A display that opens this week at the University of Iowa tracks the history of the world as it’s been experienced by the hearing-impaired.
Professor Douglas Baynton has written a book on deaf history and spent a summer poring over the National Archives and other historic records to help create the exhibit. Baynton says “It’s not just history with the sound turned off,” but shows that deaf people occupy a unique position in the world.
He says as a response to not hearing, they’ve developed the visual language known as A-S-L, American Sign Language, in the United States, and others in different countries around the world. Then because they’ve formed a separate linguistic community, they’ve naturally also developed a distinct cultural community.
It’s not just that deaf people have their own language — though any linguistic group will develop its own customs, mores, ideas about group behavior and so on, Baynton says. But in each country, there’s a distinct “deaf culture.”
For this display, curators spent years gathering artifacts from around the country. Baynton cites the T-T-Y, a device created to let deaf users send messages via telephone. It was a deaf engineer who invented the T-T-Y, and for the earliest ones in the 1960s they salvaged old news teletype printers, connected them with a new kind of modem to the phone system, and could communicate through the phone lines by typing.
He points out deaf people were among the biggest users of fax technology when that became widely available, and today use e-mail and PDA hand-held computers. There are also lots of photos in the exhibit. “History Through Deaf Eyes” will open tomorrow (Friday) at the University of Iowa Hardin Library for the Health Sciences.