Douglas Baynton has written a learned history of the varied and sundry attempts that have been made to prevent deaf people from communicating with their hands. Forbidden Signs
intelligently explores the cultural aspects of deafness, laying out the naturalness of a gesture-based means of communicating by deaf people, exploring the unique aspects by which meaning can be conveyed without the spoken word. In this context, the pseudo-scientific arguments for preventing the use of sign language which predominated for nearly a century are laid bare as the arbitrary and capricious biases of the hearing world. The rise of a quasi-biological notion of eugenics and genetic determinism as well as the construction of a standard of "normalcy" against which deaf people were measured explains both the means and the rationale for the suppression of sign language. The incredible story of the extensive attempts to isolate deaf people and to break up communities of signers that Douglas Baynton has recorded will likely be difficult to imagine by those who know little of the history of deafness in America. Unfortunately, it is likely a story too familiar to deaf people, even today.
The United States, with its longtime concern about folk who don't fit in, naturally perceives the deaf as a Problem. . . . If by the mid-19th century schools for the deaf were everywhere teaching them to sign, by century's end signing was virtually outlawed. Mr. Baynton writes: "Facial expression and gestures both were spoken of as the 'rudimentary and lower parts of language,' as opposed to speech, the 'higher and finer part.' Deaf people were advised to avoid 'indulging in the horrible grimaces some of them do,' lest they be accused of 'making a monkey' of themselves." -- The New York Times Book Review, Hugh Kenner