Histories of Deaf Histories

One of the agendas of my dissertation is to build a steady bridge between scholarship from the history of medicine and scholarship from Deaf and Disability Studies. Granted, as part of my education at IHPST, my research has been lopsided, for I’ve concentrated more on the history of medicine and technologies (especially relating to medical professionalism and quackery) and not so much on Deaf Culture. That’s why I’m so excited to be here at Leeds, emerging myself into a different and unfamiliar scholarship in the hopes of writing a remarkably interdisciplinary dissertation. I’ll have a report from the conference once it’s finished.

On the top of histories of Deaf histories, Lennard Davis has emphasized the deaf person has historically served as an icon for complex intersections of subject, class, and the body.[1] This construction and awareness of the connection to language relied on deafness becoming visible for the first time as an articulation in a set of practices. According to Davis, prior to the mid-seventeenth century, the deaf were rarely constructed as a group; while we may come across a historical record of a deaf individual, he points out that there is no significant discourse constructed on deafness. “The reason for this discursive nonexistence,” he explains,

is that, then as now, most deaf people were born to hearing families, and were therefore isolated in their deafness. Without a sense of group solidarity and without a social category of disability, they were mainly seen as isolated deviations of the norm, as we might now consider, for example, people who are missing an arm. For these deaf, there were no schools, no teachers, no discourse, in effect, no deafness.[2]

Davis continues, somewhat ambiguously, to explain that though deafness did not exist, authors who wrote on deafness did so within a set of practices whereby deafness could be evaluated. In short, deafness and mutism became tied with theories of language and intellect, evaluated and adopted into pedagogical efforts to instruct and educate the deaf.

This stance is interesting for it suggests that marganlized groups themselves have a history that is culturally and socially constructed (which other historians of deformity, insanity, etc., have already discussed). Margaret Winzer also notes that attitudes towards the deaf in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were based on defining economic and social conditions; the changing social climate—particularly in France—were thus manifested in the formation of schooling and general attitudes about education towards the deaf. She argues that while the educators recognized the importance of deaf education, the plight of the deaf as a group drew meager public attention, but this does not mean that deafness did not exist as a discourse.[3]

However, the experiences of the deaf were not only closely tied with pedagogical and philosophical examinations, but also with charitable influences as well as medical prospects. While the works of most historians of Deaf Histories have examined the tensions between the deaf body in related to the social body (Winzer, Padden & Humphries), particularly in terms of sign language and communication, others have focused on the concept of deafness as a cultural construction as well as a physical phenomenon (Baynton, Branson & Miller, Davis). These authors argue that as social and medical treatments for deafness became a subject of discourse, deafness thus became “visible” and the body of the deaf individual became a site of Foucaultdian power and social management. Branson and Miller argue that deafness was not merely a condition but a site for social transformation, which became firmly identified with “progress.”[4] In transforming the deaf from a site of philosophical and pedagogical experiments towards a site of the pathological, the deaf became “a measure of humanity’s control over its own destiny, a measure of the power of the scientific method.”[5] The deaf, to put it simply, became the mark of the triumph of medicine, as treatments of the deaf body revealing of the power and control of physicians and surgeons.


[2] Davis, Enforcing Normalcy, 51.

[3] Margaret Winzer, The History of Special Education .

[4] Branson and Miller, Damned for their Difference, 88.

[5] Branson and Miller, Damned for their Difference, 88.

Latest Comments

  1. Kelly (@rocza) says:


    I’m not sure I agree with the concept that deafness didn’t exist, at least in how you describe Davis’s point of view. I do think that the concept of Deafness didn’t exist, but that they are two separate things, and necessary to keep separate when talking about d/Deaf histories.

    It seems like the challenge with this project is going to be separating out the medicalization of deafness with the culture of Deafness and the different tendrils that expand out – and overlap – from each.


  2. Jai Virdi says:

    Thinking about ‘deafness’ as a concept requires placing it in a historical context–for instance, deafness prior to the mid-19C was largely an umbrella term to encompass all sorts of hearing losses and ear ailments, not necessarily the state of profound hearing loss used for describing Deafness.

    I agree with you about the challenge–and I think it’s a tremendous challenge for any historian speaking of cultural divides. The medicalization of deafness is so closely interwoven with the development of Deaf culture that it’s nearly impossible to not acknowledge one when speaking of the other. However, i’m more interested tracing the early roots of this divide, in which the history shows to me that there actually wasn’t a ‘divide’ in the strictest sense; medicine, education, culture, all went hand-in-hand, so to speak.

    Thank you for your comment. Discussions like this are really important to the history of d/Deafness!


  3. Karen sayer says:

    Nice work Jai!


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