MIKE GULLIVER

Deaf geographies, and other worlds.

Deaf unity – a (rather historical) response to Lizzie Ward

I started writing this as a comment and response to comments on Lizzie Ward’s article at Limping Chicken, but it got a bit long, and a bit involved, so I decided to post it here instead.

The situation that Lizzie describes reminds me of the situation in France in the late 19th century, post Milan – The Deaf community there was being undercut everywhere, pressured by Oralism, and missing a strong common voice… signers, speakers, late arrivals to the community, educated, uneducated, men, women… all expressed different needs, and felt that they were ‘on their own’ battling a system that was trying as hard as possible to make them into something else.

Attempts by any one group to take control ended up in bitter infighting… and political impotence. 

… and then the Deaf press emerged, in 1884, and over the following 10 years, for the first time, Deaf people were able to communicate their stories to each other.

… and through those stories they found a common point – not sign language (surprisingly, perhaps) – or speech, or any specific ’cause’ (although all of those were present)… Rather what united them was a realisation that they had all been systematically disempowered, and they had lost the right to speak for themselves – sometimes, by each other!

So, what emerged in the 1890s wasn’t a campaign against Oralism – at least not from a linguistic point of view, what emerged was a campaign to break the stranglehold that certain institutions (church, government, welfare, Deaf societies (oh yes!) etc.) had over representations of all those described as ‘deaf’… to allow deaf people to be individuals, or to be a community… but at the end of the day, to speak for themselves.

All those involved in the campaign knew that there was a massive diversity in the community… and so a key part of that campaign was an agreement that once they had secured representation at the highest level, and an assurance that they would be listened to without bias, *all* of those who were systematically disempowered could then explain what they needed to allow them to be free and full members of society.

From unity came action… and the Deaf-proposed 1900 congress which rallied deaf support from around the world. But also so terrified those in power that they had to resort to trickery and subterfuge to prevent it.

… I’m not sure where I’m going with this, I think it’s just an historical observation that struck me as particularly similar to the present. But the example suggests that there is certainly power in deaf people’s ability to share stories outside of ‘formal’ channels (Deaf press = social media perhaps)… there is an opportunity for unity – where it perhaps doesn’t exist around signing – in a common demand for re-empowerment, and representational and decision-making freedom… But it also suggests that with that re-empowerment may come resistance from those who currently claim to ‘serve’ the deaf community, including from within… and it also suggests that there’s a need to respect internal differences, particularly if any kind of deaf representative control is reasserted.

Note: I realise that my description of the events doesn’t necessary follow the ‘standard’ format… in particular, my suggestion that much of the post-Milan campaign in France wasn’t actually about sign language. But there’s good historical evidence that the question of representation (at least for political expediency at the time of the secularisation of France) was more pressing than the need to reaffirm signing.

Or… is that just the historical record hiding the views of the signing Deaf majority? That’s another question, and perhaps one that flips my observation about the need for representation on its head.

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3 comments on “Deaf unity – a (rather historical) response to Lizzie Ward

  1. Editor
    May 24, 2013

    Great comment, would love to see this on the comment thread at Limping Chicken if that’s possible?

    • Mike Gulliver
      May 24, 2013

      I can post it all up if you like… or I’ve put a link on which you can post, or moderate out?

  2. Liz Ward
    May 24, 2013

    Hi Mike – this is a really interesting comment, thank you. Lots of food for thought there 🙂 I think it definitely has parallels to what is happening now – social media, the deaf press, blogging, etc. I like the fact that blogging allows us to also work out our own thoughts on things, in our own spaces on the net, and that we can then relate those thoughts to what other people are experiencing. Sorry if that doesn’t make much sense!

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This entry was posted on May 24, 2013 by in DEAF, DEAF history, Musings and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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