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Central Standard

Transcript: Discrimination Against Deaf People In The United States

Phil Prater
Public Domain

On KCUR’s Central Standard, host Gina Kaufmann spoke to Reverend Debbie Buchholz, co-founder of Deaf International, and William Ennis, assistant professor of history at Gallaudet University, about the history of persecution against people with deafness in this country — and the milestones along the path to equal rights.

RELATED: For Deaf Refugees, Learning Sign Language Is A Challenge With Life-Changing Rewards

Here is a transcript of their conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gina Kaufmann: The U.S. has its own history of discrimination when it comes to the non-hearing population. The sign language teacher we just met has a personal perspective on that history, which we're going to hear about now. Reverend Debbie Buchholz, good morning.

Debbie Buchholz: Good morning.

Kaufmann: You grew up with this history in your home?

Buchholz: I did. My parents are deaf, and aunts, uncles, cousins, children. We have hereditary deafness in our family. Only 13 percent of deafness is hereditary.

Kaufmann: And you obviously can hear, but you struggle with it a little bit yourself. We're sitting positioned so that you can see my mouth while we're talking.

Buchholz: Yes, I'm hard of hearing. I carry the gene that my family has and I am hard of hearing. I have severe word discrimination. I can hear sounds easier than I can understand speech. So I am a lip reader.

Kaufmann: Did discrimination and inequality shape your parents’ experience of deafness in any way that you could witness in your house or heard about from them?

Buchholz: Well, actually, I grew up hearing stories from my parents for many years. All of us, all five of us kids. My parents had so many stories that they told about what had happened to them at the deaf school, what it was like for them to grow up in families who didn't use sign language in the home.

Kaufmann: Wait, can you explain that? Why weren't they using sign language in the home?

Buchholz: So, my father's parents were German-speaking only. And during that era, my father was born in 1925 — deafness here, even in the United States, was considered a curse. It was considered something very negative. The family had sinned. And so this child is born deaf and so sign language wasn't a beautiful thing during that time. And to have a deaf child was not something you were proud of.

Kaufmann: So, the idea being that making that invisible was important?

Buchholz: Very important. My father would tell stories about people coming to the family farm to visit and he would see one of his parents running at him to grab him and his deaf brother and put them in a closet to hide them. He said he didn't have a clock, he didn't know exactly how long he was stuck in that closet, but he said it was hours and hours, and he does remember sleeping overnight in that closet.

Kaufmann: The deaf school that you mentioned that your parents went to, that you heard stories from there. What kinds of stories came from that experience?

Buchholz: So many stories. During the time, that my father — my mother too, she was born in 1935 so there was a 10-year gap there — they entered the school during those years. They had what was called an oral method of education. And so the teachers were not allowed to use sign language. And the students — they could be hard of hearing to profoundly deaf — had to sit and receive the lesson by watching the teachers’ mouths.

And so he would tell stories about how my both my parents loved learning and loved education and had dreams of going to college. Neither one of them did. But he would tell stories about how, if they were caught signing, their hands were beaten, they had to kneel on broomsticks, what kind of tools were used in their mouths in speech class trying to get them to be able to speak. And my father is profoundly deaf. He has zero hearing. And so speaking was not something that he was able to do.

Kaufmann: Is hearing stories like this part of what inspires you to work with people whose own inability to hear has, in some way, shut them out?

Buchholz: Definitely. I spent my whole life, since I have hearing and I'm the eldest daughter, I was ordained the family interpreter. So I had to interpret for my parents to the whole world and for the world to my parents. I went with them through all of the experiences that they had that were related to discrimination and oppression. And I'm different now. In my 20s, I was very angry and on every protest committee out there.

Kaufmann: Protest committees, like there are movements in this country that have been fighting the kind of discrimination you're talking about?

Buchholz: Yes. And, for example, just trying to fight the world in looking at my parents and my aunts and uncles and my cousins in the deaf community. Fighting the world to get them to look at them as equals, as people who have a right to have a voice, to express themselves, to receive a proper education, to be able to get married and have a family or go to college, or to have what everyone else has. It was that kind of fight that I have been involved in my whole life.

Kaufmann: What’s your understanding of how the kinds of experiences your parents had — and your aunts and uncles and so much of your family over time — what that has to do with history with a capital H in the United States? Do you think that that what your parents have experienced represents policy issues or major chapters in history that that the hearing community doesn't know very much about?

Buchholz: Well I think there is a lot. I think that as time goes by, when we're doing all of this fighting, when a minority group is doing all this fighting, trying to get the world to listen to us, trying to find a voice in society, it influences a lot of different areas: education, laws, policies, rights. And I think that it is important for minority groups to continue to fight and to be a voice in the world because it does influence history and it does shape our future.

Kaufmann: Can you give me an example? You talked about being in your 20s and being out there in protest groups. Can you give me an example of something specific you were protesting at one point?

Buchholz: Yeah. I was involved in a lot of protests in fighting for equal opportunity for education. I grew up hearing these stories from my parents on how they were mistreated, how they were denied. I have a story of my father, who talked about going to college. And when it was time for him to graduate, he was 20 years old and he was a star student.

Kaufmann: In spite of having to lip read.

Buchholz: In spite of having to lip read, yes. Well, he was a star on the football team and a captain and homecoming king. And he wanted to graduate and go to college, and when it was time to graduate, he was told that he wasn't going to graduate and they never told him why.

And I listened to that story throughout my whole childhood. And when my son Noah was deaf and we moved to this deaf school so that he could attend the school, I asked the superintendent if he could investigate it, and he did. They found his records in the attic, and stamped on the first page was “denied graduation because he couldn't speak.”

And so, when they found those records, he was 68 years old, and they gave him his diploma, which was nice, but it did not give him the opportunity to go to college. Not at 68.

Kaufmann: Yeah, it didn't go back and erase all of those years.

Buchholz: No, it did not.

Kaufmann: And so, when you were out there fighting, what were you fighting for specifically?

Buchholz: Specifically, to make sure that the teachers who are teaching our deaf children were fluent in American Sign Language. That they understood deaf culture, that a deaf child could go to school and learn something and grow and be educated properly so that they can go to college if they want to.

Kaufmann: Debbie Buchholz, stay with me, OK?

Buchholz: OK.

Kaufmann: I'm Gina Kaufmann. When KCUR’s Central Standard returns, we'll hear from an expert on the history of the deaf community’s struggle for equal rights. That's coming right up. Stay tuned.


Kaufmann: I'm Gina Kaufmann. This is KCUR’s Central Standard, and we're getting a window into a movement for equal rights in this country that a lot of us don't know much about: rights for people with deafness.

It turns out there is a whole history there, and we're going to talk about it now with William Ennis. He's a professor of history at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. and he himself is deaf, so you'll hear a bit of a lag for an interpreter between my questions and his answers. Hi William.

Ennis: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

Kaufmann: Thanks for joining us. What interests you about the history of deaf people in the United States?

Ennis: That's a good question. Both of my parents were deaf. I'm from a deaf family and my father was very into history generally, and I think that really touched me. I was participating listening to your conversation with Debbie and it was interesting to me the difference between her experience and mine.

I'm from a deaf family, a big deaf family, and both of my parents went to college. My mother went to graduate school. So our experience was very different in that the stories that she got and that I got were very different. So you can see how much education can actually have an impact on deaf lives and it's really critical. And I thank Debbie for all of her advocacy and protest work. It's really important.

Kaufmann: You know, when it comes to this history, it seems like it's hard to avoid the name Alexander Graham Bell, who most of us know is the inventor of the telephone, which sounds innocent enough. But what was Alexander Graham Bell's relationship with the deaf community?

Ennis: So, he not only invented the telephone, but he had a very interesting involvement. He was a strong supporter of oralism — and not only oralism, but also eugenics. And my research looked at how those two really overlapped. They're not necessarily mutually exclusive, but there is some overlap in how they had an influence on one another.

So, at the beginning of deaf education in the United States in roughly 1817, sign language was accepted; it was appreciated and used in all schools in America. And it wasn't until about 1840 or 1850 that oralism actually emerged and that also kind of coincided with the eugenics movement. And the two of them would then kind of feed each other to really oppress deaf education in the sense of banning sign language.

Kaufmann: Why was Alexander Graham Bell concerned about this?

Ennis: His family had a history of, at that time, it was called elocutionist. So his grandfather in Scotland and Britain worked in that field. So it was somewhat natural that he would be involved in that as well. He had always been focused on speech and how we learn speech and writing system of learning how to speak appropriately. So it wasn't surprising that he was involved.

Kaufmann: The word “eugenics” is probably familiar to a lot of our listeners, but oralism? Maybe not. Can you explain that word in that movement?

Ennis: Sure. So, generally speaking, there are two types of education for deaf children. One uses sign language and the other is oralism. That basically means using speech and training deaf children to speak, physically speak, and to speech-read. And that's historical model and has evolved somewhat with the advances of technology, cochlear implants, and that's helped that model somewhat.

But generally, in history, there are those two options. And where oralism and eugenics intersect is that sense of normalcy. Attempting or pushing so everything you can do to make a deaf person fit back into hearing society

Kaufmann: How is that harmful to deaf people?

Ennis: The deaf community, the deaf world, would argue that deaf culture is a part of the inherent, it's an inherent part of a person. Signing is a natural way for deaf people to speak and for everything from that language of sign through the culture, the traditions, is all intertwined.

For us, normalcy means signing and being visual. Forcing deaf people to use or, well, first of all, to set aside their sign language and accept speech and lip reading, that forces — or that pressure to fit into normalcy has a long history of oppression, and not just for deaf people. You can look at African-Americans who would pass as white. You can see other disabled groups who can pretend or pass as though they're not disabled. So that oppression exists. And deaf people have experienced it for quite some time.

Kaufmann: How have oralism and eugenics been codified into law or other institutions in this country?

Ennis: The first eugenics law in America was in 1907 in Indiana, and it was a sterilization law. And from that point on, I think our last law that was on the books was in — I may be wrong with the specifics — but it went quite well into the 20th century. And those laws, most of the time, were pretty broad, which then left room for including almost anybody that didn't fit whatever normalcy was defined at the time.

Kaufmann: Can you explain what you referred to as a sterilization law?

Ennis: So the law in Indiana, for example, most of the time applied to inmates, prisoners, and they would be sterilized. As it applied to deaf people or other groups, the sterilization intent was to prevent offspring. So going back to Alexander Graham Bell, he pushed for a marriage law that would ban deaf people from marrying one another because, at that time, it was felt if two deaf people married, they would have deaf offspring. Now, the science doesn't necessarily fit that reality because 95 percent of deaf people have hearing parents. But that was the pressure at the time.

Kaufmann: How have laws like that been removed or repealed? Have there been heroes in a struggle for equality that we should be knowing about and celebrating?

Ennis: I don't know if there were heroes, because you have to remember that the target of these laws were people on the margins of society. One example of a deaf situation: a guy named Junius Winston. He was a deaf black man in North Carolina who was to be sterilized. And that's almost like two strikes against him. One, he was deaf and he was black. And third, he was poor. So there's not a lot of hero stories here.

A lot of people who were targeted were also had mental issues. So society generally didn't recognize them as heroes, but states like California, Virginia, North Carolina, all of those state legislatures have apologized to those were harmed during those periods and made some reparations in some cases.

Kaufmann: Who has done the pushing for those reparations?

Ennis: That's a good question and I'm not exactly sure, but a lot has been from within different groups, like historical groups and individuals themselves. Junius Winston, for example, lived his whole life in an institution and his case just so happened to be found by an attorney, and that attorney chased it to freeing him from that institution. By the time it happened he was in his 70s and couldn't really leave the institution anyway. So, yeah.

Kaufmann: Yeah. Well, I have read about a pretty significant movement around deaf people pushing for the right to take the civil service exam. Can you tell me about that?

Ennis: Yeah, that was in the early part of the 20th century, and the largest employer of deaf people today is the federal government. And at some point, the government decided to not allow people to take the civil service exam. You had to be able to hear to take the exam, and through the National Association of the Deaf — our NAACP, so to speak — they fought to have that law or rule repealed. Teddy Roosevelt was the president at the time who supported that removal and allowed deaf people to take the exam.

Kaufmann: What did that victory represent to the deaf community? It seems like an important milestone.

Ennis: Employment, employment. Absolutely, and that's what most deaf people wanted. They wanted employment was key. Today, probably the largest group of unemployed people are people with disabilities in general. If I remember the numbers right, only about 10% of people with disabilities in America have a job. 90% are unemployed but could work with appropriate accommodations.

Kaufmann: I want to turn back to Debbie Buchholz on both the history we've been hearing about and also the future for this struggle for rights. As you'll recall, she’s the co-founder of Deaf International. She's also the pastor at Deaf International Community Church, and she talked to us earlier about growing up with deaf parents. Her son is also deaf. And Debbie, how are things different for you than they were for your parents?

Buchholz: So much difference. My son graduated, received a bachelor's degree, he received a master's degree. He's studying now for a second master's degree and wants to pursue a Ph.D. And so, opportunities have opened up so much more than when my father was younger.

It's not over, though. I just want to make that clear: in my opinion, it's not over. I believe that people in the minority will have to fight, probably for the rest of their life. But that it's critical not to give up but to keep fighting because everyone has a right to receive the same things. And so it's important for people to realize that this is not over. Even though it's better, it's not over.

Kaufmann: Tell me how you and your son are still fighting today.

Buchholz: Well, mostly again, education. And like the professor mentioned, job opportunities. There's so many deaf people that want to work, so many deaf people who were criticized for not having a job and they're actually looking. And they're applying within and they're being turned down because just that piece of being deaf scares employers. And so they want to work and they are looking for positions. And if the accommodations were right and proper, they would all be able to work.

Kaufmann: Reverend Debbie Buchholz, thank you so much.

Buchholz: Thank you.

Kaufmann: And William Ennis, historian with us from Gallaudet University. Thank you.

Ennis: Thank you.