Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The German Deaf Museum

Even before I came to Germany I was hoping that I would be able to meet some German deaf people and have the opportunity to study German Sign Language. My students at Goethe, Bastian and Armin, found a web page for a "deaf museum" in Frankfurt and I was excited to check it out. As it turns out, the museum, which opened only last year, is the only deaf museum in Germany. And its founder and curator, Lothar Scharf, has done incredible research on deaf people in Germany during the Nazi era. Lothar has been very generous sharing his research with me and more. In the short time I have been in Germany he has become a very good friend.

I was able to spend some time at the deaf museum and the Frankfurt Deaf Center located above the museum, meet German deaf people and observe German Sign Language (DGS). I found German Sign Language to be similar to American Sign Language and completely different from Japanese Sign Language. Here is a brief description of German Sign Language:

German Sign Language or Deutsche Gebärdensprache is the sign language of the Deaf community in Germany. It is often abbreviated as DGS. It is unclear how many use German Sign Language as their main language; Gallaudet University estimated 50,000 in 1986. The language was not invented; it has evolved naturally though use in deaf communities over hundreds of years.

Germany has a strong oralist tradition and historically has seen a suppression of sign language. German Sign Language was first recognised legally in a disability act in May 2002. Since then, Deaf people have a legal entitlement to Sign Language interpreters when communicating with federal authorities, free of charge.

German Sign Language is unrelated to spoken German. The two have very different grammars, though as the dominant language of the region, German has had some influence on German Sign Language. A signed system that represents the German language has been developed, which is known as "Signed German" (Lautsprachbegleitende(r) Gebärden, Lautbegleitende Gebärden or LBG). It is rarely used as a natural means of communication between deaf people. Another system of manually representing German is known as "Phonembestimmes Manualsystem" (Phonemic Manual System). Similar systems that represent the English language are known as Manually Coded English.


Lothar has told me that in reality the number of deaf people is smaller, perhaps around 40,000. And he is pessimistic about the future of deaf people in Germany. For one thing, deaf people were sterilized during Nazi time so genetically deaf people in Germany were unable to have children. And cochlear implants are very popular (and are apparently free for deaf people to get). And I understand from Lothar that "Deaf Pride" as it exists in the United States and Japan is not so prevalent in Germany. Most deaf people want to communicate with and be a part of the hearing world. Realistically, that's where better jobs are. Here are a couple of more links about the deaf situation in Germany:

Link to article, "Deaf education in Germany"

Link to overview of deafness in Germany, "Deaf Community - Germany"

The German deaf situation seems so different from what I have encountered in Bali, the United States and Japan. I hope to have more opportunity for research in the future. And Lothar himself makes for a fascinating study. Lothar is hard of hearing and seems comfortable speaking German (and English), signing DSG (deaf sign language) and LBG (signed German). He quit high school and was into flower power and the communist party as a youth. Twelve years ago he began his "second life" as he puts it, beginning his research of deaf people during the Nazi time. He has an incredible collection of deaf related materials on display in the museum and in his own private collection. Lothar has found that deaf people were not merely discriminated (and sterilized) by the Nazis, many of the deaf supported Hitler (and of course many did not support him), the same as hearing people in Germany at the time. One older deaf individual I met in Frankfurt told me how he liked and now misses Hitler (despite being sterilized himself). And just today Lothar showed me copies of Deaf Hitler Youth newspapers with articles about Japan (and he has promised to translate them into English in the future). Lothar travels across Germany and Europe to give lectures about his research. He has also written two books full of valuable information and historic photographs. Check out his websites:

Link to Deaf Museum web page:

Link to Lothar Scharf's web page:

The Deaf Center has a large multiple purpose room, other rooms used for various deaf groups, administrative offices including facilities for a deaf telephone relay program and apartments for deaf and hard of hearing people.

There is also a Deaf Pub at the center, where deaf people can gather, eat, drink and socialize. In this sense, the deaf club is a physical space owned by deaf people (like the situation in the United States described by Lane et al. [1996]) as opposed to most sign language circles in Japan that rent rooms from community centers and social welfare facilities. Lothar seemed surprised/disappointed that my own sign language circle/deaf club in Osaka did not have its own bar.

The last two photos above are from occasions when deaf people gathered at the center to view soccer World Cup matches. The deaf people were just as crazy about soccer, or football, as hearing people.

I was able to bring my students from Goethe to the deaf museum on a fieldtrip and they were all greatly impressed. The fieldtrip was reported in a national German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. While I was happy with the attention and to have my own photo published, the story itself was full of inaccuracies. It was unfortunate that the reporter didn't ask ask any questions and instead made assumptions.

The museum, despite its relatively small size, has many artifacts and exhibitions. I took many photos and am tempted to include them in this post, but in the end I want to encourage people to actually visit the museum and hear Lothar's lectures. The actual experience of being in the place is much richer than an internet encounter. Hopefully this post will give readers an idea of what the place is like and encourage visits. I am also hoping to bring Lothar to Japan so he can lecture about his research. Even though I am leaving Germany soon, I look forward to continued contact, experience and friendship with Lothar and others at the deaf center in Frankfurt. To them I wish to express my deepest gratitude for sharing so much with me and VAOJ.

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