Remembering Harlan Lane, Northeastern professor and tireless advocate for the Deaf community

Harlan Lane, Matthews Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern, studied the language and culture of the Deaf community. PHOTO: Mary Knox Merrill/Northeastern University

Harlan Lane, who helped establish the American Sign Language Program at Northeastern, will be remembered for being a tireless champion and advocate for the Deaf community. He died on July 13, at 82 years old. 

Lane, Matthews Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern, studied the language and culture of the Deaf community. He wrote numerous books on the subject, most recently The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry, in which he made the case that sign-language users have many of the characteristics of a distinct ethnic group. 

Deafness is not a disability, he argued in the book, but rather its own community as much as any other ethnic community. 

In an interview with The Boston Globe shortly after his book was published, Lane said, “One disability scholar says that deaf people reject the idea that they have a disability because there’s a stigma associated with disability and deaf people are trying to duck the stigma. In my view, that simply fails to understand the deaf world. It’s a positive value being deaf.”  

Former students and colleagues described Lane as an “exceptional scholar, teacher, and mentor,” who “contributed to the renaissance of sign language in the United States.”

“We remember his creativity, his impact, and his passion for his work, especially his dedication to the Deaf community,” said Joanne Miller, who chairs the Department of Psychology at Northeastern. “Harlan had a truly remarkable career, and we were very fortunate to have him as a colleague for nearly forty years, until his retirement in 2012.”

Though he was not physically deaf, Lane developed an interest in Deaf culture in the 1970s. He was a visiting professor at the University of California, San Diego, at the time, and had a chance encounter with Deaf students who were signing to each other.

“I became quite excited because I realized there was a whole new way to look at the psychology of language. I felt like Balboa discovering the Pacific,” Lane said in an interview with News@Northeastern in 2011. 

The chance encounter sparked a lifetime of work. Lane established the American Sign Language Program at Northeastern shortly thereafter, hiring faculty who were native speakers of American Sign Language.

Angela Herbert, who is the interim co-director of the American Sign Language Program at Northeastern, was a student of Lane’s and, years later, interpreted many of his courses in sign language.

“Professionally speaking, he was decades before his time in terms of understanding the value of Deaf people and the Deaf community,” Herbert said. “There are so many books on ASL, Deaf culture, and the Deaf community now, but when Harlan was starting out, that just wasn’t the case.”

Herbert said she remembers being a student in Lane’s class early in her time as an undergraduate student at Northeastern, and being a little intimidated by meeting “this pretty famous professor in the field I wanted to go into,” she said. But as soon as she met Lane, the feeling dissipated. 

When Herbert approached Lane with questions after class, he had a warm smile and expressed genuine enthusiasm for sharing knowledge about American Sign Language and Deaf culture. A decade later, when Herbert was back at Northeastern as a faculty member, she saw that Lane’s warmth and enthusiasm hadn’t wavered. 

“He was a giant in the field, but he never made you feel that way,” she said.

In 1974, Lane invited a young researcher he’d met at the University of Paris 8 to join him at Northeastern. That scholar, Francois Grosjean, ended up working as a faculty member at Northeastern until 1986. 

Grosjean and Lane collaborated to dedicate a whole issue of the French academic journal Langages to sign language, which, Grosjean said, caused scores of deaf people in France to shift their method of communication from speech and lip reading to sign language. 

Lane’s mentorship and investment in helping others in the field of psycholinguistics left an indelible mark on Grosjean, he said. 

“I owe my career to that young professor in Paris and then Boston who took me under his wing and was a role model in how to teach and do research,” Grosjean said.

Lane held a faculty position at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., from 1987 to 1988, and was an outspoken member of the “Deaf President Now” movement at the institution—a campaign to ensure the nation’s only college exclusively for the Deaf hired a president who was deaf or hard of hearing. 

The Gallaudet Board of Trustees chose Elisabeth Zinser as the college’s seventh president. Zinser was neither deaf nor hard of hearing, and was chosen over two candidates who were both deaf. On March 8, 1988, at the height of the “Deaf President Now” movement, Lane was quoted in The New York Times, saying that the other two candidates were “very qualified deaf applicants.” 

Four months later, he told a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, “The deaf have always taken the position that their own minority language is essential to their identity and the only way to educate deaf children.” 

The campaign was successful. Zinser was president for three days before she resigned and I. King Jordan, one of the two deaf candidates, was chosen to replace her. 

Lane received a number of awards for his scholarship. In 1991, he received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship for his research on the distinctive language and culture of the Deaf community. In 2014, he was named Commandeur de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, the highest academic honor given by the French Republic. 

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