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Preserving Disability Heritage: Gallaudet Inaugurates New Center for Deaf Documentary Studies

Kritika Agarwal, April 2016

In the 1960s, NASA conducted an experiment that involved housing a group of men in a room built on top of a centrifuge. The men ate, slept, and lived in the room for 10 days, all while it spun beneath them. When the experiment started, the men could barely stand up. But as their bodies got used to the shifting pulls of gravity, eventually they were able to walk, albeit leaning to the side to maintain their balance. Surprisingly, none of the men got sick.

Harry O. Larson, one of the Gallaudet 11, reviews a draft exhibition script with CDDS intern Maggie Kopp. Credit: Brian H. Greenwald Members of this special group of volunteers were all deaf, specifically due to spinal meningitis, which had destroyed their inner ear labyrinths. In addition to the centrifuge experiment, they also participated in suborbital flights and motion sickness tests on US naval ships. Labeled “labyrinthine defective,” the men were students at Gallaudet College (now University); they played an important role in understanding the effects of weightlessness, motion, and balance on the human body as NASA prepared for its first mission to the moon. They were known as the Gallaudet 11.

Today, Gallaudet’s new Center for Deaf Documentary Studies (CDDS) is bringing their stories to the public in the form of a lively exhibit featuring photos, oral interviews, digitized footage, and life-size cutouts of the 11 men preparing for centrifuge spins and free-falls in aircrafts. As the CDDS’s website describes, the exhibit seeks not only to educate the public about lesser-known deaf history, but also to ask purposeful questions about what it means for deaf people to be labeled “defective” by the government while providing valuable service to the nation.

Disability studies and disability history have gained significant momentum in academia over the past two decades. Yet documenting the lives, histories, and cultures of disabled people remains fraught with challenges. As Michael Rembis and Susan Burch wrote in Disability Histories, “Historically, archives . . . and other troves of valuable sources located around the world did not include disabled people or disability-­related terms in their indexes.” Similarly, they stated, social stigmas surrounding disability, as well as the persistence of views that disability constituted a medical condition signifying some kind of loss or deficit (as opposed to a socio-political or cultural construct), dissuaded institutions and academics from seeing disability as something that lay within the purview of historians.

The CDDS is only the most recent of Gallaudet’s efforts to document and preserve deaf history. The initiative takes a four-pronged approach: discovering and identifying deaf-specific topics and issues that need further research; documenting deaf history and life by creating digital and narrative materials; disseminating these materials through a variety of avenues, including film screenings and exhibits; and educating Gallaudet students in the documentary arts, including technical and multimedia skills. This approach allows the CDDS to promote public understanding of what it means to be deaf or hard of hearing; it also preserves endangered cultural knowledge about deaf life held within the deaf community.

The idea of creating an inter­disciplinary humanities center at Gallaudet to study the lives and histories of deaf people had been simmering for a while. As Brian H. Greenwald, director of the center and a professor of history at the university, noted in an e-mail interview, “Faculty and staff recognized that there was much expertise on campus related to the fields of deaf history, business, film, communication studies, deaf studies, English, and the visual and performing arts. There was not, however, a place that linked this expertise together to foster collaboration.”

The CDDS came to fruition after the thirst for documenting deaf life became apparent during a university-wide forum hosted by Provost Stephen Weiner in November 2013. In a packed room, “person after person took to the stage giving passionate statements on the need for documenting the stories of deaf people in different formats,” said Greenwald. As one of a handful of institutions of higher education in the world completely devoted to the needs and education of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Gallaudet had the resources and the expertise. Founded in 1864, the university’s Washington, DC, campus hosts the world’s largest collection of materials related to deaf life and the deaf community.

In addition to the exhibit on the Gallaudet 11, the CDDS has several projects documenting deaf life and history in the pipeline. One involves producing a photo narrative book capturing the stories of about 40 deaf people who served as volunteers in the US Peace Corps, some as far back as 1967. Building on a prior exhibit at the university on the same topic, the book will use hundreds of pictures from the volunteers, many of whom were Gallaudet alumni, to discuss their experiences and the particular issues and challenges facing deaf people in the United States and around the world.

The CDDS is also documenting stories of deaf New Yorkers, particularly the close-knit community of hundreds of deaf Jewish and Italian immigrants in Brooklyn during the mid-20th century. “Little has been done to record urban deaf life and the impact of having a geographically close community,” said Greenwald. The center, according to its website, plans to conduct “oral history” interviews to determine the particular linguistic, educational, and employment challenges faced by deaf urbanites. (Greenwald explained that “oral history” has dual meanings in the deaf community—narrative history documentation as well as history of oral or speech training. The latter has typically been a subject of much contention within the community.)

Perhaps the most important work the center is doing, however, is collecting and preserving materials on deaf heritage. While this kind of work is important to every community, Greenwald argued that some aspects of deaf culture make these efforts unique: “Because approximately 90 percent of deaf people are born to hearing parents, they are usually the only deaf member of the family. Hearing families may not be aware of the cultural historic value of an individual’s collection [of personal artifacts]. There are accounts of deaf people’s films or photos being tossed out by family members who just never imagined that footage of people signing or visiting a school might be valuable.”

Another challenge is the accessibility of deaf archives. In addition to making materials available in English and ASL, archives also have to consider other modes of communication, including visual and tactile signing as well as speech. Film, because of its ability to capture these forms of communication, is often the ideal medium for telling deaf stories. “Every step of the documentary process involves consideration of the audience and their access to the content,” said Greenwald. “Accessibility can never be an afterthought here.”

In light of these challenges, the center will host a community event, Capturing Deaf Heritage, on October 28, 2016, with the goal of furthering the documentation of the American deaf community’s cultural heritage. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Common Heritage grant program, and held in collaboration with the university archives and museum, the daylong event will host workshops and presentations on the preservation of photographs, films, documents, and objects, as well as a discussion on the recovery of writings by deaf people. Greenwald noted that participants will have the opportunity to have original images and documents scanned and to leave with digital copies of their materials.

Greenwald encouraged those unable to attend the event to contact the CDDS with ideas for collaboration: “The lived experiences of deaf people help us not only to understand a cultural community but also tell us a lot about what it means to be hearing in our society, and that offers a new framework of analysis of who we are. We all have much to learn.”

Kritika Agarwal is associate editor, publications, at the AHA. She tweets @kritikaldesi.


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