Visionary Leader - July 2014
Gallaudet University has named activist and writer George W. Veditz, 1884 & G-1887, as July's Visionary Leader. While he is best known for his efforts to preserve and nurture sign language by capturing it on film, Veditz's many contributions to the deaf community changed the course of deaf history during a time when deaf people were struggling to preserve their own culture and language.
"As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs," Veditz declared in the 1913 film Preservation of the Sign Language.
"As long as we have our films, we can preserve signs in their old purity," he said. "It is my hope that we will all love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to deaf people."
Born in 1861 to German immigrants in Baltimore, Md., Veditz became deaf at age 8 due to scarlet fever. He was fluent in spoken English and German, among several other languages. After he became deaf, he was privately tutored until he was 14, when he enrolled at the Maryland School for the Deaf (MSD) in Frederick. Although MSD at the time primarily trained its students in shoemaking, the school's principal hired Veditz as his private secretary and bookkeeper. Veditz wanted to enroll at Gallaudet in 1878 but could not afford to finance his education. To save money for school, Veditz was a foreman for the printing office at MSD, where he worked without pay for the first year, then for $6 per month during the second year. In 1892, he founded the Maryland School for the Deaf Alumni Association.
In 1880, Veditz finally enrolled at Gallaudet, where he studied education. He graduated in 1884 as valedictorian of his class, and returned to MSD to teach for four years. He earned a master's degree from Gallaudet in 1887. A year later, Veditz moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., and worked as a teacher and accountant at the Colorado School for the Deaf for 17 years. During that time, he founded the Colorado Association of the Deaf and met his wife, Mary Elizabeth ("Bessie") Bigler, over a game of chess. They married in 1894, and Veditz continued to play chess, competing against the best in the world, including U.S. chess champion and grandmaster Frank J. Marshall and the world chess champion, Jose Capablanca, of Cuba.
Veditz graduated from Gallaudet in 1884 with a degree in education.
Veditz became president of the National Association of the Deaf in 1904.
Veditz filmed himself in 1913 in a film titled Preservation of the Sign Language. In December 2011, the film became part of the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
In 1904, Veditz became president of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). He had strong opinions about preserving sign language, so during his years as president he worked closely with Oscar Regensburg, the first chairman of NAD's Motion Picture Fund Committee to produce some of the earliest films that recorded sign language. Consequently, these videos are some of the most significant documents in deaf history. Individuals whom Veditz and Regensburg captured on film include such notables of the age as Edward Miner Gallaudet, Robert P. McGregor, John B. Hotchkiss, and Edward Allen Fay. Preservation of the Sign Language was inducted into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in December 2011.
Veditz was driven by the injustices he saw that included job discrimination, repression of sign language, and the overall treatment of deaf people as second-class citizens. Knowing he could reach a large and diverse audience through writing, Veditz used every possible medium to inform people about violations of the rights of deaf and hard of hearing people. He contributed articles to The Jewish Deaf, The Silent Worker, the Deaf American, and the Deaf Mute's Journal. Veditz was editor-in-chief for the Optimist in Atlanta and the Silver Courier in Chicago. Many of his articles are preserved in the Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives.
Two of Veditz's primary advocacy issues were the rights of deaf people to use sign language and obtain employment. As editor-in-chief of the Deaf American, Veditz wrote about how the federal government had banned the hiring of deaf employees by stating that people with disorders such as "total deafness" and "loss of speech" could not take the civil service examination.
Veditz immediately launched an intensive two-year campaign with other members of the Gallaudet College Alumni Association, Edward Miner Gallaudet, and leading deaf advocates to remove this classification.
Veditz wrote a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt, to which Civil Service commissioner General John Black responded with a refusal to overturn the ruling. Undeterred, Veditz gathered more supporters during summer 1908, including Republican presidential nominee William H. Taft. As a result of a campaign by the deaf community, in 1908, President Roosevelt repealed the ban on deaf people applying for civil service positions.
"The deaf themselves were a unit and fought shoulder to shoulder. The zeal was such that it accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of uniting them politically," Veditz said.
After Taft was elected as president in 1909, he issued an executive order to reduce the power of Civil Service managers to restrict deaf employees to certain jobs. Taft also required all federal departments to supply a list of jobs open to deaf applicants. As a result, 84 jobs became available to deaf applicants.
During his lifetime, Veditz also founded what would become the Gallaudet University Alumni Association and was involved in a World Congress of the Deaf held in conjunction with the World's Fair.
He passed away in Colorado at age 75.
Photos courtesy Gallaudet Archives
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