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Mysteries of the Deaf


But let us for the last time, before launching on this strange history, go back to the wholly personal, and “innocent,” observations of David Wright (“innocent” because, as he himself stresses, he made a point of avoiding any reading on the subject until he had written his own book). At the age of eight, when it became clear that his deafness was incurable, and that without special measures his speech would regress, he was sent to a special school in England, one of the ruthlessly dedicated, but misconceived, rigorously “oral” schools, which are concerned above all to make the deaf speak like other children, and which have done so much harm to the prelingually deaf since their inception. The young David Wright was flabbergasted at his first encounter with the prelingually deaf:

Sometimes I took lessons with Vanessa. She was the first deaf child I had met…. But even to an eight-year-old like myself her general knowledge seemed strangely limited. I remember a geography lesson we were doing together, when Miss Neville asked,

Who is the king of England?”

Vanessa didn’t know; troubled, she tried to read sideways the geography book, which lay open at the chapter about Great Britain that we had prepared.

King—king,” began Vanessa.

Go on,” commanded Miss Neville.

I know,” I said.

Be quiet.”

United Kingdom,” said Vanessa. I laughed.

You are very silly,” said Miss Neville. “How can a king be called ‘United Kingdom’?”

King United Kingdom,” tried poor Vanessa, scarlet.

Tell her if you know, John.”

King George the Fifth,” I said proudly.

It’s not fair! It wasn’t in the book!”

Vanessa was quite right of course; the chapter on the geography of Great Britain did not concern itself with its political set-up. She was far from stupid; but having been born deaf her slowly and painfully acquired vocabulary was still too small to allow her to read for amusement or pleasure. As a consequence there were almost no means by which she could pick up the fund of miscellaneous and temporarily useless information other children unconsciously acquire from conversation or random reading. Almost everything she knew she had been taught or made to learn. And this is a fundamental difference between hearing and deaf-born children—or was, in that pre-electronic era.8

Vanessa’s situation, one sees, was a serious one, despite her native ability—and it was helped only with much difficulty, if not actually perpetuated, by the sort of teaching and communication forced upon her. For in this progressive school, as it was regarded, there was an almost insanely fierce, righteous prohibition of sign language—not only no use of the long-established and powerful National Sign Language, but of the “sign-argot”—the rough sign language developed on their own by the deaf children in the school. And yet—this is also well described by Wright—signing flourished at the school, was irrepressible despite punishment and prohibition. This was young David Wright’s first vision of the boys:

Confusion stuns the eye, arms whirl like windmills in a hurricane…the emphatic silent vocabulary of the body—look, expression, bearing, glance of eye; hands perform their pantomine. Absolutely engrossing pandemonium…. I begin to sort out what’s going on. The seemingly corybantic brandishing of hands and arms reduces itself to a convention, a code which as yet conveys nothing. It is in fact a kind of vernacular. The school has evolved its own peculiar language or argot, though not a verbal one…. All communications were supposed to be oral. Our own sign-argot was of course prohibited…. But these rules could not be enforced without the presence of the staff. What I have been describing is not how we talked, but how we talked among ourselves when no hearing person was present. At such times our behaviour and conversation were quite different. We relaxed inhibitions, wore no masks.

Such was the Northampton School in the English midlands, when David Wright went there as a pupil in 1927. For him, as a postlingually deaf child, with a firm grasp of language, the school was, manifestly, excellent. For Vanessa, for the prelingually deaf, such a school, with its ruthlessly oral approach, was not short of a disaster. But a century earlier, say, in the American Asylum, opened a decade before in Hartford, Connecticut, where there was free use of sign language between all pupils and teachers, Vanessa would not have found herself pitifully handicapped, but might have become a literate, perhaps even literary, young woman of the sort who emerged and wrote books during the 1830s.

There we have it. Vanessa hadn’t a chance at a special school, an oral school, in the 1920s, whereas she would have had an excellent chance of becoming an accomplished young woman, and indeed writer, a century earlier, in one of the many signing deaf schools then flourishing, like the American Asylum. This is the paradox, the anachronism that Harlan Lane addresses, and that we must now examine in greater detail.


Lane tells his story in two ways, in two quite different but complementary books. The Deaf Experience presents primary documents, written both by the first literate deaf-mutes in the world—de Fontenay, Desloges, Jean Massieu, Berthier, and their great teachers, the Abbé de l’Epée, the Abbé Sicard, and Roche-Ambroise Bébian. The documents powerfully, and poignantly, speak for themselves. The period they cover is confined to the golden years between 1764 and the 1860s, when the deaf were first educated and liberated, and stepped into the world.

In When the Mind Hears Lane becomes a novelist-biographer-historian, and assumes the persona of Laurent Clerc, the illustrious pupil of Sicard and Massieu, friend of Bébian, teacher of Berthier, who came to the US, at the invitation of and with Thomas Gallaudet, to found the first American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. Since Clerc’s rich and long life (1785–1869) spanned the most crucial developments, in many of which, indeed, he had played a leading part, he becomes an ideal figure from whom to hang a history of the deaf: “I have dared to speak in Clerc’s name,” Lane writes, “in order to present the views of the deaf themselves as clearly and cogently as possible.” It could be objected that this pseudo-autobiography (for Clerc himself left only brief autobiographical sketches, though he was a voluminous and vivid writer of letters and memoirs) is an artifact, that Clerc is being used ventriloqually, as a screen for the projection of Lane’s own views. No doubt this is occasionally the case. But, on the whole, one has the feeling of a truthful, or at least plausible, account made possible by Lane’s immense scholarship, powers of historical reconstruction, and deep empathy for the world of Clerc, and of the deaf-mute.

With Clerc’s death in 1869, Lane continues the narrative in his own voice up to the present day. This later part of the book makes painful reading at times—but it treats of painful matters, ugly controversies with sometimes ugly effects, disastrous effects, very different from the halcyon days described in The Deaf Experience. There are a number of things that make one uncomfortable, to put it mildly, in When the Mind Hears. Lane is openly partisan in his attitudes and often strongly polemical in tone. Sometimes he seems more concerned with advocating than presenting points of view, above all the case for teaching the deaf through signing and not through efforts to make them speak.

The Deaf Experience, in contrast, is unexceptionable, a major and delightful source book from the great figures of the past. Lane spent many years in France, and has an intimate and sympathetic acquaintance with all the original sources, and with the intellectual history of this crucial period in France, a time of intellectual no less than political revolution. All that makes The Wild Boy of Aveyron a splendid book is equally in evidence here, and makes this splendid too.

The situation of the prelingually deaf, then, prior to 1750, was indeed a calamity. Unable to acquire speech,9 hence “dumb” or “mute”; unable to enjoy free communication with even their parents and families; confined to a few rudimentary signs and gestures; cut off, except in large cities, even from the community of their own kind; deprived of literacy and education, all knowledge of the world; forced to do the most menial work; living alone, often close to destitution; treated by the law and society as little better than imbeciles—the lot of the deaf was manifestly dreadful.

But what was manifest was as nothing to the destitution inside—the destitution of knowledge and thought that prelingual deafness can bring, in the absence of any communication or remedial measures. The deplorable state of the deaf aroused both the curiosity and the compassion of the philosophes. Thus the Abbé Sicard asked:

Why is the uneducated deaf person isolated in nature and unable to communicate with other men? Why is he reduced to this state of imbecility? Does his biological constitution differ from ours? Does he not have everything he needs for having sensations, acquiring ideas, and combining them to do everything that we do? Does he not get sensory impressions from objects as we do? Are these not, as with us, the occasion of the mind’s sensations and its acquired ideas? Why then does the deaf person remain stupid while we become intelligent?

To ask this question—never really or clearly asked before—is to grasp its answer, to see that the answer lies in the use of symbols. It is, Sicard continues, because the deaf person has “no symbols for fixing and combining ideas…that there is a total communication-gap between him and other people.” But what was all important, and had been a source of fundamental confusion since Aristotle’s pronouncements on the matter, was the enduring misconception that symbols had to be speech. Perhaps indeed this passionate misconception, or prejudice, went back to biblical days: the subhuman status of mutes was part of the Mosaic code, and it was reinforced by the biblical exaltation of the voice and ear as the one and true way in which man and God could speak. And yet, overborne by Mosaic and Aristotelian thunderings, some profound voices intimated that this need not be so. Thus Socrates’ remark in the Cratylus of Plato, which so impressed the youthful Abbé de l’Epée:

If we had neither voice nor tongue, and yet wished to manifest things to one another, should we not, like those which are at present mute, endeavour to signify our meaning by the hands, head, and other parts of the body?

Or the deep, yet obvious, insights of the physician-philosopher Cardan in the sixteenth century:

It is possible to place a deaf-mute in a position to hear by reading, and to speak by writing…for as different sounds are conventionally used to signify different things, so also may the various figures of objects and words…. Written characters and ideas may be connected without the intervention of actual sounds.

  1. 8

    Wright, pp. 32–33.

  2. 9

    As early as the sixteenth century some of the deaf children of noble families had been taught to speak and read, through many years of tutoring, so that they could be recognized as persons under the law (mutes were not recognized), and could inherit their families’ titles and fortunes. Pedro Ponce de Léon in sixteenth-century Spain, the Braidwoods in Britain, Amman in Holland, and Pereire and Deschamps in France were all hearing educators who achieved greater or lesser success in teaching some deaf persons to speak. Lane stresses that many of these educators depended upon the manual alphabet (finger spelling), as well as on signs, to teach speech. Indeed, even the most celebrated of these oral deaf pupils knew and used sign language. Their speech was usually poorly intelligible, and tended to regress as soon as intensive tutoring was curtailed. But before 1750 for the generality, for 99.9 percent of those born deaf, there was no hope of literacy or education. I am here, as elsewhere on occasion, drawing from a forthcoming review of these same books by Dr. Isabelle Rapin, which will be appearing in The International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology.

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