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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 schools.  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.”  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. 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.” 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. Eighteen films were made in all, from the years 1913-1920, but only fourteen of these survived to the modern age. 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. 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. 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
 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.
 Daniel Eagan, America’s Film Legacy, (The Continuum Publishing Group: New York, 2012), Page 11
 Signs of Resistance, Page 3
 Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf, (University of California Press: Berkley, 1990), Page 54
 Eagan, America’s Film Legacy, Page 11
 Susan Burch, Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History 1900-WWII, (New York University Press: New York, 2002), Page 58
 Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture, (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 2005), Page 58
 Padden and Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture, Page 63
 Padden and Humphries, inside Deaf Culture, (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 2005), Page 63
etty G. Miller was born in 1934, and her parents were both Deaf. Betty had two older brothers who were hearing, so everyone just assumed that Betty was too, especially because she could clearly hear a little bit. It was a surprise to everyone in her family when she attended Kindergarten for the first time and was diagnosed as Hard of Hearing. This threw her family for a loop. Remembering all the prejudice and oppression they had experienced at the hands of hearing people, Betty’s parents decided that they wanted her to make the most use of whatever hearing she had. This is why they made the surprising decision to send her to Bell School in Chicago – a school known for Oralistic practices. Later, Betty’s parents took her out of Bell School and switched her into a regular mainstream school. But the mainstream school didn’t have speech therapy, so Betty went to still another school in the evenings to be tutored in speech.
Betty did the best she could at these schools, and was a very successful student. She got her degree in Art Education from Pennsylvania State University , but it wasn’t until she started to teach at Gallaudet University that things seemed to click for her. She finally felt the sense of belonging that she had missed out on in her mainstream school career. Betty’s art focused completely on the Deaf experience, depicting the oppression Deaf people face at the hands of hearing, and also exhibiting the joy of sign that can be found throughout the Deaf community. Many of her paintings depict puppet-like deaf people – no doubt a response to all her speech therapy classes. Artwork that focused entirely on the Deaf experience was an entirely new form of artwork in the 1970’s, and came to be called “Deaf View/Image Art.” Or De’VIA Betty was one of the early pioneers of this form of art.
Betty’s first one woman show took place at Gallaudet University in 1972, entitled “The Silent World”. It was so successful, that throughout the 1970s’, she continued to have shows frequently at Gallaudet. They were all very well received. This spurred a series of one woman shows throughout the 1980’s and ‘90’s, and also many collaborative shows with other Deaf artists. In 1993, Betty put on a showcase of eight Deaf artists, which was the largest collection of De’VIA that had ever taken place.
After 13 years of teaching at Gallaudet, Betty decided it was time to move on. After a time touring around the country putting on shows, she became a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor – the first Deaf person to ever do so. This has allowed her to have a rewarding career helping other Deaf people overcome serious addiction problems, and also educating other Drug and Alcohol counselors on how best to work with Deaf people. She has published a book about her and others experiences entitled “Deaf and Sober: Journeys Through Recovery” which she has both authored and illustrated.
Betty is currently in her 80’s. Unfortunately, she has suffered from some memory loss and doesn’t create art very often anymore. When she does, it’s usually in Neon – a medium she discovered in the late 1990’s. Still, her pioneering efforts in the field of De’VIA will always be remembered as some of the greatest contributions of the 20th century art world. Without Betty, the world would be a little less bright and a little less Deaf-aware.
In the late 1600’s, an extended family from Weald, England settled on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in New England. The family carried a strong hereditary deafness gene, and as they married and intermarried, the rate of deaf people born on the island rose steadily. By the 1700’s almost everyone on the island had a deaf family member or two. Because of the high rate of deafness, the society on the island was completely different from mainstream, mainland society.
Mainland New England at this time was generally a terrible place for deaf people to live. Many people believed that deafness was a punishment from God. While the families of deaf children may have developed home signs, mainstream society could not understand these rudimentary signs, usually only good for expressing basic needs and requests, and different from home to home. Scholars debated about whether a deaf person could reason and learn like a hearing person. There were almost no career opportunities for deaf adults. The best they could hope for was to be trained to do manual labor for someone else’s business.
The prospects for deaf people on Martha’s Vineyard were completely different. Many of the former residents of the island were interviewed, and they paint an idyllic picture of what it was like to live in Martha’s Vineyard during this time. Because everyone had a deaf family member, everyone in the community knew sign language. Deaf people were farmers, store clerks, anything they wanted to be. Hearing people would sign to each other over the large expanses the island farms created, a deaf person could walk into a store and the clerk would always know sign. Deaf people were even elected to high political office, becoming mayors and council members for the island, a thing unheard of in the rest of the country. When telling stories about the community, the people who were being interviewed could only remember after much prompting if the people they were talking about were hearing or deaf.
The rare deaf/hearing equality experienced in Martha’s Vineyard is still remarkable today. In a society where hearing people are ignorant about deaf issues and can be very rude, a place like Martha’s Vineyard seems particularly wonderful. The equality that was shared by everyone, and the prejudices about deaf people that didn’t exist, make the little island community seem like the perfect place. Many deaf people consider it the ultimate utopia.
Ironically, the opening of the first deaf school in Hartford, Connecticut was a big reason why the hereditary deafness on the island petered out. Many deaf people from the island attended the school, met and married other deaf people who’s deafness wasn’t hereditary, and lived and had children near the school on the mainland of New England. As more and more of the population moved away, less and less deaf children were born on the island. In 1952, hereditary deafness died on the island with the death of Katie West. Though the community is gone today, it’s signs live on. Children attending the Hartford school mixed their signs in with the French Sign Language Laurent Clerc brought with him from Paris, creating much of the uniquely beautiful American Sign Language that exists today.
he MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grants were announced a few days ago. For those of you who don’t know what this is, the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur foundation gives $500,000.00 to 20-40 Americans who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” These Americans can be in any field and they can spend the money on whatever they feel like, no strings attached.
This year Carol Padden was one of the recipients! Carol and her husband, Tom Humphries, wrote several books about Deaf Culture, including “Deaf in America: voices from a culture”, “Inside Deaf Culture”, and two textbooks for learning American Sign Language. I have read many of her books and consider them some of the best I’ve ever read on the subject of Deaf Culture.
Carol was born Deaf to her two Deaf parents and she also has a Deaf brother. She attended a Deaf elementary school for a time before being put into a mainstream school. Currently, Carol is a professor at University of California San Diego and studies signed languages. She recently studied a new signed language in Africa that uses the actual body of the signer to indicate pronouns, as opposed to the area around the signer as in American Sign Language.
Carol is the first ever Deaf recipient of the Genius Grant. She says she has no concrete plans for the money yet, but will probably use it for creative research. “Maybe I have a few wild ideas I’ve been obsessing about,” she said in an interview “But they’re a little bit crazy. I’m not going to tell you about them until I can make them sound a little more rational.”
Not only am I excited that the field of Sign linguistics has gotten such amazing recognition, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. Congratulations Carol Padden!!!
esidential Schools are an important part of Deaf Culture. Because 90% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents, Deaf Culture can’t be transmitted (as culture usually is) from parent to child. So who teaches Deaf children about Deaf Culture? Up until very recently, they would learn about it at Residential Schools.
Residential Schools are boarding schools specifically for Deaf children, such as Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, or the American School for the Deaf. Usually, parents send their children away to these schools to get a specialized education. The idea is that the children will be taught and supervised by Deaf adults who will pass on the culture to them. Although in the past signing was often prohibited, today ASL is used in the dining halls and for recreation as well as in the classroom in these schools. For many of the children attending them, it’s the first experience they have had without communication barriers. Even in the days when signing was taboo, children still found a way to pass on the ASL tradition. Because of the amazing sense of community fostered by Residential Schools, many of it’s graduates will settle down in the community around the school. Often, they will even be employed by the school. This creates an even wider Deaf community to teach the next generation of Deaf children.
Lately there has been a lot of debate about the best way to educate Deaf Children. Slowly but surely, Residential Schools are falling out of favor. In this time of recession and budget cuts, states are becoming increasingly unhappy to fund these places. Also, the American’s with Disabilities Act of 1990 made interpreters more widely available to Deaf students in mainstream classrooms. Many hearing parents feel that mainstreaming will allow their child to be more versatile as they get older, and more and more Deaf children are taking classes with their hearing peers. Other options that have become more popular are special Deaf schools that don’t have a boarding option, such as California School for the Deaf. While Deaf teachers at these schools still transmit parts of the culture to their students, Deaf children don’t live their whole lives at the school and have less strong ties to the place.
Even though Residential schools have fallen on hard times, they have been an immensely important piece of Deaf Culture from as far back as 1817 when Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc opened the first Residential School in Connecticut. Millions of Deaf children were educated in such places, and the transmission of Deaf Culture flowed smoothly generation to generation. In this new age, Deaf people have more of a challenge. They will need to figure out how to communicate Deaf Culture to young children in an age of ever increasing budget cuts, without the built-in network of Residential Schools to help them.
ndrew Foster was born in 1925 in Ensley, Alabama where racism was at it’s strongest. His father was a coal miner and the family had very little economic opportunity. When he was 11 years old, Andrew and his brother both contracted Spinal Meningitis and became Deaf. The family did what they could to send the boys to the Alabama School for Colored Deaf in Talladega, but their education wasn’t very good. When Andrew was 16, the family moved into his Aunt’s house so the boys could get a better education. Andrew finished high school at the Michigan School for the Deaf.
The family was deeply religious and attended church services every Sunday. It was in Sunday School that Andrew realized his true calling. A missionary from Jamaica came to the school one weekend and gave a talk about his work in Africa. Andrew was extremely interested in the man’s experiences and felt that it was his calling in life to become a missionary in Africa too. If he was to succeed, Andrew also knew he would need a lot of education. He wrote to Gallaudet College and they accepted him on a full scholarship. He was the first black student to ever have been accepted at Gallaudet; four years later he became the first black, deaf graduate of Gallaudet in 1954. He then went on to accieve two Master’s degrees.
Then came the hard part. Andrew visited every mission he could think of, but in spite of his thorough education they would not accept him as a missionary because of his race. Instead, Andrew finally started his own mission. He flew to Liberia for the first time in 1957. What he saw there was extremely upsetting. The other missionaries he was in contact with told him that deaf people didn’t exist in Africa at all, but eventually Andrew found them. Many people thought that deafness was a sign that a person was cursed, so parents were forced to hide their children. Deaf children who weren’t hidden were frequently left in the wilderness to be eaten by animals. There was absolutely no education available, and most Africans believed that the deaf were unable to be educated. The best a deaf person in Africa could hope for was to become a family’s servant, using rudimentary signs for basic communication. Andrew knew he had to do everything he could to change the fate of African deafs.
Andrew heard about a community in Ghana with a high rate of hereditary deafness, much like Martha’s Vineyard in the United States. Figuring that he could make an impact quickly in this community, he traveled to Ghana and used the regular school facilities to teach deaf students after hours. Within no time at all, he had 300 families from all over Africa requesting that he teach their children as well. The borrowed facilities were no longer enough. Andrew flew back to the United States to raise money for a permanent boarding school to be built. A year later, the first school for the deaf in Africa opened in Nigeria.
Andrew faithfully promoted his new schools everywhere he could. It was at the Third World Congress for the Deaf that he met the love of his life, a German deaf woman named Berta. She felt just as strongly about Andrew’s mission as he did. They were married in Nigeria in 1961, and worked together to establish more schools across Africa. In addition to the schools, they also established deaf Churches, Sunday Schools, Youth Camps, and Teacher Training facilities. The two also had five children, 4 boys and 1 girl.
Sadly, in 1975 Berta was diagnosed with terminal Cancer. Although their worst fears weren’t realized (she is still alive and well today), Berta felt that she could not keep up with their nomadic life in Africa any longer. She and the children moved back to the United States. Andrew still felt that he had not finished his work in Africa. He decided to split his time, spending half of the year in America with his family and the other half of the year in Africa establishing more schools and churches. In 1970, Gallaudet University honored Andrew with an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters.
In 1987, Andrew was on a small plane traveling between schools when the plane crashed in the hills of Rwanda. There were 11 people on board the flight and none of them survived; Andrew was 62 years old. As one of his students, Gabriel Adepoju, said, “Andrew Foster is to Africa what Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet is to the United States of America.” Andrew established 31 schools in over 17 African countries. The mission he started is still going strong, and his legacy lives on in the tens of thousands of deaf Africans who are now literate and living good lives thanks to his lifelong effort on their behalf.
OK, this is a little long and wordy. What can I say? I’m back in school and I’m feeling more schollarly-like. 🙂
he Deaf President Now protests of 1988 were a huge turning point in Deaf history. Until this point, Deaf people had not been responsible for their own leadership. Even Gallaudet University, a place many people believe to be the Mecca of Deaf Culture, was run by a hearing president and a hearing board of directors. Over a week of intense protest, all that changed. Deaf people snatched their destiny from the hands of the hearing and installed a Deaf president and a 51% Deaf board of directors at the college, reigning in a new era of Deaf Pride. While the Deaf President Now rallies were empowering, it raises a question in my eyes. The Civil Rights era kicked off in this country with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. All through the 1960s, groups raised up and demanded to be treated equally. Why did it take the Deaf community almost 30 years to insist upon their rights as well? I believe there were three root causes: the sad state of Deaf Education for many years, the fact that Gallaudet University had the same hearing president from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, and the uncertainty of the Deaf community that hearing people would let a Deaf president be successful.
What really happened during the Deaf President Now protest? Several campus leaders got wind of the fact that the current President, a hearing man, would be stepping down. They immediately started lobbying for a Deaf president to be appointed. Things looked to be going well when the Board of Trustees announced their final three candidates for the position. Two were Deaf, and only one was hearing. Unfortunately, the Board decided to pick the only hearing candidate as the next president. Worse still, the woman, named Elisabeth A. Zinser, didn’t even know sign language. The Board announced their decision rather cowardly, at a local hotel, and not on campus where they knew there would be extremely unpopular. Students awaiting the decision at the Gallaudet campus were upset that the decision had not been announced to the group it mattered the most to, and they also wanted answers. They all decided to march to the hotel and demand to know why a Deaf president wasn’t chosen, and they made it just in time to interrupt a national press conference. With a whole nation watching, the Board had to play nice. They offered to meet with the Student Body the next morning.
All night, student leaders met to decide what their demands would be. They finally settled on four concrete demands: 1) Zinser must resign and a Deaf president selected; 2) Spillman, the director of the Board who continually brushed aside student concerns, must resign; 3) The percentage of Deaf members on the Board of Trustees must be increased to at least 51%; 4) There must be no reprisals against any of the protesters. Just before the large student meeting, the student leaders presented the Board of Trustees with their demands. The board rejected all of them. As soon as the meeting started and Spillman started to speak, one of the student leaders jumped up on the podium. “They have rejected our demands” he signed, “there is no reason for us to stay. Let’s all leave.” As the director futilely tried to regain everyone’s attention, waves of people moved out the doors. They traveled off campus to the nation’s capital where the protest was kicked off in full force.
Protests continued constantly for several more days. Students refused to attend classes, and the whole campus completely ceased to function. When Zinser arrived in Washington DC to take over the presidency, students flattened the tires of several buses which blocked all access to the campus. Zinser could not even get onto the campus of the University she was supposed to be leading. She called a meeting with the student leaders and told them she would put a 51% deaf majority on the Board of Directors and would guarantee no reprisals, but that she wouldn’t step down, and wouldn’t let Spillman resign. Zinser was polite and understanding, and urged them to work with her. Though the student leaders felt that she was a good person, the knew they would never get what they wanted if they gave up now. Again they marched to the capital and resumed protesting in full force. Faced with a non-functioning University that no one could even enter or leave, the Board of Trustees had no choice. On March 13, 1988, the Board agreed to all student demands and I. King Jordan was elected the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University.
So why did it take Deaf people 30 years longer than hearing people to stand up for their rights? One of the most important reasons is that, until recently, the catastrophic state of Deaf Education in America kept Deaf people from entering many important careers. Early in the 20th century, Alexander Graham Bell and others advocated for a completely oral approach to teaching Deaf students. They refused to let them sign, took them out of the classroom so they could attend thousands of hours of speech therapy, and encouraged them to go to trade school as opposed to university. This method was completely uneffective and stressed the importance of sounding “normal” at the expense of education. At the mercy of their hearing parents, Deaf people had little to no say in the kind of education they recieved. Many Deaf people graduated from these programs barely literate, trapped in blue collar jobs, and unqualified to lead a major institution. In the 1970’s, when sign language came into it’s own as a true and valid language, Deaf education changed in this country; Oral only programs fell out of favor, higher education was stressed, and Deaf people began to hold white collar jobs and positions of leadership. Suddenly, they were qualified to be president.
In 1969, Edward C. Merrill, Jr. was elected the 4th hearing president of Gallaudet University, and he didn’t step down from that position until the 1980’s. While Deaf people may have wanted a Deaf person to be president of the University before the 1980’s, they didn’t have a chance to stand up for their rights until the president decided to step down. Another hearing president was elected after Merrill, but when they heard he was going to resign, students acted immediately. They started a grassroots movement to have a Deaf president installed, and they were passing out DPN buttons almost a year before the last hearing president resigned. Having a hearing president from the 1960s up to the 1980s didn’t allow Deaf people to assert their position any sooner, but when they saw their opening, they took it almost immediately.
Another small factor in electing a Deaf president was that Deaf people were not sure hearing people would let a Deaf president succeed. There were two main reasons for this concern: 1)Gallaudet University gets most of it’s funding from the United States Congress. 2) Deaf people tend to hear from hearing people all about what they can’t do, and deal with discrimination called “Audism” all their life. If the hearing people in Congress were prejudiced against Deaf people, or refused to work with the president, Gallaudet University could be in serious financial trouble. Everyone was certain that a Deaf person could handle any and all aspects of the job itself, but they didn’t know if the hearing community would pause long enough to put aside their Audism and give a Deaf president a chance. Though these concerns were ultimately proven to be unfounded (Congressional support actually increased by a bunch under I. King Jordan), at the time they were real concerns for many in the Deaf community. Not that a Deaf president could do the job, but that a Deaf president would be allowed to do the job. A superficiall worry, this would certainly not have held the community back from insisting on a Deaf president, but it may have stalled things temporarily.
Though the civil rights in this country happened for most minority groups in the 1960’s I believe that the Deaf community was not behind the times by waiting until the 1980’s to stand up for their rights. Deaf people, through catastrophic educational conditions, no opportunity to replace the president of Gallaudet, and worries that a Deaf president would not be allowed to succeed, were not ready in the 1960’s to take over their destiny as completely as they did later in the century. Because of the Deaf President Now protests, Deaf people are leading their own community as never before. There are Deaf roll-models for children to grow up revering. Oral only schools are almost non-existent now. Would this have been able to happen in the 1960’s? Yes, but it would have been a harder and longer fight.