Paul Stemman

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Deaf History

An understanding of the historical, social and cultural background of Deaf people is essential when dealing with mental health issues. That is why we have produced these brief background notes.

 

Some people ask, ”What do you mean by Deaf history? Is there such a thing?” A lot of Deaf people themselves are not aware that there is a community history that is special to them. But we know that a sense of belonging – of having a shared history as a member of a group – is very important for mental well-being.

 

Over the past thirty years, there has been a growing interest in Deaf history. The British Deaf History Society was established in 1993. It has published a growing number of books about many aspects of Deaf history.

 

 

 

Deaf People in History

 

As far as we know, there must always have been people who were born deaf or who became deaf. They are mentioned in the Bible and in the work of writers such as the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato specifically mentions Deaf people who use sign language.

 

In Britain, the earliest reference to a Deaf person using sign language seems to be in the parish book of St. Martin's Church, Leicester. Thomas Filsby, a "deaf and dumb" man, is recorded as marrying Ursula Russel (hearing) by using sign language.

 

However, hearing people have sometimes associated deafness with a lack of mental ability, or even with ‘madness’. The place of Deaf people in society has often been hotly debated: could they be educated? Should they be educated? If so, how?

 

These questions have not been asked by Deaf people, but by hearing people who did not recognise that the real challenge for them is to learn to communicate with and understand Deaf people.

 

Deaf people themselves have rarely been in positions to influence these discussions. As we know from the history of other peoples, such as the aboriginal people of Australia, when the power to determine how to live their lives is taken away from any group of people, this is likely to lead to widespread mental health problems.