Disability Social History Project

Deaf Printers

Starting in the mid 1800s and for well over a century, a large number of Deaf people were employed in the printing industry because they could tolerate the high level of noise produced by printing machines. Exposure to the noise of printing presses could cause hearing loss, another reason, it was thought, for hiring employees who were already Deaf. Still, because of discrimination, Deaf employees were taken advantage of and paid less than hearing workers in the printing industry.

Two men stand next to machines in a printing shop
Bernard Siegel, Deaf printer (courtesy of Larry Alpert) Click image for larger version

From: THE DEAF MAN AND THE PRINTING TRADES Author(s): ODIE W. UNDERHILL Source: American Annals of the Deaf, Vol. 68, No. 4 (SEPTEMBER, 1923), pp. 317-330 Published by: Gallaudet University Press Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/44462325

Printing seems to be the most universally taught of all trades in schools for the deaf. Printing may be classified as including the following allied trades : linotyping, monotyping, lead and rule casting, hand composition, stone work, bindery, photo-engraving and etching, and press work. According to the tabu- lar statistics in the Annals for January, 1923, out of 64 residential schools in the United States, 50 teach printing; cabinet-making, including carpentry, coming next with 49. Only two public day-schools teach printing. Printing is taught in all of the five Canadian schools for the deaf. According to the best information there is a larger per cent of adult deaf employed in the printing trade than in any other line of work that requires skill, with the possible exception of agriculture.

From An Ethnographic Case Study of a Deaf Workforce Collective: The previous trade of choice in Deaf circles (prior to Deaf collective employment opportunities with the USPS, which began in the late 1960’s), emanated from one specific vocational skill training program that was seen in most (if not all) Deaf residential schools; was that of the printing trade.

"Sometimes they would put us in printing classes because at the time printing jobs were plentiful and the pay was good."

"Felix's vocational experiences upon leaving TSD tie this study to the primary line of inquiry in that he chose to enter into the printing trade, which as was mentioned throughout this study, was a staple in Deaf employment circles for well over a century."

"The one problem I did have was not being able to have health insurance coverage. Health insurance companies did not want to cover Deaf printers. They were concerned that the Deaf would sue them if injured on the job. Health insurance also did not trust Deaf printers." — Felix, a Deaf printer

From: Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love. "My father was taught the printing trade in deaf school, an ideal trad, it was thought, for a deaf man, as printing was a painfully loud business."

"Upon graduation in 1920, my father was able to land his first job, the job that would last his working lifetime. 'In the Great Depression', he told me, 'I was lucky to have an apprentice job with the New York Daily News. I know it was because I was deaf and so wouldn't be distracted by the noise of the printing presses, and the clattering of the linotype machines, but I didn't care. I also didn't care that the deaf workers were paid less than the hearing workers because Captain Patterson, the big boss, knew that we wouldn't, couldn't complain. He knew that we would be happy for any job, at any wage. We were deaf. He could hear. The hearing people ran the world."

See also: Depictions of Printing in Deaf Periodicals, American Printing History Association