Deaf Mutes

A Good Word in Behalf of the Unfortunates

Salt Lake City, April 16, 1884,

Editor Deseret News:

It is with a degree of pleasure that I note the fact that the Legislature at its last session, made provision for the instruction and education of the unfortunate deaf and dumb of the Territory, in its primary branches, a much needed and long desired measure which cannot but be of benefit to them.  Though the number of deaf mutes in our Territory are but few, it is a step in the right direction to aid them to become useful and self supporting citizens, that they may not be a charge thrown up the community.

I have had a varied experience of some thirty years among these unfortunate beings, and I will say that though this faculty—the faculty of hearing—has been denied them, it is nevertheless true that most if not all are capable of being educated to a better standard of excellence in intellectual and moral culture.

Doubtless it would be interesting to many who do not understand these beings, to give a short sketch upon their mode of life and peculiar way of making themselves understood by those with whom they come in contact.

These are different grades of deafness and dumbness, which may be classified as follows: Those who have been born deaf and dumb are naturally the hardest to bring to an understanding of even the most simple, every-day things.  As they grow up and their faculties begin to expand, a vast amount of patience and perseverance will be required of those under whose charge they are placed to bring them to a comprehension of the plainest affair, that is in their uneducated state.  Their brain possesses almost the same functions as that of other beings, but are very dormant and of slow growth, aptness not being a characteristic, and rather conspicuous for its absence.  They are capable of being educated, but only by object lessons—always have an object to point to when trying to make them comprehend, such as a picture, etc.—they can learn most of the words in common use.  Then you bring them to understand the meaning of words by persistently pointing at the object of the sentence; they will thus known what is meant, but they will not know the sound of the word, even of dog, cat, etc.  When educating this class many difficulties are to be met with.  It would be requisite not only to have a large share of patience, but a good facial expression, with the power to denote love, hate, sorrow, humor, etc., thereon.  Deaf and dumb are able to understand facial expression and are quick to comprehend every variety and expression of the human countenance; it amount to an intuition; nothing escapes their notice.  Another thing required will be an expressive gesture, not only of the arms, fingers and shrug of the shoulders, but a peculiar movement of the whole body, in imitation and illustration of the subject you may be speaking of.  They have a peculiar gesture to denote father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, etc., and for all the numerous objects that surround them, and whole sentences can be brought to their understanding by a simple gesture of the arm and face.  When made familiar with words and objects they will be soon able to connect sentences and learn to put them in proper shape.  I have met many deaf mates of eastern cities who considered themselves as having a good education, still in their conversation, which they usually write on small slates carried about in the pocket for that purpose—they seem to have the greatest difficulty in joining sentences together, and they have a rather peculiar way of doing it.  Their general mode of conversing among themselves is not only be gestures, but also by means of the deaf and dumb alphabet—single or double; with one hand or with both.  In many cases they can spell the object but do not know the meaning, which is explained to them by gesture.

Another class are those who have lost their hearing and in some cases their speech by disease, such as scarlet ever or some great sickness.  Some are made totally deaf through the auditory nerve of the ear being destroyed, and some through catarrh and various other diseases.  The mental and intellectual faculties of this class are of a superior organization to those of the other, and may, by cultivation, be brought up to a much higher plain.  In fact this class may be educated to any degree on a par with the most intelligent being—their reasoning powers and mental capacity to grasp at ideas being the same—with the exception of hearing, and may be taught the sciences, different languages, etc., but is it doubtful whether they can ever attain to a higher degree of perfection or even excellence.  They are naturally very sensitive as well as suspicious and generally get very much embarrassed when trying to pronounce a word that they cannot accentuate properly.  This grade also have a peculiar way of their won in speaking, being generally through the medium of signs, but more particularly by the formation of words shaped by the mouth.  It must be understood that those who are of this latter class, namely—deaf through disease—will be able to talk aloud in most instances like any other person, if brought up to it.  And while being able to express themselves understandingly are still in a measure mute—the loss of the hearing more or less affecting the glands of the throat, which are in sympathy with the auditory nerve of the ear, rendering the voice thick, and it cannot be made to harmonize with the variety of sounds produced in speaking.  Still they are able to get along in that way without the aid of many signs.  If you will converse with an intelligent person who is thus afflicted by writing on a piece of paper or a slate, he will be found to be equal in ideas, expression and refinement to the most intelligent beings, but it is difficult for a person not well acquainted with their habit of understanding the lips by the forming of words thereon without sound to converse really intelligently by that mode.  These unfortunates, according to the degree of education they may secure, and according to their intellectual capacity, are able to obtain a fair share of pleasure therefrom.  They can more or less enjoy sounds.  Even music has its charms.  They may all hear different sounds, by this mode: 

When a piano or instrument is being played they either put their feet against it or their hand on it, and thus what a mute may say he “heard” is conveyed by the jar of the sound on the nervous system, which vibrates along the member touching the instrument and communicates through the whole body, producing a most delightful music and sensation, and giving a tolerable idea of what music is.  A piece of elastic rubber, with one end in the mouth between the teeth and stretched, and with one finger striking it in the middle makes it vibrate.  This will give a tolerably fair idea of the sensation of sound.

I would by all means encourage the parents and guardians of these unfortunates to send them to the Deseret University, for by not doing so they know not the pleasure they are depriving them of—the capacity to enjoy what few pleasures fall to them.  If they are too poor to send them to the institution, then, in the name of common humanity, let those who profess to be their friends show by their actions and not words—by subscribing means to that end—their appreciation of the condition of their unfortunate fellow-creatures.

Laron Pratt

[Deseret News, Apr. 1884]

[transcribed and proofread by David Grow, Jan. 2007]

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