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Review of: Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication
******** GEISER-GETZ *** EJC/REC Vol. 6, No. 4, 1996 *******

Review of:

Forbidden Signs:  American Culture and the Campaign
Against Sign Language.
D.C. Baynton
Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Phone: 773-702-7700
ISBN 0-226-03963-3.

Reviewed by:

Glenn Geiser-Getz
East Stroudsburg University

     In a society dominated by discussion of
multiculturalism and identity politics, in an age troubled
by the balancing act of constructing a common culture while
simultaneously promoting diversity, _Forbidden Signs:
American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language_
offers compelling commentary.  Baynton's project in the
book, which comes from his University of Iowa dissertation,
is not to address race, class, or gender (the usual and
sometimes tiresome triumvirate of cultural study) but to
examine the role of language in the American deaf community.
Although his tack on identity and culture is different in
this respect, the story he tells is surprisingly familiar,
especially to those who have studied cultural relations
between more and less dominant groups.  Baynton admits at
the outset that _Forbidden Signs_ is a study of the dominant
culture, in this case the hearing community and the hearing
establishment of American education.  Still, in his quest
for understanding he also examines the responses of the deaf
community to various changes brought by the sometimes
well-meaning and mostly paternalistic representatives of the
dominant hearing culture.

     _Forbidden Signs_ begins with the clearly stated and
now familiar premise that deafness, like virtually all human
understandings, has both a physical reality and a socially
constructed one.  The meaning of deafness changes over time
and is shaped by a variety of factors (educational
philosophy, Christianity, evolutionary theory, definitions
of the normal, conceptions of nature, meanings of deafness),
most of which lie outside the influence of deaf people
themselves.  Fundamental tensions push Baynton's narrative
forward in _Forbidden Signs_.  The tension between the
hearing community and the deaf community is the most
obvious, and Baynton highlights clashes between the leaders
of these groups in particular.  A more specific tension
exists between the advocates of "manualism" and the
proponents of "oralism," two quite different methods for
teaching deaf people to communicate.  It is here that the
book becomes especially interesting, and the tension between
these two theories in the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries of American culture drives a debate concerning the
meaning of deafness, the goals of deaf education, and the
role of language in the development of a minority community.

     Manualism, the more familiar method in the twenty-first
century, includes the use of sign language in the classroom
but can also include combinations of other methods.
Oralism, in contrast, involves the exclusive use of
lip-reading and speech in deaf education.  Struggles between
the advocates of these two methods become the primary focus
for much of _Forbidden Signs_, and Baynton explores their
differences to better understand cultural constructions of
deafness.  Manualist educators, he writes, were typically
evangelical Protestants interested in converting the deaf,
had higher levels of education, and were predominately male.
Oralists were concerned more with a national community than
a Christian one, were influenced by evolutionary science,
considered gestural communication to be animalistic, and
were mostly female.  Although the deaf community and its
leaders consistently supported manualism, the less
scientifically defensible oralism became the standard
for deaf education for a significant period of time.  The
meanings for deafness constructed by oralists may have had
greater resonance for the hearing community due to several
different cultural reasons that are explored in the book.
Importantly, Baynton writes that advocates of both methods
constructed deafness as a lack and deaf people as outsiders
who depended upon the hearing to be brought back into the
fold, to be united with a larger community whether religious
or nationalistic.  Although one would not want to push the
similarities too far, there are notable parallels between
the debates over manualism and oralism and more recent
debates over teaching standard English to students who come
from different linguistic backgrounds (i.e. ebonics).

     Baynton remains critical of the movements in deaf
education today.  Attempts at inclusion or mainstreaming
(moving children with differing abilities into the same
classrooms together) may do more harm than good to deaf
students, many of whom find themselves the only deaf
children in a classroom filled with hearing students.  The
experience of the modern deaf child is a far cry from that
of many students in the nineteenth century who attended
residential schools for the deaf which provided a community
based on a common language complete with adult role models
in the teachers themselves, many of whom were deaf as well.
The mainstreamed deaf student of today is sometimes the only
deaf person in the room, able to communicate with students
and teachers through a translator or through the techniques
of oralism.  Separated by language, they are unable to join
the educational community in the same meaningful way as
earlier generations of deaf people.

     _Forbidden Signs_ certainly deserves a thorough read
and, while it addresses a specific topic, would be useful as
a jumping-off point for more general discussions of
identity, culture, power, symbolic communication, and
resistance.  The book could be useful in several different
teaching settings.  As a historical study of the social
construction of meaning, it would be useful for most any
cultural studies or rhetorical criticism course.  As a study
of competing forms of communication (written, spoken, and
gestural forms of language) it might even be appropriate for
an advanced public speaking class.  Certainly it would work
for courses in American studies, cultural history,
educational theory or history, or any course examining the
deaf community.