he turn of the 20th century has long been looked at as the low point for Deaf society and culture. The rise of oral-only schooling, the popularity of eugenics, and the death of inspirational community leaders all spelled a perfect storm for the Deaf community of the time. Many believe that the rights and freedoms Deaf people lost are just barely returning today. Susan Birch, however, lays out a different argument in her book, Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History 1900 to World War II. Birch claims that despite the outward appearance of failure, this time period led to the solidification of a Deaf identity and community, directly leading to the greater rights the Deaf have achieved today. Birch shows this solidification first through the rise of the Oralism vs. Manualism debate, then through the emergence of Deaf clubs and athletic associations, and lastly through the changing legal rights of the Deaf community. Through everything, Birch shows how the community’s positions solidified their cultural heritage, and enabled the Deaf to improve their lives.
Birch starts with the Oralism vs. Manualism debate, an argument about whether Deaf people should speak or sign. The Deaf community was staunchly on the Manualism side, insisting that sign language was good for Deaf people, and did not separate them from mainstream society. Films were made touting the importance of sign and ridiculing those on the other side of the debate, pamphlets were printed to educate hearing people on the wants of the Deaf community, and speeches were made and printed in newspapers across the country. Although Oral-only education swept across America and many teachers of the Deaf who were also Deaf lost their jobs, Sign Language persisted. Children that could not sign in class would sign in their dorms, and often joined a community of signing Deaf once they had left school.
As Eugenics became popular across the country, Deaf people became extremely conscious of their public image. To combat the idea of the Deaf as a disabled community that was weakening the Human Race, Deaf leaders focused on the vast athletic traditions that pervaded the Deaf community as a whole. Deaf athletic associations were established in large numbers all across the country. The images they produced of hearty Americans at the peak of health were circulated everywhere, carefully staged to refute the idea of the Deaf as a genetically inferior race. Confronted with these images, Deaf community leaders felt that it would be difficult to argue that the Deaf should not be allowed to marry each other, or be subject to other Eugenically-minded laws that were being pushed by the general public.
Athletic organizations ultimately led to the formation of social clubs for the Deaf. These places were the hubs of their community, offering the latest news, Deaf-friendly entertainment, and alcoholic beverages to unwind after work. The clubs featured big events on the weekends, such as plays, movie screenings, and even dances. By the end of the 1940’s they were the center of the Deaf world in the cities they occupied, and were also frequently the only deaf-owned establishments in town, creating positive feelings of self-sufficiency and affluence for the entire community. These were small oasis’s where Deaf people were not a linguistic minority, and they did not have to work to understand or make themselves understood. Such gathering places allowed the Deaf a space in which to feel empowered, and where they could organize themselves and work toward common goals.
At the same time social organizations were being formed, so were legal ones. The National Association of the Deaf was founded during the early 1900s, and its mission was to fight for the legal rights of Deaf people all over the country. The NAD had a noble goal, but many in the Deaf community did not support the organization at first. Thrust out of white collar jobs by Oralism, the majority of Deaf gained employment in blue collar industries. Those at the head of the NAD were a minority within a minority; wealthy, well educated men who had been lucky enough to be able to pay for a college education. The rest of the working class Deaf community felt that this elite group could not possibly understand them or the rights they needed. Couple this inherent mistrust with organizational problems, and public opinion of the NAD sank extremely low. Once the group was able to solidify itself it was able to pass many state laws protecting the rights of the Deaf, such as laws prohibiting hearing beggars to pose as Deaf, and laws protecting the rights of Deaf people to marry. Consequently, it became more popular and a fixture of the Deaf community it was working for.
In the rise of the infrastructure of Deaf organization, we can clearly see Birch’s thesis emerge. She argues that, although Deaf people were struggling to hold onto their culture and language, they were also creating places from which they could organize and take on the world for the rights they wished for themselves. Burch’s thesis is well thought out and well executed, and the evidence she gives strongly supports her claims. It is clear that, although Deaf activism did not spread throughout America until the 1980’s, we can see the seeds of it here in the early 1900s. Without these early years of organization, Deaf people may not have achieved the many rights they enjoy today.