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March 18, 2007

Documentary sees through deaf eyes

From: The Republican - Springfield,MA,USA - Mar 18, 2007


When deaf students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., made news recently by ousting their newly appointed president, many hearing people got a dramatic glimpse of an unfamiliar world.

Now they can learn more about deaf culture and history in a new PBS documentary called "Through Deaf Eyes," airing Wednesday at 9 p.m. on WGBY television.

"We knew it would be a very complicated story," says Lawrence Hott of Haydenville, part of the award-winning husband-and-wife team who made the film, "and we knew it would be a political hot potato."

And not for the reasons people may think.

The conflict over ill-fated president Jane Fernandes at Gallaudet was nothing compared to the long struggle between oralism and signing traditions among the deaf. While most deaf schools today use a combination of lip-reading and sign language, not so long ago deaf children were warehoused and shoehorned into agendas set by hearing people.

Even today, advocates of signing get passionate over cochlear implants and other efforts to "mainstream" the deaf.

When, at the Academy Awards, deaf actress Marlee Matlin surprised the audience by reading nominations aloud in her own voice, some in the deaf community were outraged. It was as though she had betrayed her culture.

But Hott says both approaches have merit, and the film features many who move successfully between the two worlds. The Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, founded in 1867, has had a long history of teaching oral communication.

"It was important for us to show the two different points of view," he says - especially now that the technological revolution offers the deaf and their families a complicated set of choices.

Hott and his partner, Diane Garey, have won over 100 awards for their Florentine Films/Hott Productions, including an Emmy for their 1997 documentary "Divided Highways." They have twice been nominated for Oscars.

A New York native, Hott earned his J.D. degree at Western New England College School of Law in Springfield and practiced law for two years before joining the filmmaking collaborative Florentine Films, which included Ken Burns.

Hott says he got into filmmaking for the same reason he got into law: To have an impact on social change. "I realized that I could be more effective as a filmmaker than as a lawyer," says Hott, 56, "so I made the switch."

In 1981 he and his wife formed Florentine Films/Hott Productions. "Diane is the editor and writer, while I'm more the producer and director," he says.

To those who think documentaries have a small audience compared to fictional blockbusters, Hott replies that every film he makes for PBS gets an audience of four million to 10 million, followed by a long life in classrooms. "Sentimental Women Need Not Apply," Garey's documentary on nursing, has been shown continuously in schools since 1988.

The couple spent four years on "Through Deaf Eyes," traveling across the country for interviews and incorporating archival photographs and footage, animation, news clips, on-camera interviews and even short films-within-the-film by deaf directors.

As the daughter of hard-of-hearing parents, Garey was familiar with the implications of deafness. She became adept at sign language for the film.

The team interviewed more than 100 deaf people, of whom 54 appear on camera. The challenge was not just to gather information from them, but to show them communicating with their natural energy and wit.

In movies, the deaf have often been portrayed as dopes or victims. In real life, says Hott, most deaf people today don't even consider themselves disabled.

"The reason we made the film is to let deaf people speak for themselves," he says. "They are very diverse. They run the gamut of every profession, ethnicity and background, and they have very, very different ideas about what it means to be deaf.

"What they have in common is that they consider themselves to be normal. They don't see being deaf as a disability or a handicap. They see it as part of life."

The deaf advisors for the film, primarily senior advisor Harry Lang, "were always pointing out to us how many well-known scientists, teachers, doctors and inventors there are," says Hott. "Deaf people contribute to society just like everybody else."

Hott says his other purpose in making the film was to underscore the importance of language - all language. "What makes us human," he says, "is not necessarily spoken language."

Historically, the effort to make language accessible to deaf Americans was rooted in piety. A Connecticut minister named Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet worried that the deaf would not be eligible for salvation if they couldn't understand the Gospels. He opened the first permanent American school for the deaf in Hartford in 1817.

Another early hero in the movement was Gallaudet's French associate Laurent Clerc, who communicated very effectively with sign and had taught it in Paris. Gallaudet himself called this silent language "highly poetical," and viewers of this film will understand why.

Then, in the late 1860s, came a wave of oral schools, in which children were taught to read lips and, by studying breathing and mouth shapes, to make sounds. Signing became shameful and was punished in some schools.

In 1880, an international conference in Milan, Italy, decreed that oralism was the way to go, and that, furthermore, deaf people should not intermarry.

One of the factors that tarnished the reputation of oralism was its association with the concept of eugenics, or planned breeding to improve the race, which the next century would prove to be horribly misguided.

In 1955, a young professor named William Stokoe became a champion of sign language at Gallaudet. He realized sign was not just a pale copy of English, but a language of its own.

Ironically, the deaf community resented him at first, because he was a hearing man.

Other heroes of deaf history include a crotchety deaf genius named Robert Weitbrecht, who in 1964 invented the TTY, the "telephone" for the deaf.

In 1988 Gallaudet University was the site of a riot that dwarfs its recent presidential dust-up. Students revolted after a hearing candidate was chosen over two deaf candidates for president.

As a result, I. Jordan King became the first deaf president of Gallaudette, and remained so for 17 years.

©2007 The Republican