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s you may already have known, I’m a History Major at Chapman University right now.  I’m allowed to do my Senior Thesis on any historical topic that I want (best news ever, by the way), so I have chosen to become a Deaf Historian for the next year-and-a-half!  I’m studying the National Association of the Deaf films that were made between 1910 and 1920 in an effort to preserve sign language.  So far, it’s been fascinating.  I haven’t been able to get my hands on all the films yet, but I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to soon.  They’re all at the Gallaudet University archives, along with all the correspondence of NAD President George Veditz.  It also looks like a school-sponsored trip to the Gallaudet archives might be in the cards for me.  Super exciting!

So, as part of my task to get rolling on this subject, I had to create an essay on how others have studied that topic in the past.  It’s ten pages long, and heavily footnoted (Yikes!).  I’ve included the intro down below, because I think it really gives a lot of info on the background of the films that’s fun, and also super interesting.  I always say to take my stuff with a grain of salt, because it’s not particularly well-researched, but you can take this one as well-researched fact.  I’ll paste the footnotes at the bottom.  I’ll also post the whole essay at some point, but I want to make it easy for those who don’t want to wade through a ten page essay on historic theory to skip.  🙂  Here it is!

George Veditz and the National Association for the Deaf Films

            In 1880 in Milan, Italy, the International Congress on Education for the Deaf voted to ban the use of sign language in Deaf[1] schools. [2]  Spurred by the rhetoric of Alexander Graham Bell, known to most Americans as the inventor of the telephone, American Deaf schools flocked to comply with the Milan Conference’s decision.  In return, a movement was spawned by Deaf community leaders advocating sign language instruction, fiercely hanging onto the culture they had fought so hard to create.  Still, it looked as if the Deaf were losing this fight as Alexander Graham Bell, a follower of eugenics, tried to convince everyone that the Deaf were forming their own separate race.  Even those who didn’t subscribe to eugenics “demanded the elimination of sign language, believing that it undermined English language acquisition and promoted deaf separatism.” [3]  In the end, deaf people would have to live in a hearing world, they argued, and they should have the skills to deal with that fact. Science has since proved what Deaf people knew all along, that this theory does not work in practicality.  Keeping sign language away from deaf people keeps all language away from deaf people, and can be harmful to cognitive development.[4]  Still, it looked as if sign might become extinct in the near future.

This is the climate in which the National Association of the Deaf, under President George Veditz, decided to make several films for the preservation of Sign Language.  “The N.A.D… has collected a fund of $5,000, called the Moving Picture Fund.” Veditz wrote, “…I am sorry that it is not $20,000.”[5]  With such a limited budget, Veditz and the NAD Board had to decide carefully which signers they would film and what subjects they would cover.  Ultimately, the films they chose to make tended to center on Deaf history, American patriotism, and religion[6].  Eighteen films were made in all, from the years 1913-1920, but only fourteen of these survived to the modern age.[7]  The loss of 4 films was due in large part to their heavy use by the Deaf community, and the poorly trained film operators responsible for winding the machines.

The films were made by pointing a static camera at the signers and having them lecture to it.  Often, small amounts of scenery such as vases and curtains were placed in the background for visual effect.  Because of the black and white picture and the poor resolution of the film, signers had to make sure they produced their signs large and signed slowly so everyone could see them.  After a few mistakes, most notably the film showing Edward Minter Gallaudet’s lecture – a retelling of Lorna Doone – filmmakers were also careful to place the lecturers on plain, dark backgrounds so their hands would show up easily.[8]  These films compared favorably with other films of the time in technical skill and appearance.

Once the films were completed, they were circulated throughout the United States to local Deaf Clubs.  These clubs would often couple the film screening with live entertainment, making each screening a huge event in the local Deaf community.  Large groups of signers would congregate in the hall downtown to see the films.  Sometimes, requests were made for the NAD to send transcripts of the films that could be read for any hearing visitors in the audience.  Although Veditz’s film, featuring his impassioned plea for sign language is the best known today, it was E.M. Gallaudet’s film that was most requested when the films were released, despite the difficult background of his film.[9]  This was probably due to the popularity of E.M. Gallaudet’s father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.  T.H. Gallaudet had been instrumental in forming the first school for the Deaf, in Hartford, Connecticut.

Although the films had a major impact on the Deaf community when they were first produced, scholarship on them has been spotty at best.  Many books cover the topic, but devote no more than a few pages to the exploration of the history of these films.  Some give no more than a brief mention to Veditz’s films as being the precursor to modern Sign Language recording.  This paper attempts to explore in greater detail not only the motives behind George Veditz’s creation of these films, and how these films influenced deaf culture as a whole, but also why the topic hasn’t been better covered by Deaf Historians.

That’s it for now.  I hope you enjoyed! 🙂  Also, a link to Veditz’s film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XITbj3NTLUQ


[1] The deaf community uses the term “Deaf” with a capital D to denote the segment of deaf people who consider themselves culturally deaf.  This separates them from other groups such as the elderly, who may experience total hearing loss, but hardly identify with the Deaf as a community.  I feel it is important to make this designation in the language Deaf people use about themselves, and have continued this practice throughout the paper.

[2] Daniel Eagan, America’s Film Legacy, (The Continuum Publishing Group: New York, 2012), Page 11

[3] Signs of Resistance, Page 3

[4] Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf, (University of California Press: Berkley, 1990), Page 54

[5] Eagan, America’s Film Legacy, Page 11

[6] Susan Burch, Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History 1900-WWII, (New York University Press: New York, 2002), Page 58

[7] Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture, (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 2005), Page 58

[8] Padden and Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture, Page 63

[9] Padden and Humphries, inside Deaf Culture, (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 2005), Page 63

Alexander_Graham_Bell_Biography 180px-Alexander_Graham_Bell_and_family 225px-Alexander_Graham_Bell

ASLIt happens with every American icon, the fathers of progress, the day you realize that they weren’t perfect, that they had troubles in life too.  Some of them you also realize weren’t exactly good people either.  Walt Disney hired a lot of women specifically so he could pay them less, Henry Ford was anti-Semitic, and Alexander Graham Bell was heavily into Eugenics, to name a few.  I grew up hearing about all the wonderful things Alexander Graham Bell did for society, and it can’t be denied that he was a brilliant inventor who gave us the Telephone, among other things.  He looks like such a benevolent friend in his old black and white photos, his eyes twinkling, his bushy beard lying Santa-like on his collar with his smiling family surrounding him.  Add all this up with the fact that he started a Deaf school and you start to think he was a truly great man who was a wonderful advocate for the Deaf, however  the reality lies burried deeper in the facade of his perfect-on-paper existence.  Most Deaf people today think of Alexander Graham Bell as the less evil, American version of Hitler who decimated the cultural advances of Deaf people for decades.  So, which version is true?  A little of both.

At first glance, Alec (as his family called him) looks like he should be a great Deaf advocate.  Alec’s mother was deaf, and this made a huge impression on him.  He would sit near her when they had company and fingerspell to her so she knew what was going on, and he started his experiments in sound after he realized that she could feel the vibrations of his speech when he talked into her forehead.  Speech and sound was also the family business: Alec’s uncles and father were all Elocutionists, and his father had invented Bell’s Visible Speech, a set of phonetic characters by which it was thought that Deaf people would be able to learn to speak quickly and easily.  The family toured Europe, America, and Canada promoting Bell’s Visible Speech, which was later found to not work very well.  Still, Alec capitalized on his family’s association with Deaf people and founded a Deaf school in Boston which focused only on the Oral method.  He took private pupils as well and married one of them, Mabel Hubbard, with whom he had 2 gorgeous little girls, both hearing.  A well known figure in the Deaf community, Alec even had a book dedicated to him by Helen Keller.  Doesn’t he seem like the perfect Deaf advocate?

The truth is a little more complicated.  In reality, Alec’s mother was a woman who couldn’t admit to being deaf.  She insisted on being called Hard of Hearing, carried around an ear trumpet, and painstakingly learned to play a piano she couldn’t hear in denial of her deafness. This unfortunate attitude probably colored Alec’s perspective of deaf ideas, making him think that all deaf people felt badly about being that way and wanted to be hearing, a false idea still perpetuated today.  By insisting on using the oral method only in his school Alec created a situation in which the Deaf were as isolated from each other as they were from the hearing world.  He would sometimes have children’s hands tied behind their backs for hours if they continued to communicate in the only way they knew how, by signing.  Worse still, his foray into Eugenics produced a heap of debilitating ideas about Deafness that are still in widespread use 100 years later.  Alec railed against America letting in “undesirable foreigners” to procreate with the perfect American race, and insisted that English be made the national language, even at the expense of Sign Language which he claimed was not a real language anyway.  Though Alec didn’t promote forced sterilization himself, he belonged to plenty of organizations that did.  Instead, he  advocated for Deaf people being kept completely apart from one another.  He reasoned that if they could never meet, they would never marry, and would not have Deaf children.  The myth that most Deaf people have Deaf children is another one of the misconceptions still being refuted today.  I always feel a little melancholy for Alec’s deaf wife Mabel.  She must have lived a completely solitary existence, ensconced in her hearing family, denying her deafness.  Alec’s invention of the Telephone only made things worse for Deaf people.  He suddenly had an enormous pulpit of fame and influence from which to shout his damaging ideas, and he made sure to do it.  His ideas ushered in an era in which sign language was almost lost, Deaf people were isolated from each other, and many were denied employment. 

If you asked Alexander Graham Bell if he was a friend or a foe, undoubtedly he would have said friend.  He thought that he was providing deaf people with an important opportunity to be more like hearing people, even though it was something they didn’t want.  I’m sure he also would argue that his Eugenic ideas, if not popular, were at least creating a stronger human race.  While his intentions may have been harmless, there is no denying the damage he did to deaf equality for more than 100 years.  The ideas that deaf people can be easily taught to speak, that they almost always have deaf children, that they don’t want to be deaf, and that American Sign Language isn’t really a language, are all myths that were started by Bell and are still believed by a vast amount of hearing people.  The myths he perpetuated and the quest he started to keep deaf people from each other clearly place Alexander Graham Bell in the foe category.  I personally think deaf people are right to abhor everything Bell stands for, and I think if more hearing people knew about the negative impact he had on deaf society, they would abhor that too.  Perhaps being raised in the family business of Elocution made it inevitable that Bell would be on the wrong side of the issue.  It’s sad he couldn’t put aside his preconceived notions and listen to the deaf community all around him.

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