International Conference in Deaf Geographies 2016

The International Conference in Deaf Geographies, 27 & 28 June 2016.

Rochester Institute of Technology

Rochester, NY

Register Today!

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Edmund Booth on Attending Church Services (1880)

mutes1st-2nd )

This semester, I’m teaching a course on U.S. Deaf History by using manuscripts and primary commentary of major Deaf issues and events by Deaf authors. Last week we discussed the first NAD conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, by looking at the Proceedings of the Convention. In addition to organizational details, the Proceedings records topics ranging across multiple areas of concern to the late 19th century participants, including issues of faith, i.e., the non-denominational Deaf Bible Study groups forming in urban centres to a critique of the Episcopal Church’s leadership in Deaf ministries.

While most of the Convention participants were under the age of 30, an elder at 70, Mr. Edmund Booth (1810-1905) of Iowa, the owner and editor Anamosa Eureka, was one of the three organisers and served as the temporary chair of this first national Deaf event. Below, I have pasted Edmund Booth’s colourful commentary of his church experiences and how a few typical ‘hearing’ church spaces do not meet the needs of sign language people.

Remarks of Mr Edmund Booth

When in a town or a small city there is an Episcopal Church and only one or a few deaf-mutes, not enough of sufficient numbers to employ or pay a preacher in the sign-language, it might be advisable for such mutes to attend the Episcopal service. There they can read in the book of Common Prayer (or whatever the book may be called) while the Clergyman is reading at the desk. I know of mutes whose families are connected with other than Episcopal Churches, and in every such case the mutes prefer to go with their families, some member being always ready and willing to furnish the text or point out the hymn. The advantages in these two cases are about equal. ‘Three years ago, I attended an Episcopal service in Chicago. Rev. Mr. Mann officiated. It was in the vestry of the church, and the windows admitted the clear light of heaven. It all went well and was perfectly satisfactory.

And now comes the dark side. Some weeks since, I attended church on the Sabbath in Chicago, the preachers being Revs. Gallaudet and Mann, with the regular pastor of the Church for the hearing portion of the congregation. “A dim religious light” prevailed, perfectly proper, doubtless, for the hearing people; but for the mutes a fiat reversal of the command, “-Let there be light.” I and some other mutes were seated some distance from the platform. The preacher’s face was mostly in darkness, and when seen was alternately bronze, vermilion, sky-blue, or some other color, bringing to me the re- collection of the “noble red men” of forty years ago in the forest. These various hues came from the stained windows stained to shut out the light. So far as hearing people are concerned, I find no fault with this. In their case all looked well. Even the pastor addressing them appeared just as he should, vestments and all.

But for those addressing the mute part of the congregation it struck me as a burlesque. It was difficult, at the point where I and others were seated, to gather what was said, and impossible to catch a single word on their fingers. The eye could not penetrate with clear vision the body of more than semi-darkness which floated between us and the preachers. The service to us profited nothing. Episcopal churches are built for hearing people, not for the deaf.

Two evenings ago, some of us attended Episcopal service at one of the churches in this city  of Cincinnati. There were three clergymen for the mutes and one for the hearing, all in canonicals. Again the one for the hearing looked well, and performed his part well, and, as at Chicago, the others were, in large degree, a farce. It is hard language, I know, and I speak it not willingly, but it is time to tell them the plain truth, for not one of the three seems to have given thought to the fact that to bring light to the mind of a deaf-mute, there must be light for the eye. The gaslights were arranged solely for a hearing congregation, but a little common sense, in which they appear sadly wanting, might induce our preachers to place themselves where, not their backs, but their faces, arms and hands could be seen to best advantage by those sitting in front of them. And even then there is still the annoyance from the dazzling gaslight, but that is a lesser evil than the absurdity of not light enough to know what the reverend gentlemen are saying. Theatrical managers are “wiser than the children of light.”

Another trouble, of slight importance perhaps, but which is not only out of place, but looks ridiculous. I have said the vestments of the Episcopal clergy look well on one who ministers to the hearing. Hanging from the arms of one using signs, the constant flutter, and especially in a darkened church, or where the preacher stands in an unfavorable position as regards light, these wide white sleeves are far more conspicuous than the. Motion of his arms or the play of his fingers. Where it is so difficult or so impossible to know what he is saying, we are apt to think of a scarecrow in a cornfield, with its rags fluttering in the wind. Our preachers should have something of that most uncommon of all things, common sense. Thomas H. Gallaudet, who first established preaching by signs, was largely possessed of that commodity, and would never have dreamed of preaching to mutes in a darkened church or with lights so placed as to dazzle to the eyes and throw little or no light where light is most needed.

(from Proceedings p.26-28)

As a human geographer, I am continually fascinated by the ways in which 19th-century Deaf people came together to form Deaf Spaces, and the multitude of ways in which they did this – be it physical spaces (a la today’s DeafSpace project at Gallaudet University) or metaphysical spaces signing people create in their everyday social interactions. Booth’s commentary lets us glimpse through his deaf eyes, his ecclesiastic experiences – from coping in small town settings, like I imagine Anamosa, Iowa, most likely was, to what seems more like an ideal situation for him, attending services in a clear-windowed vestry in Chicago. I think my favourite bits are when he describes ‘the dark side’. Booth was clearly possessed a fine wit.

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(If you are interested in reading more about the Convention and the Deaf issues of the day, check out the Proceedings on at )

(Image sources:

Proceedings cover:

Booth’s portrait:

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Field School in Deaf Geographies 2016

FSDG Poster 2016

Check out our website at

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Pondering Access Technologies.

Yesterday, thanks to my generous dean, I attended a conference at RIT. The purpose of it was to explore and celebrate advancing effective access technologies for disabled people. During one of the keynote addresses, the speaker commented on how new communication technologies, set to be available in the new year, meant that signing people would have easier access to businesses and services via visual (ie. sign language) means.
As I sat there, I couldn’t help but think of a paradox that seems to be brewing between people who support communication access services such as virtual interpreting services, and the medical technologies industries working hard at eliminating signing peoples.

I also was reflecting on the current students at NTID who cannot understand their signing professors and need oral interpreters in the classrooms there. Aren’t ever-improving medical technologies companies and advancing communications access firms chasing each others tails? What good will sign-access technologies be to a future generation of people who don’t sign? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think sign is going to disappear. It’s become too popular as a second language in secondary schools. But I do see the irony of hearing kids learning a language that deaf children’s parents are still, unbelievably (!), actively discouraged to teach their children.

What was remarkable about the conference yesterday was the chance to see the entrepreneurs making headway promoting technologies that weren’t so much about assimilation as they were emancipation. These technologies aren’t looking to fix people, rather they are looking to adapt the spaces to suit the needs of people who occupy them. Now that’s cool stuff.

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Conference Fatigue

I am attending the Association of American Geographers conference in Chicago this week. The conference is the largest gathering of geographers in the world. After the quiet of my CLA basement office, the crowds are overwhelming, so is being in Chicago, the third largest American city. Attending a conference is an odd experience – part happy reunion with long-separated classmates, part thrill at the chance to talk ‘shop’ after months of working on one’s own with a cadre of people who are truly interested in the work I do, but I also experience a dark underbelly of insecurity that has to do with awkwardness of being among so many after so long alone, and a fear of attempting to share one’s revelations to a room full of (I’ll admit it) people with whom I have to compete for jobs, publishers, etc. Conferences also open doors and windows. From the chance to sit in sessions targeting my own thin disciplinary strand to attending random presentations on topics that seem wholly unrelated to my work but contain some delicious idea that changes my thinking, sometimes profoundly. Then there is the exhibition hall, full of publishers like Penguin (all softcovers are $5 all hardcovers $10), some are even handing out books. Free. Yes. Free. A bibliophile’s dream!

And here I sit, feeling disconnected and tired and missing some of my friends who are not here this year. My undelivered and unfinished paper set aside to write this reflection.

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International Conference in Deaf Geographies, June 29-30, 2015

The International Conference in Deaf Geographies

29-30 June 2014

Field School in Deaf Geographies

Rochester Institute of Technology

Rochester, New York


The Field School in Deaf Geographies (FSDG) announces a two-day conference, the International Conference in Deaf Geographies (29-30 June 2015). The conference brings together researchers from around the world whose interests engage with the themes of Deaf Geographies. It serves as an invaluable forum where all those interested in this research arena can connect with the network of Deaf Geographers and appreciate the diversity of expertise that is emanating from a broad array of disciplinary perspectives in the humanities and social sciences. Critically, the conference will afford participants the opportunity to participate in important discussions regarding future research conducted by the school.

We are hereby calling on those academics whose work intersects with Deaf Geographies to submit abstracts for papers to be featured in the conference panel discussions. Abstracts are to be between 200 and 250 words, and are to be submitted to Mary Beth Kitzel, Director, (contact details as below) by Friday, 27 March 2015.

The Field School in Deaf Geographies is settling into its new home at the Rochester Institite of Technology, Rochester, New York. Rochester, home of the National Technical Institute of the Deaf and the Rochester School for the Deaf, is world-famous for its large and thriving Deaf community. What an incredible location for Deaf Geographic research! The FSDG will run five weeks from 1 June to 2 July 2015. The school’s curriculum will have a dual focus on both human geographical perspectives on the history of Deaf space, as well as on the theory and methods of human geography. The fundamental learning goals of the field school are to thoughtfully and critically engage with Human Geographic research from a Deaf cultural perspective, and to encourage the enthusiasm and efforts of new researchers at all levels of study in this exciting new area of research. The conference will offers participating students the opportunity to present their project’s research findings and to collect feedback from the visiting academics.

The registration fees for the conference are $40.00 (USD).[*] The conference website is still under construction. Details are forthcoming.

DEADLINE for Abstracts: Friday, 27 March 2015

For additional information and abstract submission, please contact:

Dr Mary Beth Kitzel


Field School in Deaf Geographies

Department of History

College of Liberal Arts

Rochester Institute of Technology

92 Lomb Memorial Drive

Rochester, New York 14623-5603



FSDG’s homepage:


[*] Fees are waived for RIT faculty and staff, but registration is still required.

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Chasing Ancestors

I am finally getting around to posting the link to my thesis. Apologies for the delays.

Kitzel, ME 2014
Chasing ancestors: searching for the roots of American Sign Language in the Kentish Weald, 1620-1851.

This work would never have been completed without my entire ‘village’ giving me support, so here are my acknowledgments:

‘Gratitude is the memory of the heart.’ (Massieu)

The post-graduate life presented a fascinating paradox: never in my life have I lived in such lonely isolation while simultaneously feeling such loving support from my friends and family, near and far. I cannot properly express the depth of my gratitude for your encouragement when I stumbled on this path and your faith that I would find my way.

The role supervisors play in setting the tone of the post-graduate experience cannot be overstated. I had the gentlest guidance from the incomparable team of Simon Rycroft and Brian Short. You took a green American and taught me to be a British geographer with such generosity and gentleness that I know I made the right decision to study at Sussex. It is not easy to take on a completely new subject in order to supervise a student and you did. Cheers, gentlemen.

I have been fortunate to call three institutions home. This project would never have been conceived without the incubator of the National Technical Institute of the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology where I trained and practiced as a sign language interpreter. It was there I met and was welcomed into Rochester’s Deaf community. I am indebted to my former colleagues at the Department of Access Services, the hardest working interpreters on the planet, especially my mentor, David Krohn, and the former students and faculty of the College of Liberal Arts.

The Queen’s University Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle has been my English hometown. I want to thank Bruce Stanley for his support and faith in my abilities, especially for his support in the creation of the Field School in Deaf Geographies. Direct support for my thesis project came in a six-month scholar-in-residence appointment and a regular teaching opportunity. The entire BISC community has cheered and supported this thesis from the outset. Thank you all.

I will always be grateful to my third institutional home, the University of Sussex, as it gave me the place to become a geographer. This thesis was partially funded through a three-year Graduate Teaching Assistantship from the Department of Geography at the University of Sussex. I wish to thank my colleagues there for the opportunity and to engage with some of them in the craft of teaching, especially Richard Black, Mike Collyer, Jeremy Lind, and Dave Ockwell. I thank Alan Lester for sharing his knowledge and for allowing me to sit in on his course. I also want to thank The Women in Geography Group. You helped to bolster low spirits and offered cheerful encouragement. My gratitude goes as well to my MSc cohort for the silliness and seriousness that happened in turns.

I thank Nora Groce for her kind generosity and the faith she showed in a ‘young’ researcher. I have done my best to honour the calibre and quality of your Vineyard work.

I also wish to acknowledge other scholars who offered generous assistance – Harlan Lane, Anthony Poole, and Michael Zell.

Thanks is due to the hardworking folks at the institutions where I did my research, including the staff at Centre for Kentish Studies in Maidstone, especially Michael Carter, Libby Richardson, and Elizabeth Finn; the Royal School for Deaf Children, Margate, especially Ayesha Powell; and the staff at the Cranbrook Museum.

Thank you, Janine Wentz, for sharing your amazing design skills.

My thanks to Rebecca Edwards for the inspiration and the conversations; you helped me envisage this project and a future for Deaf historical geography.

Deaf Geography is still in its infancy. I would like to acknowledge my colleagues and friends, those dedicated researchers striving to ensure its survives past the cradle, especially Mike Gulliver and Gill Harold. Thank you for being my partners in this adventure and for helping me to dream big.

I am forever indebted to and grateful for the unbelievably generous spirits of Jill and Nick Fenton. The ‘Fenton Scholarship’ allowed me to finish this work. You welcomed a stranger into your home and your family and you kept her. You are simply the best.

I want to acknowledge my support networks. Locally, this includes Claire Anderson, Charles Bowles, Daniela Debono, Evelyn Dodds, David Hill, Niamh Kelly, Richard Lane, Síobhan McPhee, Thea Mueller, Jean Ritchie, Emma Sanderson-Nash, Claire Smith, Karen and Peter Trimmings, Sally Underwood, and Hannah Warren. Thank you all for propping me up when things got tough and for helping me rejoice in the victories, big and small.

In North America, I thank my extended ‘family’ – Maggie Berg, Brian Bliss, Nicole and Andrew Dickerson, Wendi Farkas, Christine Kray, Donna Landwehr, Miriam Lerner, Lisa Ménard, Meredith Rutherford, Dani and Peter Schantz, Dave Tillotson, Daria Veltri, and especially Theresa Small, my thesis nanny, for your unwavering love and faith in me and the decision to undertake this project.

Finally, I thank my Kitzel clan for your love and encouragement in all its forms over the past few years. It has never been easy to be so far from you all. I lovingly dedicate this thesis to you.

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