Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Deaf People and Eugenics

International History of Deaf People during World War II

Last April I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC where they had an exhibit on Eugenics before and during the Holocaust called Deadly Medicine . Here they described the contribution of doctors to Hitler's vision of the perfect race of people, including the sterilization of disabled people and development of methods of killing mentally ill and developmentally delayed people in mass numbers.

My awareness of Deaf people during the Holocaust developed when I met a Deaf woman from Germany. Her parents and sister were also Deaf. Her mother and sister had been sterilized as part of the cleansing of the German people. She, however, was only 9 or 10 years old at the time -- too young for the operation. When she grew up, she married a German Deaf man, emmigrated to America, gave birth to a Deaf daughter who also gave birth to a Deaf child. I've always thought that was a great story of how another person defeated Hitler.

But this is not an unusual story. Many Deaf children and adults were sterilized, some underwent forced abortions. Apparently, there was a myth that schools for the Deaf in Germany sheltered many children from these forced sterilizations, but relatively recent research has found that schools, rather than protect their children, often colluded with government officials. Biesold, Horst (1999) Crying hands : eugenics and deaf people in Nazi Germany Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. (And of course, Alexander Graham Bell was a strong force in eugenics here in the US, while he worked with deaf children.)

A recent book by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture (HV2545 .P35 2005 at both Library West and the Education Library), discusses genetic testing and research with Deaf people. What does it mean when we can decide which disorders and diseases can be eliminated? What does it mean when groups of people should be eliminated, especially when they view themselves as a cultural group? What are weaknesses? What are differences?

But the website on Deaf people during WWII at the Rochester Institute of the Deaf not only includes videotapes of Deaf people from the US, Israel, and Germany describing their experiences during the Holocaust. Nope. It also includes rememberances of Deaf Japanese-Americans in Internment Camps in the US, and Japanese Deaf people in Nagasaki during the bombings. And artwork by Deaf artist and Holocaust survivor David Bloch. It is excellent!

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