March 15 2016

Attitudes towards deafness in the eighteenth century

Months of trawling through newspaper articles from the eighteenth century for references to deaf people has been quite eye opening. It has been possible to see how deaf people were labelled and how they were viewed by society between 200-300 years ago.

The terms ‘deaf’ and ‘deaf and dumb’ were used interchangeably. Some articles referred to a ‘deaf’ person while others used the term ‘deaf and dumb’. On closer examination, it transpired that the common belief was if one was born deaf, they were also dumb due to the belief that “Speech is from imitation, but the deaf person is deprived of the means thereof”. This leads to the assumption that the term ‘deaf’ was used to describe those who were deafened at some point in their lives.

Attitudes towards deafness and deaf people was somewhat glum. Deaf people were often described as misfortunate and most distressed persons who were in an unfortunate situation. An article on 25 July 1763 describes unhappy persons as those “who are born deaf and dumb…” and references to deaf children labelled them as “unhappy objects, a burden to themselves and a loss to society.” A death notice in 1797 describes two deaf daughters of the deceased as “perfect idiots”. Further negative views of deaf people were found in court proceedings. Once, a deaf person was named as a witness to give evidence in a trial but this was strongly opposed by the counsel for the prisoner. The objection was that “such a witness could not be examined, not being competent as he could not give sufficient proofs of understanding” suggesting there were question marks over the mental capacity of deaf people. It is fair to say that eighteenth century society generally had low expectations of deaf people.

Some interesting comparisons between deaf people and blind people have also been found, which makes sense as they are both sensory impairments: their disabilities were not easy to identify until they interacted with society. On comparing deaf people and blind people, it has been observed on a number of occasions that “…the deaf too are infinitely happier than the blind; the loss of sounds can never be compared to that of sight…” However, there are also some contradictions. “The Philosophers all say it is being blind than deaf, that the latter are vastly more melancholy, low spirited than the former.” Some are persuaded that to be deaf would be the “greatest of evils”, others that the loss of sight would be so to them. However, on the whole, deaf people were described as very dull, and blind people very cheerful.

On making further comparisons, it was stated that “it is with difficulty we can give any entertainment to a deaf person…the deaf are often neglected. The blind can enjoy society without giving it much trouble and laugh and be merry with the best of them.” Undoubtedly, eighteenth century society was very much focused on hearing and relying on auditory information, which did not disable a blind person so much and providing a companion to accommodate for loss of sight appeared attainable but there was very little, if any, provisions to accommodate for loss of hearing, especially in a social gathering which only disabled a deaf person further.

However, we do see some positive remarks when deaf people are compared to blind people. “A blind man can never be alone as blindness requires a companion. The deaf man can walk alone and does not need an assistant [and] the deaf might find relief in books of every kind.” Looking at employment, it was even taken into account that “…the blind have it not in their power to maintain themselves by labour, which even the Deaf and Dumb sometimes have…” It was recognised that deaf people could be more independent when alone than blind people and this ties in with a quote previously discovered by Francis Grose in 1792: “a deaf man would feel more isolated in company than a blind man, while a blind man would feel more isolated when alone than a deaf man.” Whether a blind or deaf person was the greater objects of compassion in the eighteenth was a result of personal opinions, both ailments had negatives aspects but what was viewed to have more impact varied.

So, although brief, this basically sums up attitudes towards deaf people in the eighteenth century. In a nutshell, deaf people were considered to be unhappy, misfortunate, dull, incompetent and a burden to society and generally, these views were held throughout the century.