WHEN THE MIND HEARS: A History of the Deaf by Harlan Lane
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WHEN THE MIND HEARS: A History of the Deaf

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With this work, Lane (The Wild Boy of Aveyron, The Wild Boy of Burundi) wins for himself a place in the history of the deaf--or, more precisely, of efforts to preserve for the deaf minority their natural, sign language. ""Using the medical model, our society is irresponsibly tearing many deaf children from the social fabric of the signing community. . . and casting them willy-nilly into 'mainstream schools,' as if pretending that they spoke would make it so."" He has chosen as his narrator, moreover, deaf educator Laurent Clerc (17-85-1869), ""to present the views of the deaf themselves as clearly and cogently as possible."" And so begins the story, as Clerc lived it or might have come to know it, of the first French school for the deaf, based on sign language--founded by the abbÉ de l'EpeÉ in Paris in 1755--and of the opposing ""efforts of hearing people to supplant the language of the deaf with their language, to replace signs with speech."" The book's second half carries the battle to America--where Clerc, a star pupil and then an instructor at the French school, came in 1816 to help Thomas Gallaudet set up the first American counterpart. Clerc's experiences, his biographical and historical digressions, make an engrossing, sometimes powerful tale: vividly peopled, strikingly detailed, multi-layered. (Clerc/Lane speculates, for instance, that the premiere ""oralist,"" Pereire, came to his calling because he was a converted Spanish Jew: ""His father had given him an artificial name. . . so he could live a better life. He spent much of that life giving hard-of-hearing pupils artificial speech. . . . It is only in the last few years of his life that we find Pereire reaffirming his Judaism. . . . At the same time, he stopped trying to convert signers into speakers."") But as history, it must be pieced together: the telling is associative, not consecutive. This is much less so, however, once Clerc assumes his salient role in the dissemination of American Sign Language. There are impressive bits on the teaching--distinguishing between ASL (which the students learned from one another), written English (taught in class), and fingerspelling (""that can be learned in an hour or two--every educated person should know how"")--and on deaf marriage (Clerc's was the first in America--Lane makes him an eloquent advocate). Next there's the erroneous oralism of Samuel Gridley Howe and Horace Mann to expose. Finally Lane speaks in his own voice to relate how Clerc's work was ""undone""--by, above all, Alexander Graham Bell. Totally partisan--but an appeal that won't go unheard.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0679720235
Publisher: Random House