Deaf Community at the Post

In the workspaces of The Washington Post, Deaf printers formed close bonds with their coworkers. Drawn together over years of shared experience at the Post, the printers formed networks that extended outside of the workspace. These social networks were essential for the exchange of information and support between Deaf printers. 

Workplace Dynamics:

The natural flow of the workday in a newspaper print shop included periods of intense activity followed by periods of downtime. Across the composing room, the components of the paper were exchanged between workspaces as pages were typed, composed, proofed, revised, and printed. Linotype operators, for instance, received text from the newsroom and speedily produced lead galleys for page make-up. They awaited editorial corrections and the revisions of subsequent editions of the paper, for which they would produce replacement slugs and galleys. This meant that each workday was punctuated with breaks during which coworkers engaged in conversation and camaraderie.

A black and white photograph of a line of fair-skinned middle to older aged men as they each sit at their corresponding linotype machines, each of their hands typing onto the keyboard on the machine in front of them. Two of the men are turned toward one another using sign language.

In this image a row of Deaf printers are working as linotype operators. Walter Wade and Morris West are having a signed conversation.

Unlike Deaf printers in other contexts, at The Washington Post Deaf printers had a sizable number of signing peers. Lunch breaks, downtime, and time off were all periods during which printers gathered and socialized with one another and with their hearing peers. They played games and pranks, shared advice and information, and held events with one another outside of the workplace. 

As a union shop, the printers of the Post were protected by labor practices which offered unique flexibility. Printers could beg-off, leaving work early, or accept additional shifts, shaping the nature of their work week according to their needs. Additionally, the protections of the union ensured that all printers had mandated breaks and were safeguarded by union representatives in conflicts at work.

Deaf Community at Work:

Social networks are vital to Deaf community members. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Deaf people have formed and maintained organizations for socialization and self-advocacy in the United States at national, state, and local levels. Through the 1960s, it was common for Deaf people to form Deaf clubs in larger cities, renting or buying spacious rooms for regular meetings, meals, games, and other activities. Deaf printers at The Washington Post describe forming similar fellowship and communication opportunities at work. During breaks in the composing room and cafeteria, they recalled how they formed friendships and found romantic partners. They played games and learned skills from one another.

A video featuring several Deaf printers describing the way they socialized at work.

Time: 3:57. Click to enable captions. Transcription here.

“Deaf Consumer Reports”

A vital piece of the Deaf printers’ experience at the Post was the exchange of information between printers, a feature commonly referred to as “Deaf Consumer Reports.” This refers to the way in which Deaf printers relied on one another to relay advice and instruction on various topics. These subjects were discussed in American Sign Language and were delivered by a trusted source with similar concerns and experiences.

For many Deaf people, access to information required a careful negotiation with spoken or written English. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, the emergence of devices like teletypewriters and television captioning technologies opened mass communication systems to Deaf people in the United States. Even as telecommunications access was further expanded in the second half of the twentieth century through both legislative and technological advancements, information was primarily conveyed in English. Deaf printers reported that they often turned to one another instead.

ASL & Storytelling in the Workplace: 

Printers formed close connections with one another at work, regularly finding time for conversation and amusement. For Deaf printers, these asides often reinforced their bonds to one another. They used this time to exchange jokes, stories, play games or pranks on one another. These amusements both reinforced cultural and social bonds but also reflected the tradition of storytelling in ASL.

In this video, Sue Ayers describes how Deaf printers told stories and played games during breaks at work.

Time: 1:26. Click to enable captions. Transcription here.

Located in a metropolitan city, The Washington Post also brought together Deaf printers from across the country. Both regular and substitute workers entered the shop and participated in this social and linguistic community. Deaf printers recalled how exchanges with printers from different states exposed them to regional sign language forms and offered insight on Deaf life around the United States. 

The stories Deaf printers share about their workplace experience often highlight the exchange of ASL stories and signs. While American Sign Language is used across the United States, regional and cultural differences persist. The social and legal circumstances which produced segregated educational opportunities for Southern Deaf schools also led to the emergence of Black American Sign Language, a distinct dialect used by black Deaf people. Regional differences in sign production and vocabularies can be found across the language community as well. In exchanging signs with coworkers, Deaf printers were forming and maintaining networks of regional awareness and community which extended beyond the spaces in which they lived.

A black and white photograph of a group of fair skinned middle aged men and women, gathered in front of several linotype machines. They are dressed casually. In the background are several people moving and working.

In this image Deaf printers Sue Ayers, Robin Kennedy, Mike Golightly and Jan DeLap take a break to chat in ASL.

Comedy and camaraderie at work was also a feature between Deaf and hearing printers at work at the Post. Often utilizing the tools of the workplace, printers reinforced their connections to one another through visual jokes and pranks.

In this video, Dennis Legler describes pranks and jokes played by Deaf and hearing printers during breaks at work.

Time: 4:18. Click to enable captions. Transcription here.

Pranks and jokes exchanged between printers encouraged bonding through communal experience. Deaf printers highlighted that pranks often focused on shift supervisors, the individuals directly overseeing their work. In these cases pranks appear to have been an effective tool for subverting power dynamics and workplace hierarchies. The visual nature of practical jokes would have been accessible to both hearing and deaf workers as a means of breaking tension.

The Work Schedule Forged a Community:

The rigid and rigorous nature of the newspaper industry, with its emphasis on the output of papers each morning, meant that the majority of printers worked at night across the week and on weekends. While family members and neighbors were employed during the traditional 9-5 schedule, printers found their social and recreational opportunities limited by their schedules. Temporary workers, or subs, frequently accepted variable shift work, further disrupting their access to social opportunities outside. As a result, printers often socialized with their peers, both in the workplace and outside. In larger cities in the US, members of the ITU have a history of forming social clubs, sports clubs, and other leisure activities. This continued fellowship further reinforced the bonds between printers.

In this video, Sue Ayers explains how the variable schedule of work at a newspaper reinforced bonds between printers.

Time: 39 seconds. Click to enable captions. Transcription here.

A scanned image of two pages of the newsletter ShopTalk. The article features black and white photographs. The first of a white middle aged woman, the other two of groups of people standing on stage in front of a crowd.

In 1995 Deaf printers organized and attended a local Deaf Festival.

While Deaf club community events and activities were central to many Deaf peoples’ lives, the circumstance of work as a printer often isolated Deaf printers. As their hearing counterparts did, Deaf printers formed unique social and leisure clubs amongst themselves. They participated in local or national Deaf events together and allied themselves to host events in the DC area.

Working at the Post provided not only jobs with above average wages, but also avenues for socializing particularly those in the composing room and press room had overnight hours before the paper was set to be trucked out for distribution. Thus, when some went home for the morning/afternoon shift to sleep to return at night, they created their own social spaces when others might gather during the afternoon or evenings. 

In this video, Brian Brizendine reflects on the unique experience of working as a printer.

Time: 1:12. Click to enable captions. Transcription here.

For a list of sources used, see Works Consulted.

Deaf Community at the Post