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University of Iowa News Release


March 1, 2007

UI Professor Contributes To PBS Documentary: 'Through Deaf Eyes'

In the 1970s and 1980s, deaf Americans engaged in a civil rights movement of their own. They carried signs that said "We have a dream, too."

They were fighting "oralism," a controversial teaching method that had been dominant in deaf schools since the 1920s. Oralism discouraged sign language in deaf schools, forcing deaf students to read lips and learn to speak.

The debate over how to best educate deaf children is one topic covered in a PBS documentary called "Through Deaf Eyes," which premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 21 on Iowa Public Television. The two-hour show features interviews with Douglas Baynton (photo, right), a University of Iowa associate professor with a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology.

Clips from the documentary will be shown at 7 p.m. Monday, March 5 at the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St. Baynton and Shane Marsh of the UI American Sign Language program will lead a discussion. The event is free and open to the public. Sign language interpreters will be provided.

The film explores the American deaf community's journey from 1817 to 1988.

Before 1817, schools for the deaf did not exist in the United States. "Most people thought deaf people could not be educated," Baynton said. "Deaf people residing in rural areas - which the majority of people did at that time - lived very isolated lives with little communication with others." In cities, deaf individuals came together and developed sign language to communicate in schools and elsewhere.

Oralism picked up steam in the 1870s. Hearing people, like telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, argued that signing was barbaric. Reformers urged the deaf to assimilate, the same way immigrants were expected to. By 1920, sign language was banned in deaf schools. But, such efforts to break up the deaf community's camaraderie backfired. The community grew even closer and began to view itself as a united minority group. Deaf individuals launched a counter-revolution in the '70s and '80s. Acceptance of sign language was the result.

"Today, hearing people are more accepting of sign language," Baynton said. "Now, like in the 19th Century, deaf Americans feel proud - not ashamed of it. As a result, deaf people are more integrated into the hearing world. Oralism, I think, is generally seen as a failure. Sign language is accepted to the point where we have parents teaching their hearing babies to sign."

The documentary was inspired by a museum exhibit that Baynton researched and wrote. The exhibit, "History Through Deaf Eyes," appeared at The Smithsonian in 2002 and toured the nation, including a stop at the UI Hardin Library for the Health Sciences.

With Gallaudet University's Jack R. Gannon and Jean Bergey, Baynton co-authored a companion volume to the documentary. The book is titled "Through Deaf Eyes: A Photographic History of an American Community."

Baynton joined the UI faculty in 1997. He researches the history of disability and wrote a book on the history of the American deaf community, called "Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language." Baynton teaches courses on the topic in English and in American Sign Language.

The documentary was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, The Annenberg Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and Sign Language Associates. Diane Garey and Lawrence Hott of Forentine Films/Hott Productions, Inc. produced and directed the film. Six filmmakers, all deaf, produced short films that are incorporated into the production. For more information, visit:

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACTS: Media: Nicole Riehl, 319-384-0070,; Program: Douglas Baynton, 319-335-2295,

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.