John S. Schuchman, a Gallaudet University administrator and scholar who wrote and edited books about deaf people during the Holocaust and the portrayal of deaf people on-screen, died Dec. 19 at his home in Ashburn, Va. He was 79.
The cause was cancer, said Robert B. Weinstock, a manager in the Gallaudet office of admissions.
Dr. Schuchman served 34 years at Gallaudet, a Washington-based university for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, where he served as a dean, vice president of academic affairs and provost. He officially retired in 1998, then taught two more years on a volunteer basis.
As a hearing child of deaf parents, Dr. Schuchman grew up with American Sign Language as his native medium of communication and as a bonding agent for his family’s community of deaf people.
“It was a natural community for me as a kid growing up,” he said in a 2007 documentary film “Through Deaf Eyes.” “It was like a kid who grew up in an immigrant family that spoke a different language than the majority. So instead of my family speaking Italian, our family spoke sign.”
The movie industry’s failure to recognize deaf people as having a “normal community like any other minority groups” had been the motivating force behind Dr. Schuchman’s 1988 book, “Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry.”
From the silent to contemporary films, the book traced deaf characters in motion pictures, concluding that they were portrayed as despondent or dependent, having no deaf culture or community, reinforcing widely held stigmas and biases. In most cases, hearing actors, lacking in cultural sensitivity and sign language fluency, were cast as deaf people in cinematic roles, he said.
Those stereotypes were most prominently shattered in the 1986 film “Children of a Lesser God,” about a relationship between a hearing teacher at a school for the deaf and a deaf young woman on the custodial staff. Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, won an Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of the deaf woman.
With Gallaudet history professor Donna F. Ryan, Dr. Schuchman was writer and editor of “Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe ” (2002).
The book explored Nazi persecution of deaf people as an aspect of Hitler’s theories of racial hygiene, which were used to justify sterilization, incarceration and murder of people with disabilities. It also examined the experiences of deaf Berliners, who, as members of the Nazi party, persecuted other deaf people, especially deaf Jews. Another chapter of the book contained first-person accounts of deaf Hungarian Jews who survived concentration camps.
John Stanley Schuchman was born in Indianapolis on Nov. 12, 1938. He graduated from Butler University in his home town in 1961 and received a master’s degree and a doctorate in history at Indiana University in 1963 and 1969, respectively. He also obtained a law degree at Georgetown University in 1968.
In 1967, while a law school student, he visited the Gallaudet campus looking for a job and was hired that day to teach in the history department.
Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Betty Jane Engleman Schuchman of Ashburn.
In 1970, Dr. Schuchman became dean at Gallaudet. One of his first acts in that role was to issue a minimum proficiency sign-language requirement for hearing Gallaudet faculty members who were less than fluent in American Sign Language.