Obituary: Harlan Lane (August 19, 1936 – July 13, 2016)



Today, we mourn the passing of Dr. Harlan Lane, a prolific author and a visionary in the evolution of the worldwide Deaf community. Dr. Lane, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, died on July 13 at 82 years of age.

Dr. Lane was a psycholinguist who focused on the language and culture of the Deaf community. He was an outspoken advocate for deaf empowerment, articulating his views in person and in print. In particular, he was concerned about the impact of cochlear implants, arguing in H-Dirksen Bauman’s Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking (2007), that “unless Deaf people challenge the culturally determined meanings of deaf and disability with at least as much vigor as the technologies of normalization seek to institutionalize those meanings, the day will continue to recede in which Deaf children and adults live the fullest lives and make the fullest contribution to our diverse society.”

Dr. Lane was the author or co-author of several seminal texts, including The Wild Boy of Aveyron (1976), When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (1984), The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education (1984),The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community (1992), and A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr. (2004), and the co-author of A Journey into the Deaf-World (1996) and The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry.

Harlan L. Lane was born on August 19, 1936 in Brooklyn, New York. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology at Columbia University, and his Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard University in 1960. While at Harvard, he studied under the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner. In 1973, Dr. Lane earned the degree of Doc. des Lettres at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne). His research focused on psychology, linguistics, neurolinguistics, speech processing, and signed languages.

Dr. Lane established the American Sign Language program at Northeastern University in the 1970s. He hired Marie Jean Philip, Ella Mae Lentz, Elinor Kraft, Nancy V. Becker, and others to ensure that ASL students learned from native signers. He also created the New England Sign Language Society, a group devoted to the study of American Sign Language Linguistics in the mid- to late 1970s. With long-time partner and collaborator Franklin Phillips, Dr. Lane translated French literature by and about deaf people into English.

Dr. Lane held the Powrie Vaux Doctor Chair of Deaf Studies at Gallaudet in 1987-1988, and was here during the Deaf President Now movement. In 1991, he was named a MacArthur Fellow, and donated his prize money to a deaf school in the Republic of Burundi.

Dr. Lane received numerous awards, including commendations from the National Association of the Deaf and the World Federation of the Deaf. In 2014, he was named Commandeur de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, the highest academic honor given by the French Republic.

Dr. Benjamin J. Bahan, ’79, a professor in the Department of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies, co-authored A Journey into the Deaf-World with Dr. Lane and Dr. Robert J. Hoffmeister, professor emeritus at Boston University. Dr. Bahan wrote, “I consider it a privilege to have had Harlan as a friend and colleague, and will miss him greatly.”

As a hearing person who advocated for the rights of Deaf people, Harlan Lane had few peers. All of us—those who knew him personally and those who knew of him through his extensive corpus—owe him a great debt of gratitude. He was decades ahead of his time in his views on Deaf empowerment. His teaching, his scholarship, his service, and his entire being were focused on creating a Deaf-World that transcended societal attitudes and perceptions. We thank Dr. Lane for a life well lived, and send our condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues the world over.

Roberta J. Cordano

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