Review of Atherton, Deafness, community and culture in britain: leisure and cohesion, 1945-1995

Martin Atherton. Deafness, Community and Culture in Britain: Leisure and Cohesion, 1945-1995. Disability History Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016. 224 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7190-9978-6.

Reviewed by Holly Caldwell (Chestnut Hill College) 

Published on H-Disability (August, 2019) 

Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=47099

Prior to the introduction of sign language and schools designed for the deaf in the early nineteenth century, deaf individuals were often isolated not only from the “normal world” but also from each other. Consequently, such entities as educational, charitable, and religious-based societies were among the first to establish institutions to address the needs of this population during that period, and their efforts would engender the development of deaf clubs and societies in the mid-twentieth century. In Deafness, Community and Culture in Britain, Martin Atherton examines the history of deaf clubs in postwar Britain and the social, cultural, and psychological benefits that involvement in such clubs afforded its members. He argues that it was in deaf clubs where deaf people “first experienced what might be regarded as a normal life,… one in which they did not form a misrepresented and misunderstood minority” (p. 50). Much like the use of sign language, which contributed to the formation of group identity and self-identity in the deaf community, in many ways deaf clubs allowed for and encouraged participation in leisure and sport and represented a central factor in the creation and vitality of Britain’s deaf community. 

This book is primarily targeted at audiences specializing in deaf studies, but it will also appeal to scholars interested in disabilities studies, as well as the social and cultural histories of clubs and community life. Deafness, Community and Culture in Britain is divided into nine chapters, with the first and final chapters serving as the introduction and conclusion, the latter considering the future of deaf clubs in Britain. The remaining seven chapters are fairly chronological in scope and explore such different themes as the social impact of poor laws, the influence of deaf-sponsored newspapers, and the ways deaf clubs served their members through leisure, cultural, and sport-related activities. Drawing on deaf clubs in northwest England as a case study, Atherton argues that due to the area’s varied urban and rural settings, such as factory towns, coalfields, and satellite towns, this particular region serves a “microcosm of all aspects of the wider deaf experience in post-war Britain” (p. 2). 

The first organized network of deaf societies, according to Atherton, appeared soon after the change in the 1601 Poor Laws, a set of laws that categorized the poor into two distinct groups—the deserving and the undeserving. In short, the deserving poor were those whose poverty was through no fault of their own. The undeserving poor, on the other hand, were poor because of personal vices, such as laziness or other character flaws. In his telling, deaf societies and clubs trace their origins to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, a set of laws that essentially made it more difficult for “deserving” individuals to claim relief from religious or philanthropic agencies. Following the change in legislation, and in direct response to the “suffering deaf people were experiencing as a result,” Atherton argues, deaf societies began to form (p. 40). Though this shift in legislation coincided with the creation of new societies pertaining to the deaf, the author’s use of the term “society” in this historical context is a bit confusing. For example, in describing philanthropic organizations, such as the Edinburgh Deaf Society, which were created to provide gender-specific vocational training in such trades as printing, shoemaking, and needlework, as well as church-related missions that were established for the deaf to guarantee that they received spiritual instruction, it is unclear how institutions and organizations fit the typical description of a society or what would later become a club in the postwar era. More important, such organized societies do not necessarily fall within the parameters of how the author has characterized “community” in this book, which he borrows from linguist Carol Padden’s definition. For Padden, there are three common features of a community: the sharing of common goals, a shared geographic location, and the freedom to organize the social life of its members.[1] While Padden’s definition itself is certainly not being called into question, the context in which it is used by Atherton and the ways such terms as “society,” “clubs,” and “community” are used interchangeably at times and over fairly broad historical time periods are rather confusing. Readers who are unfamiliar with these terms, especially with regard to how they applied to the deaf community and the ways their significance shifted over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, might wish for more analysis of how this process evolved over time. 

While deaf individuals did not necessarily engage in leisure activities that differed from their hearing counterparts, it was the broader social, cultural, and psychological benefits that made these relationships particularly impactful. Benedict Anderson’s notion of the “imagined community” (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism [1991]) figures heavily into Atherton’s analysis of Britain’s deaf community and the clubs they eventually formed. Drawing on Anderson’s theory of the “imagined community,” Atherton suggests that the representation of such a community “could be found on a couch, in a holiday camp or even on board a cruise ship…. The location was less important in terms of understanding the reality of ‘the deaf club’ than the people who engaged in a particular activity” (p. 9). The network of deaf clubs that was established allowed deaf people the opportunity to “develop notions of identity based on mutual deafness and a communal form of social, cultural, and linguistic expression” and thus to contribute to the formation of self-identity and group identity (p. 75). In addition to examining how societies and clubs were formed, Atherton explores the theoretical underpinnings of the emotional and psychological rewards that arose from participating in various clubs, sporting events, and cultural activities, such as attending the cinema. In this sense, “deaf clubs provided both a geographical centre for the deaf community and a social network through which existing notions of community and identity could be maintained” (p. 60).

Throughout the book, Atherton underscores the importance of British Deaf News (1955-95), as well as its predecessor British Deaf Times (1945-50), two publications that not only helped disseminate news but also kept the deaf community informed of local social events. When members of a community read the same newspaper or text, they built the same “cultural values and ideas,” and the sharing of such values and ideas allowed for their large-scale transmission, thus contributing to the development of what Anderson referred to as “nationhood” (p. 76). Here Atherton argues that British Deaf News built a camaraderie with its deaf readers and, to some degree, served as a means of communication between deaf people for the first time in the era before such technology as email and textphones. This discussion, especially Atherton’s focus on community-based reporting, is interesting, but it suffers from what many historians of print culture would argue can be difficult to pin down: what does self-reporting actually reveal and to what degree can historians rely on these figures? Relatedly, while print runs provide data as to how many copies were printed, such figures do not necessarily inform us how many people actually read its contents or how far-reaching the influence of a particular message was. In addition to exploring the role of print culture, it would be interesting to see how the deaf community developed and shared its “cultural values and ideas” by incorporating oral testimonies from former club members.

Increasing urbanization throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries contributed to dislocation of different social groups but also led to growth in leisure activities. These coinciding forces, Atherton asserts, gave deaf individuals, who would have otherwise been geographically isolated, the opportunity to be gathered together in contact with those of similar background and shared language in order to develop cultural attachments. He describes deaf clubs as “a direct response to this social dislocation, providing opportunities for socialising and sharing leisure activities that had not been previously available” (p. 70). The degree to which deaf people shared similar backgrounds or experiences, other than the fact that they were deaf, is unclear from Atherton’s analysis. For example, in his discussion of deaf clubs and organizations, he mentions that there was a keen class distinction and that deaf clubs have traditionally been working class (and primarily white) with few members of the professional class. While he highlights that the perception that deaf people from minority ethnic backgrounds were reluctant to join remains “open for debate,” there is little mention as to whether or not there was equal membership among men and women (p. 55). 

As the first scholar to examine the inner workings of deaf clubs in Britain, Atherton certainly had his work cut out for him as availability of sources, such as personal testimonies, is limited. However, it is rather surprising that the bibliography does not list any secondary sources on deaf history or studies predating the book’s 2012 original publication date. In addition, the author’s primary evidence is largely drawn from two sources: the publications British Deaf Times and British Deaf News. While this book is undoubtedly intended to provide insight on how deaf clubs operated, such institutions certainly did not exist in a vacuum. More historical context on how deaf clubs and their members interacted with the broader community (and nation) would have been beneficial. The reader is left with little to no understanding of how British policy or trends—social, cultural, or political—might have influenced or affected the deaf community, which lends itself to a myopic recounting of how the clubs functioned in northwest England. In particular, Atherton makes some very interesting points about economic disparities and social class that existed within the clubs and the ways these phenomena played out within sporting teams as well as the relationship that existed between deaf teams and their hearing counterparts. This work is certainly a conversation starter and is a welcome addition to the field of deaf history.

Note

[1]. Carol Padden, “The Deaf Community and Deaf Culture,” in Constructing Deafness, ed. Susan Gregory and Gillian M. Hartley (London: Pinter Publishers, 1991), 40-45.

Citation: Holly Caldwell. Review of Atherton, Martin, Deafness, Community and Culture in Britain: Leisure and Cohesion, 1945-1995. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=47099

Call for applicants: DHA Mentorship program

The Disability History Association’s Mentorship Program was founded as part of the American Historical Association’s Advisory Committee on Disability, to assist in facilitating network connections between graduate students and established faculty working on disability history. 

Mentoring is a crucial process of academic learning. For graduate students, it offers an opportunity to ask questions about challenges they may face in the duration of their career: doing research, preparing for their exams and defense, learning about effective teaching strategies, dealing with administrative roadblocks, and more. For faculty volunteers, mentoring serves as an extension of teaching skills and presents an opportunity to guide rising scholars in the field. 

The DHA Mentorship Program aims to match volunteer mentors with students who are either pursuing a graduate degree in the same subfield of history or who have the same disability, if that information is disclosed. The mentor is not meant to replace or interfere with the supervisor-student relationship, but rather to serve as a helpful resource in the field for general advice and professional development. 

This informal Program is based on communication through email, phone, or Skype. The frequency and mode of contact will depend on the mentee and mentor, but DHA recommends it must be no less than 1-2 hours every 4-6 weeks for at least a year.

QUALIFICATIONS FOR THE PROGRAM

Mentees

  • Graduate students doing a MA or PhD in history, disability history, history of science or history of medicine with a specialization in disability history. Students working in related disciplines, such as American studies, historical sociology, historical anthropology, or material culture studies are also welcome. Students working outside the U.S. are welcome to apply.
  • Demonstrated an interest in developing a career as a researcher and teacher/faculty in the history of disability
  • Students with disabilities are especially encouraged to apply

Mentors

  • Scholars worldwide working in the area of disability history or related fields 
  • Faculty with disabilities are especially encouraged to apply

To apply, please send an email to Dr. Jaipreet Virdi, director of the Mentorship Program at jvirdi@udel.edu with a short paragraph outlining:

  • Your name, affiliation, and email
  • Your field of study/program, year of graduation (mentees), and area(s) of specialty.
  • What do you aim to achieve from this program?
  • If so desired, you are welcome to disclose your disability/disabilities 
  • For mentors: how many mentees are you willing to take on if they are a good match? (DHA recommendation is 1-3) 

Applications for the fall semester are due AUGUST 19. Mentee-mentor matches will be set by September 1. The next round of applications will be in December for a January match. 

If you have any questions, please contact the director of the Mentorship Program, Dr. Jaipreet Virdi at jvirdi@udel.edu.

A Word Document of this call is available here.

Podcast Episode 13 – Disability, Childhood, and an African American Prodigy

Disability History Association Podcast – Episode 13 (June 2019): Disability, Childhood, and an African American Prodigy

Camille Owens (Yale University) tells the story of nineteenth-century child performer Oscar Moore.

Download mp3 here.
Download pdf transcript here

Camille S. Owens is a PhD Candidate in African American Studies and American Studies at Yale University. Her dissertation, “Blackness and the Human Child: Race, Prodigy, and the Logic of American Childhood,” traces a genealogy of 19th- and 20th-century black prodigy performances to explore intersections of race and child-development as measures of the Human.

Podcast Episode 12 – Disability History in Scotland

Disability History Association Podcast – Episode 12 (May 2019): Disability History in Scotland

Iain Hutchison (University of Glasgow) discusses his work on disability history in Scotland.

Download mp3 here.
Download pdf transcript here.

Iain Hutchison completed his undergraduate degree as a mature student in 2000, at the University of Strathclyde, where he remained until completion of his PhD in 2004. He is currently a research affiliate at the University of Glasgow. He is a board member of the Disability History Association, and reviews editor for H-Disability.

More information about the Seeing Our History podcasts, and particularly the theme song, can be found at http://insightradio.co.uk/seeingourhistory-themetune.html#.XPmSXGRKgTI

[Music: Easygoing by Nicolai Heidlas Music | https://www.hooksounds.com | Creative Commons — Attribution 4.0 International]

Podcast Episode 11 – Deafness, Quackery, and More!

Disability History Association Podcast – Episode 11 (April 2019): Deafness, Quackery, and More!

Jaipreet Virdi (University of Delaware) discusses her new book, the power of social media, teaching disability history, and more.

Audio is not available for this episode. Please download the pdf transcript here.

Jaipreet Virdi is an Assistant Professor of history of medicine, technology, and disability at the University of Delaware. She received a B.A. from York University, a M.A. and PhD from the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto. She is currently completing her first book, Hearing Happiness: Fakes, Frauds, and Fads in Deafness Cures, to be published by the University of Chicago Press. She is also working on three other projects: Objects of Disability, an online resource database of historical artifacts used by, and/or crafted by disabled people; a second book project, From Prevention to Conservation: American Research on Hearing Impairment, 1910-1960, which focuses on collaborative programs that constructed hearing loss as a public health issue; and a co-authored project with Dr. Coreen McGuire on scientific research on deafness, nutrition deficiencies, and breathlessness, titled Instrumental Injustices: Women Scientists and the Politics of Disability in Interwar Britain. She is also Contributing Editor of the journal Pharmacy in History and Co-Editor of Communiqué, the newsletter of the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science. She runs a history of medicine blog,From the Hands of Quacks and is on Twitter as @jaivirdi .