Hearing and Deafness

Technological developments did not focus only on the hearing world. Inventions and instruments designed to amplify sound were also aimed at assisting those who had low or no hearing. For instance, the nineteenth-century catalog of medical instruments shown here includes several varieties of ear horns used to boost hearing.

Education and training of the deaf became a specialized field, with schools and curricula for deaf education well established by the nineteenth century. The use of sign language (or “manualism”) emerged as a preferred method of communication among the deaf. Yet by the mid-19th century, lip-reading challenged signing for dominance in education. Shown here are printed works related to these opposing approaches. Gallaudet’s work argued for manualism as the most effective means of communication, and includes illustrations of signing, while Alexander Graham Bell promoted the “oralism” approach, or lip-reading. Lip-reading became the dominant mode of teaching the deaf from the mid-nineteenth century on, giving rise to books such as the one shown here, designed to self-teach lip reading.

The hearing community’s promotion of lip-reading, combined with advances in the transistor which enabled smaller hearing aids, reduced the visibility of hearing disabilities. Gone were the days of oversized, obvious ear trumpets or signing without lip-reading; the deaf could appear the same as the hearing. By the 1970s, however, Deaf culture(s) emerged, promoting the idea of deafness as an identity rather than a disability.

Frederick Bedell, a faculty member at Cornell, had a professional interest in hearing and auditory devices. His papers include notes from his teaching career, a model he created for teaching about the structure of the ear and hearing, and work he did regarding hearing aids. The photograph in this case shows a group of children using one of his assistive listening devices.

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