fb-pixel Skip to main content

Harlan Lane, Northeastern professor who studied and championed deaf culture, 82

Dr. Lane established the American Sign Language Program at Northeastern University.Globe staff/2011

As a psychologist, writer, and advocate for those who are unable to hear, Harlan Lane had a way of focusing quickly and concisely on what was at stake for the deaf community, which he championed as its own distinct ethnic group with a vibrant culture.

That discussion should begin, he said, by examining who gets to decide what constitutes a disability — a label he called “squishy.”

“My students don’t think needing eyeglasses is a disability but that needing a hearing aid is,” he told the Globe in 2001.

Dr. Lane, who had been the Matthews distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he helped establish the college’s American Sign Language Program, died July 13 in his home in Roquefort-les-Pins, France, near Nice, according to The New York Times. He was 82.


His friend and collaborator Dr. Richard Pillard told the Times the cause was Parkinson’s disease.

“We remember his creativity, his impact, and his passion for his work, especially his dedication to the deaf community,” Joanne Miller, who chairs Northeastern’s psychology department, told the News@ Northeastern website. “Harlan had a truly remarkable career, and we were very fortunate to have him as a colleague for nearly 40 years, until his retirement in 2012.”

Dr. Lane, who also had a home in Boston, had studied deaf culture since the early 1970s, when he happened to watch two deaf people converse. Impressed by American Sign Language’s complexity, and its emotional breadth and depth, he conducted research that illuminated the richness in how those who are deaf communicate.

He also became a prominent critic of how a mainstream culture dominated by those who can hear treats those who can’t — including the insistence by many medical professionals that the top goals should always be teaching the deaf to speak and surgically giving them the ability to hear.


“If you’re talking about the deaf as an ethnic group, and what you’re offering them is to try to change them to make them more like the majority, because life is easier for the majority, that’s unethical,” he told the Globe in 2011.

Dr. Lane also challenged the notion that it should be automatically considered beneficial for someone who has been deaf since early childhood to regain hearing through surgical means, and to then leave deaf culture behind.

Deaf people marry other people who are deaf “more than any other minority. I think that’s very significant,” he said in 2011, adding that “what’s up is the value placed on being deaf.”

He particularly opposed medical intervention — such as cochlear implants — for young deaf children, and he drew an analogy to others who aren’t born into a majority group.

“With black Americans, if we told them we can make life a little easier for your kid because with a little plastic surgery and some skin lightening, which we can do nowadays, they’re going to ‘pass’ more easily . . . I would step out of the way, because I might get punched, and justifiably so,” he said.

Dr. Lane said that he “and deaf people, and others who know the deaf well see that there’s no disability here. There’s a physical difference, which many minorities have.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, he once said that “cochlear implants are bad medicine. Pure and simple.”


Harlan Lawson Lane was born on Aug. 19, 1936, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His parents divorced when he was young, and he was raised by a grandmother.

After graduating from Columbia University in New York with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, he studied under the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner at Harvard University, from which he received a doctorate in psychology. He taught at the University of Michigan and also earned a degree in linguistics at what is now called Sorbonne University in Paris.

In the mid-1970s, he was hired by Northeastern’s psychology department and had served as its chairman.

While Dr. Lane was in California in the early 1970s, he was introduced to deaf students communicating in American Sign Language.

“I became quite excited because I realized there was a whole new way to look at the psychology of language,” he said in an interview posted on a Northeastern website in 2011, the publication year of “The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry,” a book he cowrote. “I felt like Balboa discovering the Pacific.”

Watching the students communicate led him to explore what he called “Deaf World” in books, journal articles, and research.

He would, in time, help start Northeastern’s ASL program and establish a research laboratory that studied speech and language.

Cathy Cogen, the first director of Northeastern’s ASL program, told the Times how determined Dr. Lane had been to start holding classes in which hearing students could learn sign language.


“But the college said ‘no,’ ” she recalled. “Harlan didn’t take no for an answer, and in his gentle and poised way, he started offering the classes. When students started streaming in, the dean’s office said ‘OK’ and accredited them.”

Dr. Lane wrote or cowrote several other books, including “When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf” (1984), “The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community” (1992), and “A Journey into the Deaf-World” (1996).

In 1988, while teaching as a visiting professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where the students are deaf and hearing-impaired, he watched proudly as students protested the school’s selection of a hearing educator as its new president over qualified deaf candidates.

When the students commandeered the school’s gym, Dr. Lane watched as their “flying fingers” conveyed an awakening of their cultural pride.

“In that silence you could feel the kids’ excitement at being on their own and coming together with their own kind,” Dr. Lane told The Chicago Tribune. “It’s a feeling of solidarity that, once a minority experiences it, there’s no turning them back.”

The school subsequently reversed its decision and hired its first deaf president, I. King Jordan.

After Dr. Lane’s death, Roberta J. Cordano, Gallaudet’s current president, who is deaf, said in a statement: “As a hearing person who advocated for the rights of deaf people, Harlan Lane had few peers.”

Information about Dr. Lane’s survivors and a memorial service were not immediately available.


In 1991, he received a MacArthur fellowship — the so-called “genius” grants — for his work with the deaf. Speaking with the Globe then, Dr. Lane recalled that parents who learned their children are deaf sometimes sought his advice.

The parents often were anguished by the prospect of their children becoming part of a different culture with its own language.

He said he would tell the parents that “as difficult as it is to believe right now, something wonderful has happened, and if you embrace this miracle, you and your child can have a much richer life. If on the other hand you try to deny it, to bury it, you are condemning yourself and your child to a great deal of suffering.”

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.