw a deaf student.
So the odds are there that the Wyoming Territory and other such places contained some Deaf, but there were no records I could find of a community of Deaf or even people who were deaf within the general population. (That doesn't mean they didn't exist.) In an area where the survival of that child might depend on the child's ability to hear, and the number of children who died as a result of accidents, or diseases or fevers that today are treatable or all together prevented, it's almost impossible to discover if any Deaf children existed in our untamed west. Especially when anyone different was hidden. Such a child probably would have brought shame upon the family. It leaves me pondering those magical what-if questions that roam through the heads of authors.
But what if… And what sort of teaching might that child have if that child would be lucky enough to receive any? And if that child were sent away, which school would he or she attend?
|The Alphabet & Numbers Used for Fingerspelling|
Using one's hands to speak was considered animalistic. That gave rise to Oralism in the Deaf schools. The push was for these children to communicate verbally to the point that they were punished for using their hands to communicate. The Connecticut school and its "little sibling" Gallaudet, in Washington, D.C., stressed the use of all means to communicate and advocated American Sign Language, which is considered to be Manualism. Many well-known people, such as Alexander Graham Bell, were opposed Manualism as it seemed primitive. Schools that used Oralism sprang up in several major cities.
Would a child educated in one of the Deaf schools return to the west? Would the child be accepted? Or would that child grow up and stay within the Deaf community of school friends? What future did that child have, especially a female in the west? These are just a few of the questions that have run through my mind.
It would take until 1960's before American Sign Language was a respected language. We've come a long way since those first few schools. Deafness is random and no different than having jade-green eyes or platinum blonde hair. It's taken us many years to understand that.
And in case you are wondering… Yes, Deaf with a capitol D, the same as German or French. The Deaf have their own identity and take pride in their deafness. They are a unique and often close-knit group, but also a very eclectic group. When referring to deafness as a medical term, the lower-case d is used with the word deaf.
Do you know American Sign Language (ASL)? Or do you at least have the ability to fingerspell? Is there someone you know who is Deaf?