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Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language Hardcover – December 1, 1996

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Editorial Reviews Review

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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 235 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (December 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226039633
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226039633
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,991,495 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Nassira Nicola on October 13, 2000
Format: Paperback
Quite honestly, I expected to be bored out of my wits by this book. The subject matter was interesting, but it started out as Baynton's doctoral dissertation, for goodness' sake! It was going to be a dryly written academic bog.
Wrong. Baynton's style is witty and positively lyrical, a pleasure to read. Indeed, I was surprised at the short time it took me to finish.
This is not to say that the book suffered from a lack of hard content- far from it. If "When the Mind Hears" intrigued you, "Forbidden Signs" will leave you riveted. Baynton reaches startling conclusions which are so logical that, in hindsight, they seem self-evident. Of particular interest was his chapter on gender in the oralist movement- you definitely won't see that one coming!
I hate to seem excessively gushy, but Baynton has produced a marvel. I only hope there's an equally good sequel in the works. :c)
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Robin Orlowski on October 10, 2007
Format: Paperback
Juxtaposed against 'democracy' the oralism movement was fundamentally authoritarian to the core.

Like the schools which missionaries set up to 'tame' the Indian tribes which they encountered, these institutions wanted to make the 'deaf and dumb' as they were once called, assimilate by any means necessary.

Signing was considered backwards and primitive, speaking was thought to be the only 'civilized' marker of civilization.

However, Douglas C. Baynton clarifies that at these institutions, the students practiced their own models of resistance. He also stresses that being deaf is not a limitation, but a distinctive culture, like Spanish or Polish is commonly thought of. Therefore it is impossible to obtain a complete translation between English and ASL in all cases.

Academic works can be pretentious, but this was a definite page turner. I felt a little let down that his chronicled history did not examine the 20th century. It would be interesting to see what forms this campaign is taking in an era when people with disabilities are supposed to be included in greater public participation. I doubt that it completely disappeared. Plus the transformation of Gallaudet University from a site of oralism to the DPN now protests and open embrace of ASL could have provided interesting research certainly within this book's reach.

It remains an important work in the too under-known field of disability studies.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Alison Kopit on November 14, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Phenomenal book!
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20 of 35 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 27, 2000
Format: Paperback
The book was sensitive and beautifully written.
There are many things still forbidden to the deaf in the year 2,000 (disgraceful)! Here are a few more sundry attempts to prevent the deaf from exploring their right to fully communicate or make their language fully credible, valuable and valid. I call it DDD or Dumbing the Deaf Down. 1. The linguists, educators and interpreters all say sign language is a visual language, therefore it cannot have a written form. Even the deaf have bought this myth hook, line and sinker. To prove my point, English is a vocal language. Does that mean English should not have books filled with words? No one should be able to write letters, type, keep documents etc.? How loonie that would be. 2. The experts all say, "Home signs are invalid", there's "no use for them", they are "wrong" and they "arn't accepted" (by the Ph.D. community I guess), etc. Who's language is it anyway? Why shouldn't all signs be documented? Why should some signs die when the old deaf ones pass on? Why shouldn't there be a 2 way sign language dictionary that anyone at any age could access? Have no fear! A team of concerned parents are doing just that. As of this writing there are 9,000 signs in written form, and 3,000 left to finish. 1,800 signs are now in alphanumerical order with 10,200 left to be placed in a 2 way dictionary. If anyone has a problem with this and wishes to debate the issue, I'll be more than happey to oblige.
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