Mike Gulliver: The politics of Deaf history

Posted on May 10, 2013

Shield at the entrance to the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital which houses the library – wording reads ‘Audient Surdi, Mutique Loquentur’ which roughly translates as ‘the deaf hear, the mute speak’.

Shield at the entrance to the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital which houses the library – wording reads ‘Audient Surdi, Mutique Loquentur’ which roughly translates as ‘the deaf hear, the mute speak’.

Wednesday, taking advantage of a trip to London, I found myself in the UCL Ear Institute and Action on Hearing Loss archives.

It struck me sitting there, that although I’ve known about that archive for some 10 years, that was the first time I’d ever been in it – and I wondered why.

And I realised that it was because all the way through my time at Bristol University’s Centre for Deaf Studies, although the library was acknowledged as just about the best public archive on deafness in the UK, there was no encouragement to go to it because it was the “RNID” library.

For those not steeped in UK Deaf history, this might not mean much, but the RNID, or the Royal National Institute for the Deaf  (now known as Action on Hearing Loss) is the ‘welfare’ and ‘hearing restoration’ counterfoil to the community/language/culture-oriented Deaf-oriented British Deaf Association.

For those in the US, it’s the A.G.Bell Association, and the BDA is the NAD.

As such, the RNID plays a characteristic role in the Deaf history that I was taught. Having been around for just over 100 years, it is the powerful hearing-run organisation that has the ear of the government on all things ‘deaf’, grabs all the money… and then refuses to acknowledge that it may have done anything wrong.

So it’s no surprise that – as students on a Masters course that aimed to further the emancipation of the Deaf community through a postcolonial cultural/linguistic/recognition agenda, we weren’t encouraged to visit its library… or make use of any of its information, or services, or support any of its activities or work for, or with it, in any way.

For what it’s worth – I don’t think that was an explicit decision, I think it just played out that way in people’s mental representations of what information sources were to be trusted and encouraged.

And yet, I found in the archive a wealth of historical information on the 19th century Deaf community. Information that is fundamental to an understanding of the UK Deaf community, but that has rarely made it into any kind of public forum, except the library’s own blog!

And it made me wonder what else we’re missing out on because we consider the risk of encouraging it simply too great… the larger and better funded resources of disability historians, medical historians, educational historians, and the like.

And it made me wonder if it wouldn’t be an enormously important thing to do, to ‘infiltrate’ these ‘other’ sources of information and resources, and disarm them from within – embracing them, subverting them, transforming them… laying them, and their histories, and their backgrounds open to examination along with the information that they contain.

Isn’t that a recognised postcolonial strategy?

Isn’t that, for example, what Doug Alker did when – following his ill-fated period as CEO of the RNID, he used his Golden Handshake to set up the FDP? (1)

Or, is that too political – can’t we just, maybe… use them?

After all, that’s what they’re there for.

And, I’ll be honest, having met the staff of the archive, any thought that they might have a politics other than to preserve and encourage use of the archive, has disappeared… They are lovely people, immensely knowledgeable, and eager to engage with anyone interested in the history.

I suspect, should we begin to engage with those in fields that have traditionally Othered the Deaf community, that we might find the same.

(1) Alker’s ‘Really Not Interested In the Deaf’ is his story of his time as CEO of the RNID – it makes for very interesting reading.

imageOriginally published on Mike Gulliver’s blog: http://mikegulliver.wordpress.com

Mike Gulliver is a linguist and geographer with a particular interest in the history of the Deaf community. He has worked in the UK and overseas as a language teacher, and interpreter/translator. His PhD, which he completed in 2009, describes Deaf spaces through history, focusing particularly on the Parisian Deaf community and their emergence from the school for deaf children founded by the Abbé de l’Epée. He lives in Bristol with his wife and two young children. 

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