Anyone with a cultural interest in the disputes that have riven the deaf world (Alexander Graham Bell was at the center of one) may find a new PBS special worth watching. Here’s part of a review from Bloomberg (www.Bloomberg.com).
Deaf Band, Oscar-Winner Matlin Talk About Sound of Silence: TV
Review by Dave Shiflett
March 20 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. is a noisy nation;
even the national anthem celebrates bomb blasts. Yet one
group of Americans — the deaf — live outside the great
din, often more happily than their hearing compatriots
imagine, according to a captivating PBS special.
“Through Deaf Eyes,'’ which airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. New York time, reveals a world invisible to most, though not
About 35 million Americans are hearing impaired, the
show says, with 300,000 “profoundly deaf.'’ The deaf were
once considered to be beyond the reach of education and
were even shunned by evangelists, as if branded with a
Scarlet D. Yet one cleric, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, made
it his mission to bring the “gospel to the deaf'’ and
founded the first U.S. school for the non-hearing.
Gallaudet became enchanted by sign language, which he
considered “poetical.'’ His view was fiercely opposed by
Alexander Graham Bell, whose mother and wife were deaf.
Bell championed “oralist'’ education that emphasized lip
reading and speaking. The war between oralists and signers
is a major focus of the two-hour program, which is narrated
by Stockard Channing.
Bell’s side achieved an early advantage. By the late
1860s signing was outlawed in many schools for the deaf;
offenders were sometimes forced to wear mittens — that
world’s version of the gag.
Bell was driven by dark motivations, according to the
show, including a nativist fear that the deaf might become
another ethnic group with its own language and an aversion
to assimilation. The telephone inventor also was an
advocate of eugenics, believing deaf people shouldn’t
The oralists also argued that sign language was a gift
of the French, then as now a damning charge. Their position
would eventually succumb to the power of sign language,
whose beauty is amply illustrated throughout the show.
In one demonstration, a pair of satin-smooth hands
“speak'’ by performing a series of graceful glides, loops
and gestures that resemble a perfectly matched pair of
ballerinas. Signing also reflects regional and cultural
differences — accents, as it were. Southerners often sign
differently than Northerners, we learn, and ditto for
blacks and whites.
The deaf have been hectored plenty, including being
offered “cures'’ of a dubious nature such as sending them
aloft in planes, where acrobatic stunts would hopefully
rouse the slumbering hearing apparatus. Charles Lindbergh
charged $50 for what he called “deaf flights.'’
A 1906 U.S. Civil Service decision banned deaf people
from employment — the ruling was struck down two years
later by President Teddy Roosevelt. And the 1929 release of
“The Jazz Singer,'’ which introduced sound to cinema, was
a “disaster'’ for the deaf, the show says.
A deaf culture slowly arose, including theater
companies, writers and filmmakers, several of whose works
are sampled. There’s also a visit with a deaf rock band
called “Beethoven’s Nightmare,'’ one of whose members
explains that rock can make people go deaf “but we already
are, so it’s perfect.'’ Their sound holds its own with some
of America’s finest garage bands.
Eventually, deaf artists entered the mainstream,
including actor Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for
“Children of a Lesser God.'’ Slender and blond, she tells
an amusing story of a television interviewer who informed
her, seconds before going live, that “my dog is deaf like
you.'’ Matlin says she wondered, “Does she want to throw
me a bone?'’
Those interviewed on the show say deafness shouldn’t
be considered a handicap; instead, one person says, it
should be equated to “being tall instead of short.'’ That
perspective helped fuel the 1988 fight to name a deaf
president at Gallaudet, which ended with the ascension of
the royally named I. King Jordan.
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