Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Silence by E. Ayers

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

Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, later to be renamed the American School for the Deaf (ASD). It is the oldest continuous school for the Deaf in the USA. The next fifty years saw quite a few schools for the Deaf established. Including what has now come to be known as Gallaudet University in the Washington, DC area. When it was founded in 1856, Gallaudet's son, Edward Miner Gallaudet became the school's first superintendent. (Cobbs School in Virginia was the first school formed for the Deaf, but closed its doors almost immediately.)
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?


  1. I took a class in American Sign Language but I did not learn well. When my mother-in-law went to help her sister during a difficult pregnancy, my mother-in-law learned sign language from her sister's neighbor in a very short time. My niece learned ASL to assist Deaf in a California school and also signed at her church's services. Although the world is friendlier now to the Deaf, lack of hearing is still a problem. My husband went deaf in one ear and almost deaf in the other after a virus attacked his ears.

    1. I'm so sorry about your hubby's hearing loss. Almost half of our population over the age of 60 is deaf. And it's estimated to be as many as 33 million hearing impaired which means some hearing loss to total silence. He's not alone.

  2. Wow, Elizabeth, you really did a lot of research for this post. It must have been torture for deaf children to watch siblings go off to school while the deaf child didn't even understand the concept of schooling. Today's deaf may have a tough time, but it can't be nearly as bad as in the old days.

    1. Can you imagine sending your child to a deaf school? Unless you live near such a school, that child goes to a boarding school. Most parents I know have had a hard enough time putting a little one on a school bus. Can you imagine taking them to a boarding school? Yet those children will ask to go and love it, because they make friends there who speak the same language. The children who are mainstreamed feel isolated.

  3. The Texas School for the Deaf in a huge campus in Austin, Texas is the oldest public school in Texas. It houses and teaches primary and secondary deal children. It started in 1857 and is still going strong. Here in San Marcos, there is a housing area strictly for deaf couples/families. Most of older or elderly people. I often see a couple or more in the supermarket, and it's fascinating to watch them communicate about, say, a can of green beans.
    I personally know one family with a deaf daughter--born deaf--married, had three children. She attended a boarding school for the deaf in Tulsa, Okla.
    Thanks for your wonderful research.

    1. It really is a beautiful language, and lovely to watch - like a ballet with the hands. Historically it's been compared to the pantomimes who entertained the ancient Romans, which is probably why it fell in disfavor and considered animalistic and pagan. (Obviously way to primitive for "modern" man, besides animal gesture to each other. Totally stupid!) It is a very full rich language, and someday I'll learn enough of it to not make a total fool of myself.

  4. Gee, Celia, why didn't you proof read your post?
    Signed: Celia

    1. We all discover those mistakes after we push send. :-)

  5. about the deaf, E. I took sign language at college and learned so much about the culture around those who are deaf. They have their own special jokes expressed in sign language that are only funny if you understand sign language. Our instructors (2 of them--one who was married to a deaf man and the other whose parents were both deaf) also shared with us what it was like for deaf people, how they didn't feel people paid attention to what they were trying to say and often felt hearing people thought they were stupid.
    I learned how to curse in sign language. It's much more polite than cursing out loud.
    It is such a physical language. It is amazing how, even those of us who can hear and speak, convey our thoughts to others by gestures and facial expression. Humans are going to get their point across some how, some way. LOL
    Great post, E!


    1. Thanks, Sarah. The Deaf are just like anyone else, the difference is they don't hear and they have their own language. It has nothing to do with intelligence. We are the idiots who are not bilingual.

      I have a scene in my WIP where the hero's little sister is flashing "negative" signs at the heroine when she doesn't think anyone is looking. The little sis is jealous of her brother's girlfriend. And my heroine is trying to so hard to learn to communicate. She goofs a few signs and signs something else that she didn't mean.

      Today the Deaf are lucky that they are recognized and given so many more opportunities for education, etc. But I find it amazing how many parents don't learn to sign to their children who are deaf. :-(

  6. Your post is fascinating, E. I have no doubt it took many hours of research. My son knows a little sign language. It isn't only amazing, but cruel for a parent not to be able to communicate with a deaf child. How is the child to learn unless sent to a school for the deaf? Still, once they are back at home, no one can speak with him/her. My husband's aunt adopted a child with heart problems, then later adopted a deaf child. There is great love between the entire family and none of them treat the deaf child any different than the other. I can't wait to read your book!

    1. Thanks, Carol. Looking back in time was just a little side trip I took as I researched various things for the contemporary story. But those little side trips tangle me into their web.

      What a wonderful big heart your husband's aunt has. Cheers for your son for knowing ASL! Thank you so much for stopping by.


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