1. What is blind history? Why is it important?
2. What is the relationship between blind and “
oken” for Brady?
3. What is “passing?” Why does Kuusisto do it?
4. What do these two na
atives suggest about blindness/visual impairment?
5. How can blind/visually impaired history be redefined?
JEAN LINDQUIST BERGEY AND
JACK R. G A N N O N
Deaf History Goes Public
The authors offer their personal reflections on changes in public
presentations of Deaf history that have occu
ed since the 1981 pub
lication of Jack R. Gannon’s Deaf Heritage: A Na
ative History of Deaf
America. This rear-view-mi
or perspective on the move into public
discourse touches on progress, protest, and navigation through the
politics of sharing Deaf life.
I n t h e 35 years since Deaf Heritage: A Na
ative History of Deaf
America was published much has changed in terms of the research on
and presentation of Deaf history. Written with the support of Gallau-
det College (now University) and published at the request of and by
the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), the book was initially
intended to chronicle the formation and development of the organiza
tion. As work progressed, the book’s chapters expanded to incorporate
a history of Deaf America. At that time, few people had documented
atives. Now, stories of Deaf people as individuals and as a
cultural and linguistic community are receiving greater attention and
analysis. Reservoirs of our history, whether they be the Gallaudet
University Archives, records held by schools for deaf students, publi
cations such as the “Little Paper Family” network of newspapers, o
Jean Lindquist Bergey is associate director of the Center for Deaf Documentary
Studies at Gallaudet University, coauthor (with Jack R. Gannon and Douglas C.
Baynton) of Through D ea f Eyes: A Photographic History o f an American Community, and
a long-time collaborator with Jack Gannon. Jack R. Gannon, Gallaudet class of 1959,
is the author of five books, including D eaf Heritage: A Na
ative History o f D eaf America;
The Week the World Heard Gallaudet; and World Federation o f the Deaf: A History. He
curated Gallaudet University’s History through D eaf Eyes exhibition and is cu
editing stories that chronicle his personal Deaf experiences.
S i g n L a n gu a ge St u d i e s Vo l . 17 N o . 1 Fall 2016
n 8 | S i g n L a n gu ag e St u d i e s
family photo and film collections, have begun to be seen as valuable
esources. A growing list of books has expanded our understanding of
the lives of Deaf people and made postsecondary academic course-
work in Deaf history possible. Each scholar has added to the historical
foundation, on which others can build.
In 1981, when Deaf Heritage was first published, little public history
had been shared. Societal perceptions of deaf people were more often
ased on pathological views, and community membership was not
part of the medical model. In American Sign Language, the sentiment
that one is seen as “one big ear” is signed as a frame around the ear.
This framing of the ear indicates the reduction of a whole person to
one physical trait. Efforts to reach the public were in part a reaction
to this discounting of the depth and
eadth of the Deaf experience
and also an attempt to set straight the historical record.
Public consciousness of the Deaf experience was pushed forward
y many factors, including the Deaf President Now movement in
1988, political action related to passage of the 1990 Americans with
Disabilities Act, increased availability of American Sign Language class
es, and widespread use of sign language interpreters. The entertain
ment industry began to show a number of deaf characters in a more
complex light with plots beyond portrayals of victims and miracle
cures. Although there had been public events, festivals, small exhib
its, and a few documentary films on deaf lives, most were produced
within and for the Deaf community.
In 1995 work began on the History through Deaf Eyes project, which
aimed to share Deaf life with the
oadest possible audience and in
cluded an exhibition that traveled to twelve cities, a
mentary, a book, a poster set, and a website. Each product title was a
variation on the “Deaf Eyes” theme, inspired by the 1910 “people of
the eye” quote from NAD president George Veditz. When you create
a cultural history that promises to reach a wide audience, one thing
is sure to happen: People care. Backlash against public presentation
of the Deaf linguistic community was fierce. It stemmed from the
enduring oral vs. sign language controversy over ways to educate
deaf children. Hundreds of letters of protest a
ived at the Smith
sonian Institution, with whom the collaboration began, imploring
Deaf History Goes Public | 119
them to shift the focus of the exhibition away from cultural history.
This should not have been a surprise, though the sheer force of the
esponse was overwhelming. A dedicated group of people, including
twenty-three advisors with diverse deaf perspectives and museum/
public history expertise, struggled with how to present a community
story to a wide audience. Grappling with the meaning of “inclusive”
in public presentations, the team strived to avoid polarization while
not diluting community history.The exhibition concept moved from
one organized by language, identity, and struggle to a story rooted
in a chronological U.S. history. By necessity, it became conceptually
safe. Bracing for public outcry once the exhibition began to tour, we
marveled that it never came.
The XXXXXXXXXXtouring exhibition led to a film, Through Deaf Eyes,
produced in 2007 by WETA, Washington, DC, and Florentine Films/
Hott Productions in association with Gallaudet University. While the
exhibition reached hundreds of thousands of people, the film reached
millions. Public programs in li
aries and schools encouraged the use
of the film to prompt discussions. Broadcast on most PBS stations and
in several countries, Through Deaf Eyes was also selected to be part of
the American Documentary Showcase, a program supported by the
U.S. Department of State, which shares films with embassies around
the world and hosts events with local communities.
Public history is by nature political. Any time you select images to
put on a wall, edit a film, or write a book, you must leave out much
of the story, and each decision influences the visitor, viewer, or reader,
affecting the body politic. These most public of formats—exhibitions
and films—can change the way nondeaf (hearing) people see Deaf
people. It can be a transformative moment when visitors understand
that Deaf people are a strand of the human experience. Broadening
the American story prompts recali
ation of who we are as a nation.
Working on public Deaf history, the exhibition planning team
learned many lessons, some of them the hard way. We learned that
the most helpful question is, why should I care? When you are ready
to explain why anyone should care about the story you hope to tell,
then you have something to share. We learned that some people will
y-pick the points they want to stress and create their own version
120 | S i g n L a n gu a ge St u d i e s
of history, often for public presentation. Too often arguments are put
forth based on opinions about historical events rather than researched
facts, sometimes with the intention of influencing cu
ent social issues.
We learned that the Deaf community, like all communities, is
constantly changing and reinventing itself, and a degree of historical
amnesia occasionally sets in, one that shows Deaf people as oppressed
ut forgets instances of Deaf oppression. History, and in particular
public history, calls on us to remember things that we may not want
to remember. Deaf history documentation forces examination of the
ways the community, which was not immune to the discrimination
of the past, has changed. Sustained customs and traditions became
cultural practice designed to subordinate women, persons of color,
and anyone who represented difference or challenged the status quo.
Bringing inequities to the surface via historical research and presen
tation compels communities to find the humility to change; there is
a social-justice component to documenting Deaf stories. Historical
work cannot be cultural cheerleading; it must confront the past. Yet
within that confrontation and complicated na
ative, it is possible to
find joy in the recognition of a remarkable and resilient community
Tremendous change is occu
ing in the ways historic research is
conducted and shared. Digital formats offer different means of access
to content. New searchable primary sources and data-mining mecha
nisms speed the research process in ways that were unimaginable 35
years ago. Interactive websites can showcase historic research using
embedded film to share American Sign Language stories.The capacity
oad audiences expands, as does our literal and figurative
andwidth for cultural learning.
Change has also occu
ed in the way people work together. Col
laboration between academic disciplines is not only possible but also
increasingly seen as desirable. Interdisciplinary studies—the pulling
together of people with diverse expertise who can easily share infor
mation across campus or around the world—is a fundamental change
and one much needed for multilayered research projects. When work
egan on Deaf Heritage decades ago, this was not feasible.
Finally, a major change is the rise of Deaf researchers, both aca
demically trained and community based (and often both labels fit).
Deaf History Goes Public | 121
Deaf perspectives are being heard, and Deaf leadership is seen as essen
tial to any project. Deaf history is a portal into the American experi
ence, and Deaf people are making major contributions to the dialogue.
There is much historical research on the Deaf community yet to
do, and the ways to do it are changing. Tap recent technologies, gather
facts, and become an intense researcher. Try to get beyond “me, too”
history and walls of fame. Acknowledge ambiguity even if you can
ace it. Above all, listen to the stories of people with lived
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