skein's Reviews > Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language

Forbidden Signs by Douglas C. Baynton
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's review
Oct 13, 11

bookshelves: 5-star, buy-it-you-fool, non-fiction
Recommended for: yes!
Read in August, 2011

Oh, lovely. Not only a study of the role of signed language in American culture, 19th-century to vaguely-present-era - it's also a considered exploration of prejudice - the why and how and institutionalization thereof - the construction of normalcy as a shared ideal (!!)
and there are FOOTNOTES! So many footnotes! Oh, so many first-person accounts! and photographs! and and and ... !

This is one of those books that I read cringingly for the first hundred pages because I was waiting for the author to fuck up and insult me - it didn't happen and didn't happen and didn't happen - and he kept surprising me. Er, in a good way? Like making a distinction between "sign language" and "signed language", his (and my) preferred term. Like not ever using man-as-default. Like being consistently thoughtful and respectful of the people he was writing about - even the bigoted jerks. Noted his lack of knowledge (mostly, lack of sources), especially as regards to the schools for black students - and how difficult it is to understand past culture, how tempting it is to pretend we know.

Oralism, sign language, oralism, sign language -- back and forth and back and forth, and the debate has been controlled (and is still controlled) by hearing persons, who just don't have a high stake in the matter. It's easy to be Rational and Logical when it's not your life.


The deaf (and Deaf) people I know were taught oralism. They've got more than five decades in age difference -- a significant range, I think ... I do not know a single d/Deaf person who learned sign at a young age, or whose family knew more than a few signs, or who had a supportive school environment. Supportive, hell - most of them were taught to lip-read and forbidden or just strongly not encouraged to use sign.

It's not a wonder to me that hearing people think they know more about deaf people, and Deaf culture, than deaf people know -- that's just natural, isn't it? Don't the privileged always have a better perspective than the minorities? It's none of that annoying life experience for them, no sir! just logic-logic-logic, all the way down.

What boggles my mind is that they care.
It's as though deaf signing is offensive - simply because hearing people do not share it.
How typical. How prejudiced. How snotty.

And the pendulum is swinging further to the right yet again: with typical prejudiced snotty hearing-culture self-righteousness, well-meaning parents are giving their children cochlear implants and forbidding them from learning sign language, because their child must not be one of those awful icky deaf people, dear god no, my child will be JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE.
Gee! Prejudice! HOW REFRESHING.

I need to go hug my deaf friend now and apologize for every appalling hearie mistake I've ever made and all the ones I'll make in the future. Christ! This is a horrible world!
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