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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

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 have a very exciting announcement!  At least, I’m very excited about it.  I have officially dropped out of Mt. San Antonio College.  With budget cut after budget cut, I just can’t get classes for the life of me.  I’m now 2 years behind in a 3 year program (of which I had taken the first year before I started at Mt. SAC), and I’m afraid of how much longer it will take me to get through if I stay with the current plan.

The new plan is to transfer to Golden West College.  The same price as Mt. SAC with a good overall reputation, It looks like I’ll be able to get into all the classes I need fairly easily (!!!).  It also looks like their program is a little less strict than the Mt. SAC program, but that doesn’t bother me at all.  I’m ready to get my hands in the air, and I’ve decided that I just can’t wait as long as Mt. SAC expects me to, crossing my fingers every year that I get into the class I need this time.

On the other front, I start attending Chapman University for my BA this year.  I love telling people I’m a History major and then, when they ask me what I plan to do with that degree, tell them “ASL Interpreter”.  I get many odd looks, and it’s lots of fun.  Of course, then I have to explain to them that I need a BA in anything to get certified, I’ve always liked History, and I figure why not get a degree in it.  Especially when any degree is helpful.

Chapman so far has been a dream come true.  Their registration proccess and welcoming attitude have been so amazing that it makes me want to cry.  I’ve never felt so wanted by an institution in all my life, and after all the denials and struggles to register at community college, it’s been amazing to feel liked.  I’ve looked carefully at making a custom minor for myself there, in Deaf Studies.  All I’m waiting for is to submit my plan to the accademic council.  Here’s the proposal I’m sending them:  I hope it works!!!  I’ll keep you posted on what happens with this, and on any really cool stuff I learn along the way.

To whom it may concern:

I am interested in pursuing a custom minor in Deaf Studies from Chapman University.  I believe that with my course work from Mt. San Antonio College, supplemented by some of the upper-division course work from Chapman, I will be able to achieve a relevant degree in this subject from your university.  These are the classes I propose to use toward that minor:

Lower Division: (10 units total)

American Sign Language 4 – 4 units.  This class has been taken through Mt. San Antonio College.  The course description is as follows:  72 hours lecture.  Emphasis on expressive conversational skills in American Sign Language along with continued focus on grammatical and cultural features.  CSU/UC transferable.

American Deaf Culture – 3 units.  This class has been taken through Mt. San Antonio College.  The course description is as follows: 72 hours lecture.  American Deaf cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions.  CSU transferable.

American Sign Language Structure – 3 units.  This class has been taken through Mt. San Antonio College.  The course description is as follows: 54 hours lecture.  Linguistic Study of American Sign Language, including phonology, morphology, and syntax.  Sociolinguistic issues will also be discussed.  CSU/UC transferable.

Upper Division: (12 units total) – These classes would be taken at Chapman University.  After the proposed class, I have included a description as to how I think each class will contribute to my understanding of Deafness.  There are more than twelve units worth of classes listed, and I thought that the GE committee and myself could pick twelve units from this list so as to come up with the strongest combination of classes in this minor.

COM 480, Nonverbal Communication – 3 units.  While American Sign Language is the preferred communication system used throughout the American Deaf community, some Deaf people have had limited exposure to ASL or have not learned to use it at all.  On the other end of the spectrum are Deaf people who have not had much exposure to English and cannot use language alone to communicate with the hearing world around them.  I believe that this class will help me better understand these groups of people and how they communicate with the world through methods other than language.

IES 413, Current Issues in Disability Studies and Services – 3 units.  Deaf people don’t consider themselves disabled, yet use and benefit from many of the services available to disabled groups.  By studying these services and issues, and also the viewpoint of non-disabled groups toward the disabled,  I will have a better understanding of the options available for Deaf people living in America and how being grouped with the disabled effects their lives both positively and negatively.

Independent Study – 3 units.  I propose concentrate on one of two topics.  The first is to study George Veditz and the National Association of the Deaf’s quest to preserve American Sign Language for future generations during the early 1900’s through the use of film.  As part of this topic, I would also like to study similar efforts today to preserve ASL on film.  A second possibility would be to study Deaf art and literature and how it depicts and shapes the Deaf world view.

Internship – 3 units. I would like to intern with either the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD), or Deaf West Theater.  These are both premiere Deaf-run institutions in Southern California and I believe that interning at one of these places will give me practical insight into Deaf Culture and the Deaf way of life that cannot be achieved through classes alone.  Both groups accept interns frequently.

This equals 22 units, one more than the 21 unit minimum required to qualify for a minor per the 2011-2012 Academic Catalogue.  I have also looked carefully at the other language-based minors at Chapman and believe that these selections are in keeping with the theme of those programs.

In addition to this information, I would also like to present the requirements to several Deaf Studies minors from various colleges across America.  I believe they will show you that the course of study above is consistent with established programs across the nation.

Gallaudet University, the premier institute for the Deaf,  includes:

  • American Sign Language courses
  • Deaf Culture
  • American Sign Language Structure
  • Disability Studies
  • Internship
  • Introduction to Deaf View/Image Art

Rochester Institute of Technology, an institution allied with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf:

  • American Sign Language courses
  • Deaf Culture in America
  • Linguistics of American Sign Language
  • Special Topics: Deaf Art and Cinema
  • Oppression in the Lives of Deaf People

University of Southern Maine includes:

  • American Sign Language courses
  • Introduction to the Deaf World (Deaf Culture)
  • ASL Linguistics
  • Research Internship
  • Deaf Art, Film, and Theater

Boston University includes:

  • American Sign Language courses
  • History and Culture of the Deaf
  • American Sign Language Structure
  • Field Experience
  • Deaf Literature and ASL Folklore

Thank you so much for your consideration in allowing me to take this minor.  Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do to make this decision easier.

Sincerely,

Casey E. Hamilton

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.

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.

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