"Through Deaf Eyes," a two-hour HDTV documentary for PBS, explores nearly 200 years of Deaf life in America. The film presents the shared experiences of American history - family life, education, work, and community connections - from the perspective of deaf citizens. Narrated by actor Stockard Channing, the film includes interviews with former Gallaudet University president, Dr. I. King Jordan, and actors Marlee Matlin and Bernard Bragg, as well as historians and deaf Americans with diverse views on language use, technology and identity. The film presents the story of Deaf life in America - a story of conflicts, prejudice and affirmation that reaches the heart of what it means to be human. "Through Deaf Eyes" will be broadcast on Wednesday, March 21 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS stations nation-wide (check local listings).
In the rapidly changing world, the Deaf community has experienced revolutions of place, language, identity, and access. These revolutions have deep historic roots and profound individual impact. Bringing a Deaf cinematic lens to the film are six artistic works by Deaf media artists and filmmakers. Poignant, sometimes humorous, these films draw on the media artists' own lives and are woven throughout the documentary. The six filmmakers - Wayne Betts, Renee Visco, Tracey Salaway, Kimby Caplan, Arthur Luhn, and Adrean Mangiardi - introduce a Deaf frame of reference behind the documentary camera. To most people, "deaf" means to not hear. To Deaf people and these Deaf filmmakers, it means much more.
"Through Deaf Eyes" does not approach the topic of deaf history from the perspective of sentimentality or of overcoming the inability to hear, nor does it deny the physical reality of being deaf. The documentary takes a straight-forward look at life for people who are part of the cultural-linguistic group who use American Sign Language and often define themselves as "Deaf" - with a capital, and cultural, "D" - and deaf people who, for a variety of reasons, do not identify with the Deaf cultural community. The history often shows that intersections between deaf and Deaf people are many and that oppression and discrimination are common experiences.
The film is full of surprises, including a Deaf rock band. Little known are the many stories about attempts to be "cured" through religious healings, diving airplane rides, electrical impulses or even the thrill of meeting a baseball hero. These puzzling events in the lives of deaf people demonstrate a complex relationship with hearing society.
"Through Deaf Eyes" shows a broad sweep of U.S. history as it intersects the experiences of Deaf people. Education has been perhaps the issue in this story. "Through Deaf Eyes" traces the evolution of deaf education, from the founding of the first school for the deaf in 1817 to the 1864 chartering of Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., the only place that deaf people could earn a college degree in a signing environment, to the late-20th century "mainstreaming" movement.
"Through Deaf Eyes" explores the enduring linguistic question of how to educate deaf children. Alexander Graham Bell argued that deaf children should be instructed using a pure oral method, with no signs. Bell stated that deaf people should not teach deaf children, as they would introduce sign language and could not instruct during speech lessons. Bell's ideas were widely accepted.
Bell studied eugenics, the science of improving a species. In 1884, he warned that the formation of a "deaf race" was underway and pointed to the growing number of Deaf clubs, churches, schools and social events. Bell suggested that deaf people should not marry each other and proffered ways to prevent connections between deaf people.
"Through Deaf Eyes" brings to light the efforts by Deaf leadership to address the systematic suppression of sign language. The National Association of the Deaf, founded in 1880, began to preserve language on film. Their charismatic president, George W. Veditz, spoke out forcefully on issues of language, education and employment for deaf people. Veditz and many other leaders argued that oral communication alone was inadequate. By 1910, the organization feared that sign language would be gone and filmed master signers in order to preserve "the natural language of the Deaf."
Through much of the 20th century, most deaf children started their education in an oral classroom, though signing was often the method of communicating in school dormitories. It was not until the 1960s that research into the grammar and structure of signing prompted
The perspective I initially achieved during the film was that, deaf people had a really hard life. They strived to become equal with the “hearing world,” to not be out casted, to be allowed their own form of communication, and overall to be accepted for who they are. This film had so many great stories from the interviewers, they brought in that personal touch to make it effective and ensue many emotions. The whole film was very touching; I had a variation of feelings watching the film. I felt mad at times because what deaf people had to go through, sad for when the film mentioned what the children had to endure at schools, and happy when DPN happened and they showed the footage of it. Furthermore, I didn’t realize how much deaf people had to strive for throughout so many years, even today; I believe there is still some discrimination towards deaf people.
Watching the film, the part that impacted me the most was when they started mentioning the deaf children. It may because I am a mother, but this portion of the film made me really sad. Many children were sent off to residential schools at such a young age (where parents are needed at times) and only come home for a few days. Also, children were forced, so to say, to speak because oralism ruled over sign language at times throughout the years. The children were punished if seen to using their hands for any type of communication or for any reason for that matter. In addition, it made me sad when some of the interviewers started telling their own stories of how hearing tests were done and how doctors tried to “cure” them. I know that medicine was not as advanced as it is today but some of the tests seemed cruel. I believe that the children had it worse than adults because for every new deaf generation, there were some sort of new tests or methods to be tried out. Furthermore, there were a few stories that were mentioned where parents accepted their children, and empowered them to be who they wanted to be and accomplish anything they set their mind to.
To conclude, deafness and the acceptance of deaf people have evolved so much throughout the years. This film brought history of deaf culture to the forefront and made me realize that deafness is so much more than only learning another language to communicate. It is a culture within itself, with many people wanting the same things and to achieve their goals. Also, deaf children and the teachings have drastically changed by embracing sign language, although there are still some oral schools, and making deaf children empowered. Deafness has reached new levels and deaf people have achieved and continue to overcome so many battles within society and themselves. I am glad I am able to be a part of it, even as a student, because I am able to see and learn how powerful this culture is.