George Veditz and the National Association for the Deaf Films

            In 1880 in Milan, Italy, the International Congress on Education for the Deaf voted to ban the use of sign language in Deaf[1] schools. [2]  Spurred by the rhetoric of Alexander Graham Bell, known to most Americans as the inventor of the telephone, American Deaf schools flocked to comply with the Milan Conference’s decision.  In return, a movement was spawned by Deaf community leaders advocating sign language instruction, fiercely hanging onto the culture they had fought so hard to create.  Still, it looked as if the Deaf were losing this fight as Alexander Graham Bell, a follower of eugenics, tried to convince everyone that the Deaf were forming their own separate race.  Even those who didn’t subscribe to eugenics “demanded the elimination of sign language, believing that it undermined English language acquisition and promoted deaf separatism.” [3]  In the end, deaf people would have to live in a hearing world, they argued, and they should have the skills to deal with that fact. Science has since proved what Deaf people knew all along, that this theory does not work in practicality.  Keeping sign language away from deaf people keeps all language away from deaf people, and can be harmful to cognitive development.[4]  Still, it looked as if sign might become extinct in the near future.

This is the climate in which the National Association of the Deaf, under President George Veditz, decided to make several films for the preservation of Sign Language.  “The N.A.D… has collected a fund of $5,000, called the Moving Picture Fund.” Veditz wrote, “…I am sorry that it is not $20,000.”[5]  With such a limited budget, Veditz and the NAD Board had to decide carefully which signers they would film and what subjects they would cover.  Ultimately, the films they chose to make tended to center on Deaf history, American patriotism, and religion[6].  Eighteen films were made in all, from the years 1913-1920, but only fourteen of these survived to the modern age.[7]  This was due in large part to their heavy use by the Deaf community, and the poorly trained film operators responsible for winding the machines.

The films were made by pointing a static camera at the signers and having them lecture to it.  Often, small amounts of scenery such as vases and curtains were placed in the background for visual effect.  Because of the black and white picture and the poor resolution of the film, signers had to make sure they produced their signs large and signed slowly so everyone could see them.  After a few mistakes, most notably the film showing Edward Minter Gallaudet’s lecture – a retelling of Lorna Doone – filmmakers were also careful to place the lecturers on plain, dark backgrounds so their hands would show up easily.[8]  These films compared favorably with other films of the time in technical skill and appearance.

Once the films were completed, they were circulated throughout the United States to local Deaf Clubs.  These clubs would often couple the film screening with live entertainment, making each screening a huge event in the local Deaf community.  Large groups of signers would congregate in the hall downtown to see the films.  Sometimes, requests were made for the NAD to send transcripts of the films that could be read for any hearing visitors in the audience.  Although Veditz’s film, featuring his impassioned plea for sign language is the best known today, it was E.M. Gallaudet’s film that was most requested when the films were released, despite the difficult background of his film.[9]  This was probably due to the popularity of E.M. Gallaudet’s father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.  T.H. Gallaudet had been instrumental in forming the first school for the Deaf, in Hartford, Connecticut.

Although the films had a major impact on the Deaf community when they were first produced, scholarship on them has been spotty at best.  Many books cover the topic, but devote no more than a few pages to the exploration of the history of these films.  Some give no more than a brief mention to Veditz’s films as being the precursor to modern Sign Language recording and leave it at that.  This paper attempts to explore in greater detail not only the motives behind George Veditz’s creation of these films, and how these films influenced deaf culture as a whole, but also why the topic hasn’t been better covered by Deaf Historians.

Veditz’s Motives:

Carol Padden is perhaps the foremost authority on Veditz and the NAD films.  She was also the first to cover the topic in a book co-written with her husband, Tom Humphries, entitled Deaf In America: Voices From A Culture, published in 1988[10].  At 121 pages, the book itself is slim, but large chunks of it are devoted to Veditz and the importance of the films he engineered.  Padden and Humphries claim that Veditz’s film, The Preservation of the Sign Language, is a clear example of how panicked the Deaf community was at this time that their language would disappear.  Veditz’s strong rhetoric about the need for Deaf people to “love and guard our beautiful sign language”[11] and his claim that European Deaf populations “look upon us Americans as a jailed man chained at the ankles might look upon a man free to wander at will”[12] are examples of the need for activism that the whole community felt, Padden and Humphries tell us.

Around the construction of these movies arose a debate about Sign Language itself, say Padden and Humphries.  Did it have a proper structure?  How were Deaf people defining that structure?  Was the grammar of the language itself more important than making oneself understood to others?  Veditz certainly advocated that there was a correct grammar and style to Sign Language.  Together with the Deaf newspaper The Silent Worker, Veditz tried to communicate what he considered to be the ideal version of sign.  Veditz and The Silent Worker claimed that proper sign moved fluidly from one word to the next and didn’t cause eye strain for the people watching it.  Veditz also advocated for using no facial expression at all while signing, a practice that is completely contrary to current views on proper American Sign Language.  Although the language used by Veditz and other signers in these films is dated, by applying modern understanding of Sign Language grammar to Veditz’s and The Silent Worker’s claims about correct sign, we begin to see what they mean.  Grammatically incorrect sign looked choppy and was difficult to understand.  This was all the more reason Veditz felt he needed to preserve examples of “perfect” sign for generations to emulate, eliminating the “gyrations” of uneducated signers.

Padden and Humphries also focus on Veditz’s penchant for valuing hearing people over Deaf.  Veditz claims that it is from the hearing T. H. Gallaudet, the sponsor of deaf education in America, that Gallaudet’s son learned such beautiful sign, completely leaving out the influence Gallaudet’s Deaf wife must have had on the boy.  As a native signer, her language skills were undoubtedly superior to that of Gallaudet’s, who had learned to sign in his later years.[13]  Veditz seems to imply by these claims that it is through hearing advocates that sign will be able to endure, and that the contributions of hearing members of the deaf community are of a higher status than those of the deaf themselves.

In his 1988 book Hollywood Speaks,[14] John S. Schuchman agrees with Padden and Humphries that Veditz clearly saw film as the ideal medium for the recording of Sign.  By filming their work, Deaf people would no longer need to rely on inaccurate writing to represent their signs.  A regular 35mm camera would be able to record sign for subsequent generations like nothing else.  This catapulted Deaf Culture from being an “oral” society to a culture in which static written texts could be preserved accurately.  Schuchuman claims that Veditz saw the benefits of this leap forward when he spearheaded the films.

In their book 1989, A Place of Their Own[15], John Vickrey Van Cleve and Barry A. Crouch also agree with aspects of Padden’s and Humphries’ claim about Veditz’s Motives: illustrating the panic the Deaf community felt. Because the Oralist Movement was stronger in Europe than it was in America, Veditz had already seen the degradation of Deaf Schools in Europe and felt that European Sign Language had degraded as a result.  He felt that European signers were now using an impure form of their language, full of gyrations and strange facial expressions.  Veditz attributed the decline of European sign to the lack of formal schooling.  Veditz felt the NAD films would provide future generations instruction in the language if traditional classes disappeared.  That is why Veditz was so eager to help America avoid the fate Europeans had suffered.  He felt that by picking eighteen of the greatest masters of American Sign Language and preserving their dialect, he would be preserving sign in its true form.

Some historians have been less than flattering in their analysis of Veditz’s motives.  Susan Burch, in her 2002 book Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History 1900-WWII, claims that Veditz was also trying to “raise a new generation of signing elite”[16] with his films.  Veditz and the board of the NAD were trying to “legitimize their participation and their place in society”[17] by putting forth their picture of an ideal deaf citizen.  Unfortunately, this picture was comprised mostly of older, white men.  Out of all 18 films, only one features a woman, and none feature signers of non-white races.  The deaf picture of who was an ideal American deaf citizen did not extend very far, Burch argues.

Padden again touched on the issue of Veditz’s film in her 2005 article Translating Veditz.[18]  In this article, she focuses more on the language Veditz used to create a spirit of activism.  Using strong rhetoric to create opposing sides between those who are actively trying to eradicate Sign with malicious intent and the Deaf people trying desperately to protect it, Veditz is not mincing words.  As strong a picture as Veditz paints in his sign version of this speech, Padden compares it to a written translation Veditz made about a year after the film was circulated.  In this written version, Veditz pumps up the rhetoric even more, making the position of “us against them” extra inflammatory.  Comparing Oralists to the “Pharaohs who knew not Joseph”[19] in the signed version of his speech, Veditz adds into the written version that Deaf children “were being sacrificed by ‘the oral Moloch that destroys the mind and soul of the deaf.’”[20]   Perhaps this change in rhetoric is because he felt opinion toward sign in America had deteriorated even further.

Later, in Padden’s and Humphries’ 2005 book Inside Deaf Culture, they expand upon Veditz’s relationship with English and print.  Veditz had a long history of employment in the printing industry, ultimately owning his own magazine.  After his death, colleagues of Veditz’ remembered his “vitriolic pen,” often employed in championing sign language and deaf culture.  Veditz’s familiarity with English can also be seen in his film.  He fingerspells many words and is very clear about his meaning.  Padden and Humphries show how most translations of the film differ only slightly from each other, further illustrating Veditz’s command of the English language as well as his mastery of sign.

Influence on Deaf Culture:

Historians claim that these films have had a wide influence on Deaf culture in general.  In the 2002 book, Signing the Body Poetic[21], a collection of essays on Deaf Literature, H. Dirksen, L. Bauman, Jennifer L. Nelson, and Heidi M. Rose tell us that the invention of film acted like a printing press for Deaf people.  Much like moveable type did for Hearing people, the invention of film allowed Deaf people to enjoy entertainment from inside their homes.  Dirksen et al tells us that the Veditz films were the precursor to this, setting up the cultural tendency to adapt new technology.  These films essentially opened the floodgates to other films in Sign Language by showing Deaf people how wonderful a medium it was for their language.  Today, American Sign Language DVDs comprise the highest number of products sold by Deaf publishing companies.

Dirksen et al also claim that the wide variety of Sign entertainment that became available spelled the downfall for Deaf Clubs.  They argue that the need for people to meet and interact socially in an environment outside their home has ended.  Instead, they can experience this kind of entertainment in the privacy of their own homes, just by turning on the Television.  Dirksen et al argue that it was Veditz’s films that ultimately sped up the decay of the strong Deaf community in America.

In a 2005 article in the PMLA Journal[22], Padden explores the ineffectiveness of Veditz’s crusade.  He was unable to stop, or even hinder, the Oralist spirit sweeping across America.  This may be because of his argument style, claims Padden.  She compares Veditz’s highly religious and emotional argument to the reasoned scientific arguments that were taking place in hearing America at the same time.  Appearing only in Sign Language and using an outdated argumentation style, Padden claims that Veditz’s argument was brushed aside by the few hearing people who were paying attention as old fashioned and uneducated.  Padden claims that this is partially the reason for its ineffectiveness in stemming the tide of Oral-only education sweeping through Deaf schools.  If the purpose of these films was to preserve sign language and Deaf culture, they did not seem to be working.

In another book written this same year,[23] Padden and Humphries again explore the NAD films, building on the above idea by exploring the issue of Deaf “Voice”.  Padden and Humphries claim that these films were an attempt to create a place where Deaf people could be heard on their own terms, setting the standard for similar efforts in the future.  In addition to this, the deaf voice present in the NAD films is one that still resonates with Deaf audiences today.  Padden and Humphries show how Veditz’s rallying cry has transcended generations, as deaf people today try to explain the importance of sign language and Deaf culture in a world where rapid scientific advancement may be eradicating deafness.

Lastly, American Sign Language linguist Ted Supalla has used these films for an entirely different reason than others before him: to chart the evolution of ASL from its origins in French Sign Language to the present day.  Supalla shows in his 2010 article in Deaf Studies Digital Journal[24] how ASL linguists can break through the “folk etymology” of where signs originally came from, and chart their true origins.  Studying films such as the NAD films, he argues, can provide valuable clues to where and how these signs originated.   For instance, many Deaf people will explain that the sign language word for “no good” (made with the hand in an L shape, flipping away from the body) derives from the fact that when something is no good, you throw it away.  By studying the NAD films, however, we can see that signers in the early 1900’s make the sign by fingerspelling the letters N and G.  We can then surmise that the origin of the modern sign is not the action of throwing something, but of fingerspelling that has changed over time.   Because there is such a large body of work that survives in this collection, the NAD films have been invaluable to ASL linguists such as himself, claims Supalla.

Lack of Scholarship:

The study of Deaf History is a relatively new field.  Van Cleve and Crouch, in the book A Place of Their Own, speak to this issue in the preface, although they do not speculate as to why.  Instead, they relate their own experiences at Gallaudet University, the premier institute for the Deaf, during the 1980s.  Gallaudet University was interested in offering a deaf history class to their students, but could not find a textbook to use. It seemed as if none existed.  A Place of Their Own was written to fill that gap, they relate.

Martin Atherton, Dave Russell, and Graham Turner take up the issue in depth of why there has not been more study of Deaf history in their article Looking To The Past: The Roll of Oral History Research in Recording the Visual History of Britain’s Deaf Community.[25]  Although these men are ultimately looking at British Deaf History, they use much American scholarship to prove their thesis, such as Harlan Lane’s When The Mind Hears.  Also, many of the statements they make about Deaf language acquisition are not exclusive to a particular country.

Atherton, Russell, and Turner cite Harlan Lane’s 1980 work When the Mind Hears, as being the first real work on Deaf history.  Covering the ordinary Deaf experience in the eighteenth century and before, and showing the road to the establishment of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut,[26] this was the first time that the deaf experience itself had been central to the main arguments of the book. Before this, deaf history focused solely on those who worked with the deaf or were leaders of deaf advocacy groups.  Even when ordinary deaf people are represented in older works, they receive much less attention than the hearing people working with them.  Essentially, Deaf history was being written by hearing people for hearing people.

English proficiency is another huge problem for historians of the Deaf, Atherton, Russell, and Turner claim.  “English – both spoken and written – can pose many difficulties for profoundly deaf people, as for many it is not their first or preferred language.”[27]  This means that primary source material is hard to obtain.  The main body of primary source material that does exist is often from Deaf print media which almost always relies on voluntary contributions and does not employ staff writers.  The articles presented in these publications deal almost exclusively with topics of religion, education, and sport.  What little primary source material about daily life there is has often been poorly preserved.  Atherton, Russell, and Turner cite film as being the ideal medium to preserve deaf history in the future, as it can transcend the barrier of poor English skills and inaccurate systems of writing for sign language.

Padden and Humphries also note in their 2005 book Inside Deaf Culture that the NAD films did not resurface until the 1970’s, when they were remembered and unearthed from the Gallaudet University archives.[28]  Even if creating Deaf history was common, scholarship would not have existed on these particular films until this time.

In Conclusion:

“The window into the history of American Sign Language through these films is, fortunately for us, a wide one”[29] says Padden.  Still, the scholarship that exists on this issue barely begins to explore the impact NAD films have had on American history in general.  Putting the evidence together, the things others have said about the films, I believe that the NAD was filling an important cultural need, and providing a basis for Deaf empowerment that did not exist before.  In the struggle for the community to make its voice heard and define its own destiny in the Oralist vs Manualist fight, the community had always relied on sympathetic hearing people to make their case for them.  The Motion Picture Committee films mark an effort, not just to preserve Sign Language, but also to make Deaf people feel proud of their culture and their heritage.  By empowering Deaf people, these films also encouraged them to find their own voice and try to actively control their own destiny by standing up for the language at the heart of their community.

 


[1] The deaf community uses the term “Deaf” with a capital D to denote the segment of deaf people who consider themselves culturally deaf.  This separates them from other groups such as the elderly, who may experience total hearing loss, but hardly identify with the Deaf as a community.  I feel it is important to make this designation in the language Deaf people use about themselves, and have continued this practice throughout the paper.

[2] Daniel Eagan, America’s Film Legacy, (The Continuum Publishing Group: New York, 2012), Page 11

[3] Signs of Resistance, Page 3

[4] Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf, (University of California Press: Berkley, 1990), Page 54

[5] Eagan, America’s Film Legacy, Page 11

[6] Susan Burch, Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History 1900-WWII, (New York University Press: New York, 2002), Page 58

[7] Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture, (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 2005), Page 58

[8] Padden and Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture, Page 63

[9] Padden and Humphries, inside Deaf Culture, (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 2005), Page 63

[10] Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Deaf In America: Voices From A Culture, (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 1988)

[11] Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Deaf In America, Page 36

[12] Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Deaf In America, Page 34

[13] Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Deaf In America, Page 57

[14] John S. Schuchman, Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry, (University of Illinois, 1988)

[15] John V. Van Cleve and Barry A. Crouch, A Place of Their Own, (Gallaudet University Press: Washington DC, 1989)

[16] Susan Burch, Signs of Resistance, Page 57

[17] Susan Burch, Signs of Resistance, Page 59

[18] Carol Padden, “Translating Veditz”, The Muse Project (2005), http://communication.ucsd.edu/padden/Translating%20Veditz.pdf

[19] Carol Padden, “Translating Veditz”, Page 247

[20] Carol Padden, “Translating Veditz”, Page 247

[21] H. Dirksen et al, Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature, (University of California Press: Berkley, 2002)

[22] Carol Padden, “Talking Culture: Deaf People and Disability Studies”, Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA) Volume 120, 508-513, 2005

[23] Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture

[24] Ted Supalla, “History: Using Etymology to Link ASL to LSF,” Deaf Studies Digital Journal Issue 2, 2010, http://dsdj.gallaudet.edu/index.php?issue=3&section_id=9&entry_id=87

[25] Martin Atherton, Dave Russell, and Graham Turner, “Looking To The Past: The Roll of Oral History Research in Recording the Visual History of Britain’s Deaf Community”, Oral History Volume 29, No. 2, Autumn 2001

[26] Harlan Lane, When The Mind Hears, (Random House: New York, 1980)

[27] Atherton, Russell and Turner, Oral History, page 38

[28] Padden and Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture, Page 62

[29] Padden and Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture, Page 60

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