Signs of Resistance

American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to World War II

230 pages

18 illustrations

November, 2004

ISBN: 9780814798942



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Susan Burch is Associate Professor of History at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

All books by Susan Burch

Choice Outstanding Academic Title 2003

During the nineteenth century, American schools for deaf education regarded sign language as the "natural language" of Deaf people, using it as the principal mode of instruction and communication. These schools inadvertently became the seedbeds of an emerging Deaf community and culture. But beginning in the 1880s, an oralist movement developed that sought to suppress sign language, removing Deaf teachers and requiring deaf people to learn speech and lip reading. Historians have all assumed that in the early decades of the twentieth century oralism triumphed overwhelmingly.

Susan Burch shows us that everyone has it wrong; not only did Deaf students continue to use sign language in schools, hearing teachers relied on it as well. In Signs of Resistance, Susan Burch persuasively reinterprets early twentieth century Deaf history: using community sources such as Deaf newspapers, memoirs, films, and oral (sign language) interviews, Burch shows how the Deaf community mobilized to defend sign language and Deaf teachers, in the process facilitating the formation of collective Deaf consciousness, identity and political organization.


  • "Forcefully and gracefully narrates Deaf people's dramatic struggle against hearing oppression in the early twentieth century. Incorporating new data from archival research and community interviews, Burch applies tools of social analysis to challenge earlier interpretations that underestimated Deaf people's success in preserving their core values. The resulting study is fascinating and important to students of American social history and disability."

    —John Van Cleve, Professor of History, Gallaudet University

  • "Signs of Resistance expands our thinking not only on deaf life and disability studies, but on our understanding of the history of this nation. Dr. Burch has gone to great lengths to gather the opinion of ‘the deaf themselves' through original, revealing research."

    —I. King Jordan, President, Gallaudet University

  • "Burch's rich and well-researched chronicle of the U.S. Deaf community's efforts to claim and shape their full participation in public life between 1900 and 1942 reminds historians of the many forms debates have taken in U.S. history regarding how a proper citizen should look, act, and speak."

    Reviews in American History

  • "Burch offers insightful comparisons. Her book is important to the fields of Deaf studies and disability studies, but it will appeal to social historians as well."

    Journal of American History