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date: 21 February 2020

(p. xi) Preface

(p. xi) Preface

As we indicated in the first edition of this volume, a handbook is a tricky undertaking. It is supposed to be an authoritative source book for investigators and service providers in a field, but it also should be able to serve as a reference for students and lay readers interested in the topic. It should offer both breadth and depth in the subject matter, but it also has to be written in accessible language, as free of jargon as possible. Finally, a handbook must be based on the most current research, and thus, while a handbook is large and thorough, its chapters have to be prepared within a very limited time frame and be contained in a limited number of pages. That means asking literally dozens of contributors to abide by short and inflexible deadlines to produce high-quality, comprehensive chapters. Asking people to do this once is awkward. Asking them again—in this case for a second edition—is enough to make an editor tremble. Unless, that is, people are truly committed.

As daunting and contradictory as the above goals may seem, there is also the possibility that a project of this sort can bring about a spirit of collaboration that motivates contributors to work under what normally would be seen as a set of patently unreasonable expectations. The result can be a kind of synergy, as authors and editors see all of the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and create something much bigger than just a collection of thematically related chapters. Indeed, such was the fate of the first edition of The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education. Completed by a group of instructors, researchers, and service providers, in a single academic year, the project drew together the various threads of the “field of deafness” and created a comprehensive summary of issues that are of interest to various stakeholders concerned with the lives of deaf adults and children.

The field of deafness, however, has always been rather amorphous, if not fractured. Originally—and we’re talking as far back as the ancient Greeks here—it consisted largely of educators and parents seeking ways to educate deaf children. By the mid-seventeenth century, deaf people, their talents, and their communication systems were of interest to a variety of noted scientist-philosophers. But participation in those discussions by deaf scientists and philosophers was still almost two hundred years away. Perhaps for that reason, even then, at the beginnings of this multifaceted field, there were disagreements about the role of deaf people in society and whether they should or could be educated. Most notable, of course, was the debate between those who favored educating deaf children via spoken language and those who supported signed language (or “visible gesture”). Both sides have always wanted what was best for deaf children, but there also have (p. xii) always been differences in their underlying perspectives and in how to go about achieving it.

At least by the sixteenth century, organized interest in deaf education had spread throughout Europe and was soon to come to the new world. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the field of deafness had expanded to include psychology and, with it, the study of intellectual functioning among deaf persons. Much of this interest was more akin to the anthropological search for strange and interesting peoples (and languages) in the prior century. But there also was a truly scientific quest to understand the mental processes of deaf people and to develop testing instruments that would allow valid and reliable evaluation of thinking skills among deaf individuals, again largely with education in mind. At this point, signed communication had already been around for centuries, if not longer, but sign languages were not yet recognized as true languages. Therefore, much of the early research gained its anthropological flavor from the fact that deaf people were seen as a tribe that somehow thought without language—a fascinating group, indeed!

It was not until the second half of the twentieth century, with recognition that signed languages had all of the features of spoken languages (all of the important ones, anyway) that a true scientific revolution began with deaf people, rather than for or about deaf people. This distinction is an important one. Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educational reformer, once noted that a revolution for the people is a revolution against the people. In this particular case, until deaf people became involved in the study of Deaf1 communities, deaf education, sign language, and social and psychological issues associated with hearing loss, they often seemed little more than an anthropological group to be studied or pitied. Surely there had been deaf champions and famous deaf people before: Laurent Clerc, Helen Keller, Thomas Edison, and Frederick Barnard (for whom Columbia University’s Barnard College is named) are the first names that come to mind. There also have been hearing individuals who championed the cause, socially and scientifically, of equality of opportunity for deaf individuals, including Charles Michel Abbé de l’Epée, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, and William Stokoe, just to name a few. Still, the fact that the struggle was necessary has put some onus on investigators and educators to give something back to this multifaceted field and work with some urgency to enhance the opportunities for future deaf children.

Since the late 1970s or so, this effort has truly blossomed. From the early work on the linguistics of sign language to current studies of deaf cognition and the neuroimaging of deaf brains, an interdisciplinary variety of researchers, both deaf and hearing, have collaborated with teachers, parents, service providers, and policy makers to understand and improve the development and education of deaf children and so level the playing field for deaf adults in higher education and employment. Far from being motivated by paternalism—something that deaf individuals have long had to tolerate—work being done today in Deaf studies, language, and education reflects a new appreciation and respect for the Deaf community, signed languages, the contributions of deaf individuals, and the benefits of social diversity.

(p. xiii) Consistent with this zeitgeist, the guiding principle of this project, from the outset of the first edition through the recently published Volume 2, has been the need to bring together experts from diverse areas of the field who are both sensitive to its history and able to weave together a stronger fabric of understanding than has been available previously. The necessity for such an approach lies in the fact that, for all of the advances that have been made in the field, everyone involved in research, education, or provision of services for deaf children and adults will admit that in some areas progress has fallen well short of our goals. Among the more obvious of these shortcomings are the literacy skills of deaf students; the provision of mental health services for deaf individuals; understanding the challenges of deaf children with multiple handicaps; and the universal provision of hearing screening, early intervention, and appropriate educational options for deaf children. Clearly the problem is not due to lack of effort. Rather, it is the way of science and pedagogy (and, yes, bureaucracy) that understanding complex challenges and methods to surmount them tend to evolve over time, rather than being resolved by sudden insights or findings.

For all of the shortcomings and complaints that could be leveled at research and practice in this field, the chapters of this volume make it clear that we are now in a better position than ever before to make progress in these areas. And progress is being made! Basic and applied research over the last three decades have clarified many of the psychological and contextual factors influencing the language, social, and cognitive development of deaf children, while technology and educational innovation have provided new opportunities for change. As the field has grown, however, so has the diversity of investigators, the specialization of service providers, and the number of publication outlets for their work. Meanwhile, the expectations of those seeking answers to practical questions—especially deaf individuals and the parents of deaf children—have also increased. It thus seemed incumbent on those of us in the field to gather up some of the strands of research and practice and present them in one place, within a single format, with an eye toward offering a resource for all those interested in Deaf studies, language issues, and the education of individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

A variety of indicators over the past several years indicated that the first edition of this volume actually had the impact that had been intended. We know that correlation does not imply causation, but to all appearances, the earlier volume helped to set the stage for, or at least support, a burst of theoretical, empirical, and practical progress in the field. The intervening years have seen several important books published, expanding our knowledge of Deaf studies, language, and education, and even greater growth in empirical work in these areas. Admittedly, few of the old challenges and disagreements have disappeared, but we now understand much better their origins, confoundings, and complexities. Through such elaboration, we are seeing more substantive discussion of the issues—based largely (if not always) on evidence rather than opinions—and real progress in supporting the development and education of deaf children and youth. It was the excitement and possibility of this progress that led to suggestions for a second edition of the original volume, an opportunity for the original contributors to provide updates (p. xiv) on recent progress in their areas of expertise. To our surprise and delight, 95 percent of the original contributors agreed and, working again on a tight timeline, provided the chapters in the book before you.

To all those who contributed to its inspiration, preparation, and production, we owe great thanks. To all those who will make use of this work, we urge you to take advantage of the pages that follow, not just the words, but the paths they lay out for theoretical and practical progress in a field that is only beginning to appreciate its responsibilities and potential.

Marc Marschark

Patricia Elizabeth Spencer


(1.) Throughout this volume, “deaf” is used to refer to an audiological status while “Deaf” is used in reference to the linguistic minority that makes up the Deaf community, shares Deaf culture, and is composed of individuals who identify themselves as Deaf people.