Insulting Jean Massieu: Debating representational control of deaf people in mid-19th century Britain

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In 1876, an educator of the deaf and a ‘deaf-mute’ publicly clashed over topics ranging from the nature of deafness and the identity of those who are ‘deaf-mute’ to the best methods to be used in deaf education and what deaf children following those methods might be expected to achieve. The debate occurred at a point in the nineteenth century when expert authority ‘about’ deaf people was beginning to sweep away deaf people’s own right to self-representation. Although richly nuanced and highly personal, the debate’s occurrence at a period that studies of the history of the deaf community have identified as pivotal to deaf people’s categorisation as ‘disabled’ means that much of its complexity has been lost in subsequent historical over-writing. This article explores the debate in depth. It provides a valuable glimpse into the mechanisms of expertise, and the ways that both non-deaf and deaf experts understood who deaf people were, what they could do, and what their place within society should be at that pivotal time. It also highlights the rich complexity of a much more complex history available to those prepared to dig beneath the surface to expose historical texture.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)321-342
Number of pages22
JournalCultural and Social History
Issue number3
Early online date2 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - May 2017


  • deaf
  • representation
  • expert
  • education
  • sign language


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