Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Thomas Gallaudet

For a couple of hours, anyway, (depending on where you are) it is the feast of Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Syle, and I really wanted to share something about Gallaudet while it's still his official feast day.

I've actually been doing some research on Gallaudet for...Lent Madness. Because apparently it's never too early for Lent Madness. (Actually, Forward Movement will be preparing a companion book for the 2014 bracket, so we have to get our bios in way early.)

I'm so pleased to have Gallaudet. As some of you know, my first jobs out of college were working with the Deaf, first as a notetaker, and then as a sign language interpreter. But even though I knew about the Gallaudet family and blogged about them both in 2008 and 2009, I didn't really know Thomas Gallaudet (the younger) until this past week.

The whole family is impressive, but when I said in the 2008 post that I think they picked the wrong Thomas Gallaudet to commemorate...well, I was wrong. And I feel very sheepish about that, because by all accounts he was not only a wonderful person, he was a faithful and effective advocate for Deaf people.

One thing that impresses me greatly about Gallaudet is that he continually stood by the weird and radical notion that signs were an actual language. This is something that was not accepted by much of anybody until a linguistic treatise was written about ASL in 1960, and even then most people didn't believe it for years. Gallaudet died in 1902, so he was way ahead of the curve when he preached at Syle's ordination, "my youthful impressions in relation to this language of motion have become so intensified and settled that I feel that I am a credible witness, when I give my testimony as to its being a clear and distinct language by itself.”

The other big thing -- huge -- is that he was less interested in helping the Deaf, as he was in letting them be the people they are. He absolutely and completely understood them to be his equal. I honestly don't think he sees them as "disabled," except in the loss of opportunity that Deafness conferred. Which explains why, not just Henry Syle, but at least 8 other Deaf men were accepted for Holy Orders -- again, at a time when the vast majority of people didn't believe Deaf people could even function in society.

As one person pointed out in a Memorial Tribute,
In the Church, nine deaf men have been ordained who have brought thousands of their fellows into pastoral relations. Their work ramifies into nearly every diocese. Others are preparing themselves for the ministry; and in the denominations several are doing well for the moral and spiritual uplifting of the class. In Ohio, the deaf have for some years maintained a Home for their Aged and Infirm; and those in Pennsylvania will soon open a similar one, in a building not easily duplicated among charitable institutions. Other enterprises of a like character are under way elsewhere, in all of which the deaf themselves are taking a leading part.
It's the "in all of which the deaf themselves are taking a leading part" that impresses me the most.

So, Thomas Gallaudet, I am proud to represent you. I hope I do you justice.

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