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4 - Signs of Humanity

Language and Civilisation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 July 2022

Esme Cleall
Affiliation:
University of Sheffield
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Summary

This chapter uses notions of language and civilisation to understand how disabled people were understood in the context of the British empire. The chapter begins with a discussion of the long-standing association in western European thought between language and humanity. Debates about whether animals had access to language, which gained renewed importance during the Enlightenment and again with evolutionism, identified language acquisition as the ‘true marker’ of what it meant to be human. This left those with aphasia, intellectual disabilities that affected speech or deaf muteness in a highly vulnerable position. Whilst the development of deaf education helped mitigate fears around disability, during the nineteenth century, it became deeply contested and the question as to whether deaf children should be educated using sign language or spoken English became of surprisingly wide importance. Drawing on the work of Douglas Baynton, who argues that in nineteenth-century America sign language was increasingly linked with an early stage of evolution and ‘foreignness’, I resituate these trends, found also in Britain, in the context of colonialism and imperialism. I argue that the intolerance of sign language was linked to a wider intolerance of difference, both the difference of disability and the difference of ‘race’.

Type
Chapter
Information
Colonising Disability
Impairment and Otherness Across Britain and Its Empire, c. 1800–1914
, pp. 123 - 147
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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  • Signs of Humanity
  • Esme Cleall, University of Sheffield
  • Book: Colonising Disability
  • Online publication: 21 July 2022
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108983266.005
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  • Signs of Humanity
  • Esme Cleall, University of Sheffield
  • Book: Colonising Disability
  • Online publication: 21 July 2022
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108983266.005
Available formats
×

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Signs of Humanity
  • Esme Cleall, University of Sheffield
  • Book: Colonising Disability
  • Online publication: 21 July 2022
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108983266.005
Available formats
×