Beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing well beyond the eighteenth century, “medical” treatments were devised in an effort to “cure” deafness. Many were violent, yielding illness, suffering, and at times death: Hot coals were forced into the mouths of the deaf to get them to speak “by the force of the burning.” Catheters were inserted through the nostrils, twisting them through the nasal cavity and into the Eustachian tubes and injecting burning liquids. Wide holes were drilled into the crown of a young girl’s skull so she could “hear” through the openings. Severe blistering agents were applied to the neck, scorching it from nape to chin with a hot cylinder full of magical burning leaves. Adhesive cotton was applied and set afire; vomitories and purgative agents were used; hot needles were injected into the mastoids, or the mastoids were removed altogether. One French doctor threaded the necks of deaf students with seton needles and, with a hammer, fractured the skulls of a number of deaf children just behind the ear. All of these practices were based on the idea that drilling, cutting, fracturing, scorching, or poisoning would “open up” the ear, the brain, and the body to the world of sound.
Sixteenth-century Europe also saw a bloodless but equally ineffectual approach to treating the deaf, one concerned less with the intelligibility of speech and more with reproducing its sounds. The century marked the beginning of the oralist movement, which contended that the deaf should abjure their “signs” and learn to speak, a practice motivated in part by a central problem for aristocratic families in Europe with deaf children: they had to be able to speak in order to inherit. And so the influence of those who taught the deaf grew. One of the most well known among those teachers was Juan Pablo Bonet, a Spaniard. Bonet and those who followed him were either charlatans or incompetents; they mistook their students’ inability to speak for ignorance, and they not only failed to acknowledge but also prohibited their students from using their own language. In 1620, Bonet published the first known work on teaching the deaf to speak, Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a ablar los mudos (The Simplification of Letters and the Art of Teaching the Mute to Speak). In it, he writes that the deaf are “inferior beings, monsters of nature and human only in form.” He claimed he could “cure” them with his “scientific art.” But what was that art? Read More