Treatment of Signed Languages in Deaf History Texts

By Parks, Elizabeth S. | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Treatment of Signed Languages in Deaf History Texts


Parks, Elizabeth S., Sign Language Studies


Treatment of Signed Languages in Deaf History Texts

SCHOLARS FROM DIVERSE ACADEMIC FIELDS have included signed languages in their studies, yet many of them do not pay enough attention to the representation of signed languages in academic domains other than their own. Researchers may even be unaware of the language attitudes that are promoted through their own academic domain, including the way in which audiences attach meaning to their text. Writers may use terminology from a particular academic domain without unpacking the implications of their perspectives in relation to other disciplines. For example, the term "normal" may cause a statistician to think of a mathematical range and a biologist to picture a tiling that lacks any obvious deficiencies or a process that follows scientific laws. At the same time, a psychologist considers something normal if it is approximately average, and an anthropologist uses "normal" to mean adhering to an established societal type. When using a single term, people may draw drastically different conclusions based solely on their interpretation. Just as the use of language impacts one's understanding of a text, perceptions of language often lead to value judgments about its users. Language attitudes can be difficult to research as they are often hidden, yet these hidden attitudes can have either beneficial or devastating effects on a group of people and their language when thoughts are put into action. How scholars depict and discuss signed languages is pivotal to the understanding and respect of the people who use them.

While these dangers exist for all academic disciplines related to the deaf community, this essay looks specifically at the way that historians have perceived and promoted certain understandings of signed languages. People who study deaf communities need to understand the role that influential historians play in shaping society's attitudes toward deaf people and signed languages. This essay addresses this issue by studying deaf historical works that include signed languages and identifies ways that historians have perceived and promoted certain understandings of signed languages. It analyzes the following authors and their works: Baynton's Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language, Buchanans Illusions of Equality: Deaf Americans in School and Factory, 1850-1950, Burch's Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to World War II, Joyner s From Pity to Pride: Growing Up Deaf in the Old South, Van Cleve and Crouch's A Place of Their Oum: Creating the Deaf Community in America, and Winefield's Never the Twain Shall Meet: Tlte Communications Debate. This essay examines perspectives of signed language through the framework of five perspectives:

1. as an educational tool

2. as natural human communication

3. as a linguistically legitimate language

4. as a unifying force

5. as a dividing force

Five Perspectives of Sign Language

A Tool in Education

Most, if not all, historians first frame the role of signed languages in the deaf educational realm. Because deaf schools are widely considered the birthplace of the deaf community, they are given an honored place in deaf history as the foundation of the cultural community. Historians can support their description of this deaf cultural community by providing evidence that sign language was (and still is) an important educational tool.

Signed languages are typically framed in relation to the "methods debate," which is built on the question, Does sign language as an educational tool in schools contribute to student success? Because schools are often considered to be a cornerstone of deaf life in the United States, they are pivotal to understanding various perspectives of signed languages. Much of the argument for or against signed languages in education is based on administrators' goals and their belief in the relative importance of social assimilation and individual expression.

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Treatment of Signed Languages in Deaf History Texts
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