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Deaf History:
Words Made Flesh: Nineteen-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture


Did you know that sign language is almost as old as spoken language?

Did you know that sign language probably started the disability rights movement?

cover of book, shows a man in 1800's clothing using sign languageThe history of sign language, its effects, and the controversies surrounding its use are detailed by R. A. R. Edwards in Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture, a new book from New York University Press. Sign language, Edwards tells us, is not only a means of communication. It is also a tool that establishes self-identification, defines standards of difference and disability, and creates a community and culture.

Edwards begins with the history of sign language. Dating back to the ancient world, the Romans are known to have used a form of it. But it was in the early 1800’s, when reform movements were rife in America, that it became more popular. It began to grow more popular in 1817, when Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc founded the American School for the Deaf. One of the principles of this school was the use of sign language.

This school revolutionized how Deaf people thought of themselves. People who had lived in isolation were now part of a community. All of this showed that Deaf people were as intelligent as anyone else, and as capable as "normal" people of being good citizens in their communities, holding jobs, paying taxes, and having families. Deaf people, it seemed, were really just people! Differences and disabilities were no longer limitations—except in the minds of some "normal" people.

As is usual, there were, of course, people who didn't like sign language—just as there are people who complain about power doors, visual alarms, and wide parking spaces. The response that developed to the growing influence of Deaf schools and sign language was "oralism." Oralists sought to teach lip reading and speech. To Edwards, the reason for this is that lip reacing would not disrupt "normal" communication. But to the emerging Deaf culture, it was as natural for some people to use sign language as for others to speak. So Edwards asks us to consider whether or not "unity" means "sameness" in the way we do things.

Why does this matter? We still face often-fierce discussions about the need to accept and accommodate. How many places still do not provide captioning or ASL? On a wider level, will we go with Universal Design principles that make access possible for anyone? The question at the end is whether or not we will accept people as important because they are people. As a theological matter, we might ask where would we be if Jesus had not accommodated humanity and become one of us (Philippians 2.6-7).

I think Jesus would agree with something that Clerc said about being Deaf: "Every creature, every work of God, is admirably well made; but if any one appears imperfect in our eyes, it does not belong to us to criticise it. Perhaps that which we do not find right in its kind, turns to our advantage, without our being able to perceive it."

Publisher's page about the book.

Professor Edwards gives a talk about Deaf culture at Holy Cross College

Barnes & Noble ordering information.

Amazon ordering information.

The quote by Clerc is from Clerc, Laurent and Thomas Gallaudet, Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons. An address, written by Mr. Clerc, and read by his request at a public examination of the pupils in the Connecticut Asylum: before the governour and both houses of the legislature, 28th May, 1818 (Hartford : Hudson & Co., 1818). The address is available free as PDF, text, or for Kindle from

Disclaimer: NYU Press provided a copy of this book to me as a teacher considering adoption for class use.

— Tim Vermande, 2 January 2013

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