Deafness as Discourse

In Enforcing Normalcy, Lennard Davis makes the claim that Europe “became deaf” in the 18th century—that is, before the late 17th century, the deaf were not constructed as a group. The reason for this discursive nonexistence, Davis argues, is that most deaf individuals were born into hearing families and isolated in their deafness, viewed mainly as isolated deviations from a norm. As social and medical treatments for deafness became a subject of discourse, deafness became “visible” and the body of the deaf individual became the site of powerful social and political controls and managements.

Scientific and pedagogical interest in deafness has a long-standing history. While the deaf generally remained as social outcasts until the 18th century, the earliest British efforts to educate and integrate the deaf into normal society can be traced to the work of several members of the Royal Society in London. John Bulwer’s (1608-1656) 1648 publication of

John Bulwer

the first English treatise on finger-spelling, Philocopus, or the Deaf and Dumbe Man’s Friend, contended to the view that the uneducated deaf “were denied the means to express their humanity” and thus required an alternative, manual system useful for communication. Bulwer’s treatise sparked a flurry of activity within the Royal Society to discover the origins of language, speech, and

the lack thereof in the deaf.  The experiments of John Wallis (1616-1703), William Holder (1616-1698) and George Dalgaro (1626-1687) to illustrate new theories of language were applied to instruct several deaf people the structural elements necessary to acquire speech. However, the Royal Society ceased to consider human speech worthy of their study; despite these groundbreaking works and the use of Bulwer’s treatise to privately instruct deaf children, efforts to improve the state of the indigent deaf and dumb through speech and signs gradually tapered off by the eighteenth century.

John Wallis

As the events of the French Revolution “heightened the charitable and evangelical fervour” of British society, men of good will conformed to the view that it was their divine duty to elevate the spiritual state of the poor and disabled populations. Based on the “doctrinal culture” of Protestant England which placed increased value on hearing in relation to other senses, these men emphasized the necessity to “hear the word of God;” deafness was thus viewed as a social tragedy. An anonymous pamphlet circulating during the early 1800s captures the necessity of Protestant beneficence:

for a social being to be deprived of all the consolations of social intercourse; this alone would  be a state of privation, calculated to call forth in his behalf the warmest sympathies of benevolence. And none can surely comprehend better than the intelligent and kind-hearted, how lonely, how cheerless, how desolate the lot—what a wilderness of faces, and solitude of hearts, must this world to be, to a deaf mute uneducated…A being endowed with an immortal soul, a responsible creature, is living without God in the world.[1]

Yet up until the late eighteenth century, the education of the deaf was mainly a private enterprise catered to the children of the wealthy and aristocratic. It was not until 1762 when the first school specializing in instruction for the deaf was founded by Thomas Braidwood (1715-1806) in Edinburgh. Initially persuaded by a wealthy local merchant to instruct his 10-year-old son how to read and write, Braidwood transformed his mathematical academy, abandoned his aspirations for teaching mathematics, and dedicated his life to teaching deaf children. Using a mixture of speech, finger-spelling and signs, Braidwood’s success with the boy led an increasing number of pupils by 1780. Eventually moving the Edinburgh school to London in 1783 and opening up subsequent ones in the area, Braidwood and his family represented deaf education for nearly half a century.

Despite the fact Braidwood kept his methods of instruction a secret to forestall competition and attended only to wealthy families, his teaching ability spread word that the deaf were capable and worthy of education. Braidwood’s success and the promotion of social responsibility by the Evangelical Revival led to the realization that the deaf could be improved by a system of education and integration through special sympathy and understanding.

[1] Quoted in John Townsend, Memoirs of the Rev. John Townsend, founder of the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb and of the Congregational School (1st American Edition; Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1831), p.45.

Latest Comments

  1. Ray Lee says:

    I thought I should point out some error of facts in the “Deafness as Discourse” blog. One – Thomas Braidwood started teaching the deaf at his privare academy in Edinburgh in the early quarter of 1760, not 1762. Evidence for this lies with the age of his first pupil Charles Shirreff, and a mention (in Memoirs of Henry Brothers Bingham by Fanshawe Bingham)by Henry Briothers Bingham, an assistant of Braidwood’s grandson at the Edgbaston School for the Deaf. Secondly, contrary to what was written in the past, Braidwood was not a mathematics teacher – he was a writing master and this is confirmed in two separate Sasine documents.


    • Jai Virdi says:

      thank you for the comment. I appreciate the correction although I admit I’m not as familiar with Braidwood’s work as I would like to be. My research has been concentrated largely on the medical profession, particularly in their relationship with educational asylums for the deaf.


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