A Deaf Class Action Lawsuit Waiting to Happen -- Or Not

Let me tell you the story of a deaf guy we'll call Dave.

At 81 years of age, Dave is able to tell some remarkable stories about his educational experience back in the 1940's. His stories are both amusing and shocking. They inspire a sense of awe -- and sometimes, anger.

Some younger generation folks may be surprised to learn that the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf was not the only game in town. There was also a program known as the Wills & Elizabeth Martin School. It was known simply as "Martin School," signed "HH" (as in "hard of hearing"). I could be wrong, but I believe this is because the most successful students there were hard of hearing. They had to be, because the school was predominantly oral.

"Predominantly" is an understatement. As Dave explains it, anyone who dared sign on campus was physically punished. If a teacher caught any students signing, off to the principal's office they went. In some cases, students got their knuckles rapped with a ruler. In other cases, the principal -- Mrs. Davis -- would haul students to the bathroom and prop the door open. It was in there where she'd give them a good old-fashioned butt-whipping. Students walking the halls would be wary when they passed the bathroom. A door wide open meant some poor soul's gluteus maximus was collecting splinters.

The ironic thing is, Mrs. Davis was actually a pretty decent lady. She was only doing what she'd been trained to do. After she retired, Dave's wife and some of her friends -- all Martin School alumni -- paid Mrs. Davis a friendly visit. Mrs. Davis not only welcomed them into her home, she signed. Go figure.

A significant number of Martin School students transferred over to the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. PSD was oral too, as were all schools for the deaf at that time. But at least there was a little more tolerance and flexibility from the staff. They even had some deaf teachers, mostly in the voc program, who signed. No one made a big deal about it because the majority of hearing teachers continued to reinforce lipreading and speech.

PSD happened to be the popular choice because it had dorms, sports teams, and a much better social life. Sure, signing was mostly off limits in the classroom, but again they had some flexibility and the occasional deaf teacher. And some of the teachers were particularly unique.

One teacher was fondly known as "Mr. Nineteen." He earned his nickname due to his habit of picking his nose and rolling the boogers between his thumb and forefinger -- a motion that incidentally happens to resemble the sign for "nineteen."

(I am not making this up. This is genuine deaf history, folks.)

Mr. Nineteen was also a strict fella. If you messed with him, he'd have you walk circles in the courtyard for an entire class period. There are also reports that Mr. Nineteen moonlighted as a dorm counselor. You'll find old-timers sharing stories about how he cured many a young dorm student of bedwetting (who needs Depends when you have Mr. Nineteen's School of Behavior Modification?). If you tinkled in your sheets, Mr. Nineteen would drape them around you and have you walk around the aforementioned courtyard in full view of your peers.

Someone needs to document this stuff and write a book.

Bedwetting therapy notwithstanding, PSD apparently did a much better job of teaching than the Martin School. Dave's wife and a former classmate confirmed that on many occasions, PSD staff would throw their hands up in resignation and mutter something along the lines of Stupid Martin School. It seemed that many of the transfers had arrived with little or no working knowledge of academics. How could they, if they couldn't understand their teachers? How could they, if they were physically abused any time they tried to communicate via ASL?

(Note: I'm not saying Martin School teachers didn't teach. I'm saying that many of their students simply couldn't understand them. The students who were adept at speaking and lipreading probably got a decent education. Everyone else was left in the dark.)

As horrific as it was, the physical abuse is not grounds for a lawsuit. Face it, butt-whippings and other forms of corporal punishment were the norm back then. Not just in deaf schools but in schools everywhere. Hearing kids got their butts whooped, too. It's just the way things were back in those days. Just because everyone was doing it doesn't make it right, but it was the prevalent philosophy.

On the other hand, forced oralism... hmmm. Now that may be a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Let me explain. Or, even better, let Dave explain.

Dave comes from a deaf family. He grew up with access to language -- sign language -- straight out of the crib. (If you don't already know the significance of this, click on this signing with your deaf baby link first, and then come back and finish this article.)

So great was Dave's early exposure to language that he had no difficulty absorbing either ASL or English. He was a bookworm. He attended a hearing public school and held his own as far as reading and writing was concerned, but he could not keep up with whatever his hearing teachers and classmates were saying.

And so his family moved to Philadelphia, where he attended both the Martin School and PSD. Where once again, he could not understand his teachers... because they didn't sign.

In spite of having above-average reading and writing skills, in spite of being placed in classrooms with older students because of this (PSD was sensitive to his plight for the most part and tried to accomodate him accordingly)... Dave eventually dropped out. His two major complaints were inability to understand teachers and ridiculously easy homework assignments. He couldn't take it seriously. Boredom breeds trouble, and Dave got into a lot of it. Fed up, he left.

He was not alone in the era of oralism. Other students expressed similar complaints. Not just in Philadelphia. Not just in Pennsylvania. Everywhere. The Milan Manifesto of 1880 had sent deaf education plummeting into a hopeless abyss.

Deaf students who had language skills felt they weren't appropriately challenged because they could not communicate effectively with their teachers. Those who didn't have language skills faced insurmountable odds... because they, too, could not communicate effectively with their teachers. All of this because they were not permitted to sign.

Now this, my friends, is definitely grounds for a class action lawsuit.

For hearing readers who are new to the deaf community, let me take a moment to give you a frame of reference. Imagine if, instead of attending the grade schools and high schools that you went to, you were instead sent to schools in another country where they spoke a different language. And... given that sooner or later your hearing would allow you to pick up this different language, for good measure let's say you had NO language to begin with in the first place -- and that in this foreign environment, you and your teachers were separated by a thick glass wall that prevented you from actually hearing them. How much do you think you would learn in this environment? Exactly.

Also, this is the fun part where I get to pull the rug out from under everyone. Let me tell you that I can, without a doubt, personally vouch that everything Dave said is true. That's because his real name is Don, and he happens to be my father.

Don is -- by far -- much, much more well-read than I am. He always has, and still does, read the classics. Any classic writings involving fiction, non-fiction, history, or science, you can take my word for it... Dave, uh, Don, has read it.

As for me? I grew up reading MAD Magazine and Archie comics. Not too shabby, eh?

Regardless, I was granted sign language interpreters in high school. I was also granted the opportunity to attend Gallaudet University, where teachers and students communicate freely in sign language. Don and his friends had no such opportunity. For many of them, high school was the end of the road. A road they could have continued traveling if they were allowed to sign.

Again... is this grounds for a class action lawsuit? Yes. Opportunities were denied due to oppression of deaf students' most accessible language, ASL. Generations of deaf students wound up working menial jobs or unemployed altogether because they were denied a fair education.

But then again... who are they going to sue?

Mrs. Davis? She passed away a long time ago.

The higher-ups who trained her? They've passed on, too.

The Martin School? There's no such deaf program anymore. Actually, I did an Internet search and found a Bache-Martin School at the same location. There's probably a connection somehow but it's irrelevant. I'm pretty sure the people there now had nothing to do with the Wills & Elizabeth Martin School that my parents attended.

PSD? Or any other deaf school that was oral way back when? What for?

Several of the old deaf schools have already closed. Most of the ones that are still open are very aware of the needs of today's Deaf culture. You'll find bi-lingual/bi-cultural education, ASL specialists, Deaf Studies classes, interpreters, smart boards, e-mail, videophones, and all sorts of accessibility that didn't exist way back when. Many of these schools are practically on the cutting edge of Deaf culture. What good would suing them do? The administrators and teachers who dished out those butt-whippings have long since retired or died. They've been replaced by more appropriately qualified staff. So who are you going to go after?

The government? Heh. Some wise guy I talked to said we've already got a form of reparations from the government. It's called SSI.

I don't have all the answers. But I do know that generations of deaf students have passed through the halls of numerous deaf educational programs and came out of them with nothing to show for it.

I think the least we can do is to talk to the surviving former students, collect their stories, and never forget. And we owe it to them to never allow this kind of history to repeat itself.