McGuire on Mathews, 'Language, Power, and Resistance: Mainstreaming Deaf Education'

Elizabeth S. Mathews
Coreen McGuire

Elizabeth S. Mathews. Language, Power, and Resistance: Mainstreaming Deaf Education. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2017. 192 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-944838-04-1.

Reviewed by Coreen McGuire (University of Bristol) Published on H-Disability (September, 2018) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

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The 2017 Oscar for Best Live Action Short went to a twenty-minute drama titled The Silent Child. Set in rural England, the film shows the central character, Libby, blossom when her mother, Sue, hires a social worker, Joanne, to try to communicate with Libby. Libby is profoundly deaf and unable to communicate until Joanne enthusiastically teaches Libby British Sign Language (BSL). We then see how the ability to communicate transforms Libby’s world. However, when arrangements are made for Libby to go to school, Sue insists that the sign language be stopped, as Libby will be attending a mainstream school with no specific provisions in place to help her. Sue defends her decision by citing the fact that neither the family nor other school children can use BSL and emphasizing that she wants Libby to be “normal.” In the last few minutes of the film, we see Libby sitting at her desk staring obliviously as the teacher stands behind her reading aloud the words for a spelling test. Finally, Libby stands alone in the playground and signs “I love you” at Joanne through the barriers surrounding the school. It is a heartbreaking final scene, and the viewer is left wondering how this situation could possibly be regarded as acceptable in a modern educational system.

Elizabeth Mathews’s book goes some way toward answering this question through analysis of the experiences of d/Deaf and h/Hard of hearing (DHH) students in mainstream education in the Republic of Ireland.[1] Her qualitative studies took place between 2007 and 2008 and are based on the experiences of twenty-five DHH children. However, the focus of their experience is largely framed through encounters with their parents and the professionals involved with their education. However, this inequity does not limit the focus of this book, which primarily focuses on language choices in early childhood. Mathews explains this in the introduction, which also contains a sensitive and thoughtful discussion of the problems manifest in being a hearing researcher working with DHH people. Mathews acknowledges the historical tendency of hearing people to use Deaf people as a resource for study without “giving anything back” and reflects on the steps she has made to ensure that she does. That she succeeds in doing so is poignantly highlighted in one interview participant’s explication: “I have all Hazel’s books kept [sic], because I hoped and prayed one day this day would come. Where somebody would come and ask me what happened” (p. 125).  

So, what did happen? Mathews explains the current state of DHH education in Ireland by first exploring the history of DHH education. Chapter 4, “Establishing a Hegemonic Medical Discourse of Deafness: A History of Deaf Education,” gives the most attention to the history of DHH education, but relies mainly on secondary sources. This lack of breadth means that there is a missed opportunity to contrast the situation in the Republic of Ireland to other areas, and consideration of Iain Hutchison’s work on the history of the education of the deaf in Scotland would have allowed for particularly fruitful comparison.[2] However, her historical case studies of St. Mary’s School for Deaf Girls and St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Dublin does provide fascinating original material and analysis, and gives especial insight into how the unique religious priorities within the Republic of Ireland have affected the provision of DHH education. For instance, Irish Catholic schools maintained Irish Sign Language (ISL) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries while the rest of Britain moved towards oralism. This reluctance stemmed in large part from the idea that sign language was associated with the French (and therefore) Catholic system of education. However, by the mid-twentieth century fears about losing Irish Catholic DHH children to the British system resulted in the schools promoting a more negative view of sign language, which was subsequently banned entirely in favor of an oralist education. Mathews further assesses the importance of technology in facilitating this decision and explains that access to audiological equipment was pivotal in mobilizing towards pure oralism.

Mathews follows on from this historical background with a chapter that considers present-day services, and this structure cleverly highlights the continuities between the isolated Deaf schools of the nineteenth century and the mainstream system currently in place. For example, the systematic exclusion of DHH teachers is less explicit than it was in the nineteenth century, but is just as effective. Mathews explains that most DHH students are exempted from studying Irish language. However, a high standard of fluency in this language is a prerequisite for primary school training. As a result, there are “virtually no DHH teachers working in the primary education system” (p. 38).

More evidence of problems within the mainstream system emerge from the results of her qualitative studies, explored in chapter 5, “Reproducing a Hegemonic Medical discourse in the Irish Deaf Education System.” In her interviews, an emergent theme is the repeated example of parents being explicitly told not to allow their children access to sign language. This is constantly justified as preventing laziness or overreliance on sign against the acquisition of speech even although multiple studies have demonstrated that speech acquisition is not affected by use of sign and the latter can effectively supplement speech therapy.[3] Indeed, studies warn of the danger of withholding access to communication during early childhood and point out that bilingualism is never considered problematic in the same way.[4] Yet ISL is clearly shown to be demonized by medical and educational professionals as a “crutch” and a danger to spoken-language acquisition. One parent recounted being told not to teach their daughter sign language because she “would become reliant on sign, and where she was living in a hearing world, it was better that she develop her oral [sic] as much as possible” (p. 90). Other parents recounted facing opposition to their use of sign language and a recurring refrain features the sentiment, “no sign language if you want to get him talking” (p. 92).

It is in the analysis of these interviews that Mathews explains the enduring authority of the medical model of disability through a Foucauldian conceptualization of power. Her conclusion is a call for greater collaboration between the Deaf world and the hearing world, as she incisively demonstrates that the mainstreaming of DHH children has resulted in a project of “normalization” rather than anything approaching true “inclusion.”


[1]. “DHH” is Mathews’s term and she explains and justifies its use in the introduction.

[2]. Iain Hutchison, “Oralism: A Sign of the Times? The Contest for Deaf Communication in Education Provision in Late Nineteenth-Century Scotland,” European Review of History 14, no. 4 (2007): 481-501.

[3]. Elizabeth M. Fitzpatrick et al., “The Effects of Sign Language on Spoken Language Acquisition in Children with Hearing Loss: A Systematic Review Protocol,” Systematic Reviews 2 (2013),

[4]. Tom Humphries et al., “Language Acquisition for Deaf Children: Reducing the Harms of Zero Tolerance to the Use of Alternative Approaches,” Harm Reduction Journal 9 (2012),

Citation: Coreen McGuire. Review of Mathews, Elizabeth S., Language, Power, and Resistance: Mainstreaming Deaf Education. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. September, 2018. URL:

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