Charitable Agenda for the Deaf

In Britain, efforts to medicalize the deaf have a long-standing history that can be traced back to the Evangelical Revival of the late eighteenth century as medical men sought for a place within institutions for the deaf that were strictly devoted for instruction. In contrast to the l’esprit philosophique of late-eighteenth century France which precipitated a flurry of complex intellectual theories rooted within a rationalistic and empirical spirit, the British approach to education and treatment of the deaf was strongly driven by a basic utilitarian philosophy. Educators for the deaf maintained an overarching devotion to religious zealotry, political conservationism, and a stereotypical social philosophy that left no room for medicine.[1] Despite sporadic efforts to teach the deaf variations of artificial speech, finger-spelling, signs, or lip-reading, the deaf were mainly perceived as curiosities, whose “mental and moral nature [was] imprisoned.”[2] While much of the educational efforts were directed to deaf children of the wealthy and aristocratic, the poor deaf and dumb suffered uncomprehending brutality at the hands of an ignorant society that viewed deafness only through the effects it produced upon the mental and moral character of the deaf.

The secular agenda of British charity aimed to elevate the deaf from a dreary state of ignorance and place them in active participation and employment in society. The agenda emphasized the importance of all men’s duties towards God and man. Several charitable ventures also emerged, drawing attention to the need for the deaf to withdraw from isolation. The Reverend Thomas Beck, for instance, wrote a poem—The Cause of the Dumb Pleaded (1792)—which drew attention to both Reverend John Townsend’s claim for educating the poor deaf and dumb, as well as the social distinction between the world of the deaf and the world of the hearing:

Like you, he views the busy tribes around,
Like you, he hates where crowds admiring throng;
But lost to him the choir’s enliv’ning sound,
And dumb to him the statesman’s fluent tongue

The peopled world he sees on ev’ry side,
And pants to shew and share a friend’s esteem,
But social pleasures are to him deny’d
And all the world are deaf and dumb to him.

This emotional plea stressed the importance of morally uplifting the deaf from his isolation and allowing him to “converse with his God.” This connection with religion and charity was not lost among the public who were growing to become sympathetic towards the plight of the poor deaf and dumb. Much of the sympathy was tied to the realization that if something could be done to relieve the misery of the deaf, then something should be done.

[1] Jules Paul Seigel, “The Enlightenment and the Evolution of a Language of Signs in France and England,” Journal of the History of Ideas 30 (1969): p.96.

[2] W.R. Scott, The Deaf and Dumb, their Education and Social Position, 2nd Ed. (London: Bell & Daldy, 1870), p.63.

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