The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has just announced its list of 2010 MacArthur Fellows, who will each receive a “no strings attached” stipend of $500,000 over the next five years. We are proud to share the news that Sign Language Linguist Carol Padden is among the 23 winners of this so-called “Genius Award.” We have twice had the honor of publishing Dr. Padden’s work. In 1998 we published Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture, considered a path-breaking transformation of the then-nascent field of deaf history. Inside Deaf Culture followed in 2004 and was hailed as a fascinating inside look at the development of group identity among deaf people. You can visit the MacArthur Foundation’s site for a video in which Dr. Padden describes her work. Below, Elizabeth Knoll, HUP Senior Editor for the Behavioral Sciences, Education, and Law, explains the importance of Dr. Padden’s research and also recalls her initial meeting with Dr. Padden and her husband, Tom Humphries.
Nobody single-handedly, or single-bookedly, creates social change. But sometimes there are books that see and say what others have seen and are still not quite able to say. Deaf in America and Inside Deaf Culture are two of those books. In them, Carol Padden and her co-author and husband Tom Humphries argued compellingly that the deaf were not pitiable victims of a physical deficiency, limited by a disability. They are the heirs and creators of an historically rich culture, of communities, schools, clubs, theatre, and art. To be Deaf is not just to be deaf.
What has been even more influential is Padden and Humphries’s powerfully made case for American Sign Language—that it’s not simply an enormous set of gesticulations, as many hearing people might vaguely assume, but a language as grammatically structured and complex as any spoken language. That linguists now study ASL, and high schools offer courses in ASL along with Spanish and French, shows the impact of Padden and Humphries’s work.
What I particularly admire about Carol is the skill—and energy!—with which she acts as a translator and intermediary between the Deaf and hearing world. The first time I met her and Tom, she made our three-way conversation possible by simultaneously translating everything I said orally into ASL for Tom, and everything Tom said in ASL into spoken English for me, and going back and forth herself between ASL for Tom and English for me. It was an amazing performance, and all the more amazing because I knew that this was essentially what she had been doing every single day, for her whole adult life. Her books are for both the Deaf and hearing worlds, and have changed them both.