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Deaf, Dumb, Blind & Live on Stage!

 

By Andrew Parsons

Students from the Michigan School for the Deaf sign the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee." The Silent Worker, 1906. Gallaudet University Archives.

Students from the Michigan School for the Deaf sign the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.” The Silent Worker, 1906. Gallaudet University Archives.

When most of us think of charity performance, we  might think of old school telethons, the kind of show where the host shares the stage with a slew of celebrity acts, and perhaps a few of the people who were expected to benefit from the money raised.

But there was a precursor to this charity performance: deaf, blind and mute children doing math problems.

It all started back in the 1820s and 30s, as a new kind of school began to pop-up around New England. They were called schools for the “deaf, dumb and blind” and meant to educate disabled children. At the time, no one had even dreamed of this before. Says author Shelia Moeshcen:

“The ideas about disability at that time, to be blunt, were archaic. People were afraid of these individuals, they didn’t know anything about their affliction from a medical stand point, so you saw a blind person and you maybe thought they were cursed.”

Early schools built for disabled students were usually religious boarding schools that required a lot of staff. Their primary purpose:  teach these children to read the Bible, so they could be saved. And because they were private endeavors, they didn’t get funding from the government to pay for the facilities, teachers, and staff they needed. So, it’s not a surprise that the schools often need to raise funds.

But there was one major obstacle to their fundraising efforts: most Americans didn’t think it was actually possible for the “deaf, dumb and blind” to be taught the Bible –  or anything really.

Moeschen says the general public needed to be shown that deaf, mute and blind children could learn before they would give the money to pay for the schools. That’s why a new type of fundraising  emerged, one that put the children on stage to perform.  Think of it as the 19th century equivalent of a telethon.

The performances were actually pretty anti-climatic by today’s. In a fancy theater, a headmaster would bring out a few disabled children and have them do a math problem, read from the Bible or point to something on the globe. They’d always close with the kids singing.

The audience reaction, however, was immense. “It was a slam dunk every time,” says Moeschen. “It was very very moving, it was very emotional. There’s newspapers articles of patrons crying because they were so transported.” After all, the stakes were high. These are highly religious audience members who thought these children were cursed and now were convinced their souls had been saved. The charity performances not only brought in the bucks from the audience. They also provided proof to states that these schools were worth funding with government dollars.

More importantly, Moeschen says, it changed the way Americans thought about charity. “It allowed people to fit themselves into these roles so they could sort of see themselves in this unfolding story of these poor children.” Funders could see and feel their dollars at work.

The model carried into the hey-day of the telethon. But Moeschen is careful to say that it’s a model that’s has a built in tension. It says, ‘pity this child’ and ‘look at our wonderful work’ at the same time. And that’s a tension that’s still unresolved in many charity performances today.

This piece was produced for our episode What Gives. You can learn more about the history of charity performance in Sheila Moeschen’s book, Acts of Conspicuous Compassion: Performance Culture and American Charity Practices. She’s also the senior editor at the media nonprofit, I Am That Girl.