Told  /  Book Excerpt

Unlocking Reason: How the Deaf Created Their Own System of Communication

Exploring Deaf history, language and education as the hearing child of a Deaf adult.

Prior to the establishment of the school in 1750, the station of the deaf in France (and the rest of the world) was largely a dire one. We’re talking old-school “bath a month” France, so let’s be real: The station of everyone in France other than powdered-wig, paint-a-mole aristocrats was pretty dire.

But if you were born deaf? You were fucked.

Often, you’d be born poor in a village where you were the only deaf kid. The only language you’d ever receive or experience was whatever gesture you and your family invented in order to get you to understand when Papa said, “Pass the ratatouille.” You’d be born in the dark, destined to destitution, largely wordless and languageless, an island of deafness alone in a sea of the hearing.

But what if luck smiled on you and the genetic deafness in your family tree produced more than one deaf kid? At that, your chances of intellectual freedom exploded. You and your deaf sibling could pass language back and forth, building on it an increasingly complex structure.

With the simple power of one peer, a peer who defaulted to your natural state of communication, you could, quite literally, create a new language. A language of two. With that, you could unlock your mind, learn to communicate, and step out into the light.

A pair of siblings just like that met a Catholic priest, Charles-Michel, abbé de l’Epée, “the Abbe,” in 1770 and changed the destiny of the deaf in France and then the world.

Prior to this meeting, the intellectual status of the deaf was in question. Aristotle himself thought that the deaf were incapable of reason or complex thought. He claimed reason without hearing was an impossibility. The truth is, it is not hearing but language that unlocks reason, and deafness at that time had the profoundly destructive effect of cutting people off from language.

But like two male velociraptors in a Michael Crichton book, deaf people (like all people) “found a way.” They created language from nothing, and it was this language that the abbé encountered in a Parisian slum in 1770. Struck with the hand movements he saw exchanged between two deaf sisters, he knew that he was looking at language and, at that moment, he dedicated his life to finding a way to use those signs to educate the deaf, and to allow them salvation.