Deaf geographies, and other worlds.

The politics of Deaf history – archives

Shield at the entrance to the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital

Shield at the entrance to the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital which houses the library – wording reads ‘Audient Surdi, Mutique Loquentur’ which roughly translates as ‘the deaf hear, the mute speak’.

Wednesday, taking advantage of a trip to London, I found myself in the UCL Ear Institute and Action on Hearing Loss archives.

It struck me sitting there, that although I’ve known about that archive for some 10 years, that was the first time I’d ever been in it – and I wondered why.

And I realised that it was because all the way through my time at CDS, although the library was acknowledged as just about the best public archive on deafness in the UK, there was no encouragement to go to it because it was the “RNID” library.

For those not steeped in UK Deaf history, this might not mean much, but the RNID, or the Royal National Institute for the Deaf  (now known as Action on Hearing Loss) is the ‘welfare’ and ‘hearing restoration’ counterfoil to the community/language/culture-oriented Deaf-oriented British Deaf Association.

For those in the US, it’s the A.G.Bell Association, and the BDA is the NAD.

As such, the RNID plays a characteristic role in the Deaf history that I was taught. Having been around for just over 100 years, it is the powerful hearing-run organisation that has the ear of the government on all things ‘deaf’, grabs all the money… and then refuses to acknowledge that it may have done anything wrong.

So it’s no surprise that – as students on a Masters course that aimed to further the emancipation of the Deaf community through a postcolonial cultural/linguistic/recognition agenda, we weren’t encouraged to visit its library… or make use of any of its information, or services, or support any of its activities or work for, or with it, in any way.

For what it’s worth – I don’t think that was an explicit decision, I think it just played out that way in people’s mental representations of what information sources were to be trusted and encouraged.

And yet, I found in the archive a wealth of historical information on the 19th century Deaf community. Information that is fundamental to an understanding of the UK Deaf community, but that has rarely made it into any kind of public forum, except the library’s own blog!

And it made me wonder what else we’re missing out on because we consider the risk of encouraging it simply too great… the larger and better funded resources of disability historians, medical historians, educational historians, and the like.

And it made me wonder if it wouldn’t be an enormously important thing to do, to ‘infiltrate’ these ‘other’ sources of information and resources, and disarm them from within – embracing them, subverting them, transforming them… laying them, and their histories, and their backgrounds open to examination along with the information that they contain.

Isn’t that a recognised postcolonial strategy?

Isn’t that, for example, what Doug Alker did when – following his ill-fated period as CEO of the RNID, he used his Golden Handshake to set up the FDP? (1)

Or, is that too political – can’t we just, maybe… use them?

After all, that’s what they’re there for.

And, I’ll be honest, having met the staff of the archive, any thought that they might have a politics other than to preserve and encourage use of the archive, has disappeared… They are lovely people, immensely knowledgeable, and eager to engage with anyone interested in the history.

I suspect, should we begin to engage with those in fields that have traditionally Othered the Deaf community, that we might find the same.

(1) Alker’s ‘Really Not Interested In the Deaf’ is his story of his time as CEO of the RNID – it makes for very interesting reading.

7 comments on “The politics of Deaf history – archives

  1. Manjeet Cross
    May 9, 2013

    Sound very interesting. Would luv to get my hand on this information!!

    • Mike Gulliver
      May 9, 2013

      Hey Manjeet, well, it’s all there… and it’s free to visit, so if you can get to the archive, I’m sure Dominic will be only too delighted to help 🙂

  2. Paul Breckell
    May 9, 2013

    Dear Mike

    I post this comment with some trepidation as the current Chief Executive of Action on Hearing Loss. I’m delighted that the archives were a valuable resource and that the staff were friendly and knowledgeable. I’d love to have the opportunity to meet at some point do get in touch if you would like to

    With best wishes


    (Paul Breckell)

    • Mike Gulliver
      May 9, 2013

      Hi Paul,

      Great to hear from you. Please don’t approach this with trepidation… I’d be delighted to talk to you and – as I hope I demonstrate in the post – I’ve moved beyond many of my earlier preconceptions.

      The question of representation has always been one that’s key to Deaf history… the key lever in achieving recognition and support for BSL and for Deaf culture and community.

      But if we don’t start unpeeling those representational issues, and start thinking about where we go from here, then we get stuck in ruts that then become almost impossible to get out of.

      I’d very much enjoy meeting up.

      • Paul Breckell
        May 9, 2013

        Hi Mike

        That’s great, many thanks. It would be reallly good to meet, I know that I have much to learn with regard to Deaf history. My e-mail is paul.breckell@hearingloss.org.uk Why don’t you get in touch so we can make arrangements.

  3. Pingback: Mike Gulliver: The politics of Deaf history | The Limping Chicken

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This entry was posted on May 9, 2013 by in Musings.
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