An exhibit opened yesterday (Friday) at the University of Iowa chronicling the history of the world as it’s been perceived by deaf people. Research for the traveling show was done by University of Iowa Professor Douglas Baynton, who’s written a book on deaf history.
He says the deaf population in every country creates a distinct culture of its own — though he says that usually includes only the hearing-impaired who live in large cities. He says since there are relatively few deaf people in any population, only in an urbanized society can you get enough of them together to accomplish the “critical mass” for this kind of community to develop.
That’s bad news for deaf Iowans living in small towns and rural communities. In major cities, deaf kids can attend magnet schools, or go to schools where are other deaf children — they have peers, others like them. But in a small town often a child will be the only deaf student in a school. When they grow up, he says the deaf tend to move to larger cities so they do have a social life.
The most interesting part of the exhibit to Baynton is our adaptability, how people will “find a way to be human, no matter what our circumstance.” We are communicating animals, he says, so we’ll find ways to communicate — it’s the most defining feature of our humanity. Most of us do it through speaking, and hearing, he says, but if that’s taken away people will find other ways to communicate and build a culture around those ways of communicating with each other.