The hearing world did not generally share Eckberg’s self-affirming outlook concerning deafness. In 1956, immediately following the onset of her hearing impairment, a doctor suggested that Lawrence and Letha Eckberg’s daughter was, by virtue of her newly acquired “disability,” incapable of learning. Subsequently, he advised them to send her to a state institution for the “mentally retarded” (Pritchard 7). At the time, medical authorities attempted to paint these publically-funded establishments as the most optimal setting for disabled children. Many parents, faced with limited educational avenues for their children, agreed to commit them to these “asylums” (see Figure 1). However, an often gruesome reality was housed within these institutes: many were unsanitary, overcrowded, under-supervised, poorly funded, plagued with abuse, and predicated on the undifferentiated treatment of residents’ various conditions and needs (see Figure 2). Had Eckberg ended up at one of these institutions, the course of her life would have been drastically different; fortunately, though, Eckberg’s parents recognized vast potential in their daughter. They ultimately opted to reject the doctor’s recommendation and chose instead to send her to public schools in Bureau County, Illinois.
However, Eckberg’s experiences in a “mainstreamed” municipal school setting would pose a different set of challenges. Mainstreaming, an educational trend in America that began in the 1960s, reflected the belief that disabled students could derive superior benefits, such as social normalization and assimilation, through integrated instruction. Yet, during the 50s and 60s, the philosophy of mainstreaming merely offered a “façade of normalcy,” as most public schools demonstrated little concern for the intellectual growth of non-hearing children outside of requisite speech instruction (see Figure 3) (Bechtold 6). This held true throughout Eckberg’s formative school years. When she entered a mainstreamed classroom at the age of nine, she could not yet lip-read, but she was nevertheless expected to learn in an intensely aurally-centered environment. All through primary and secondary school she was deprived of seemingly essential accommodations, such as a note-taker and an interpreter. Moreover, she was never supplied with an alternative means of communication to help in facilitating interactions with instructors and peers. Thus, her earliest educational experiences were characterized by solitude and “filled with frustrations” that had accumulated in the absence of any fundamental support for her academic endeavors (Bechtold 6).
In spite of the overwhelming limitations placed upon Eckberg’s education, her insatiable hunger for knowledge and unshakable determination to challenge naysayers enabled her to sustain tremendous academic growth throughout her youth. In 1965, she graduated from Walnut High School and was recruited to pursue an undergraduate career in a preeminent program exclusively for the deaf in Washington, D.C. at Gallaudet University. During her time there, she undertook intensive instruction in manual communication. As Eckberg acquired this new, “natural” sign language and her happiness grew exponentially, she became increasingly able to engage with her cohorts in more expressive and truly meaningful ways than she had previously thought possible (Bechtold 6).
Sign language empowered Eckberg, allowing her to flourish throughout the rest of her college years. By 1969, she had graduated from Gallaudet with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Education. She went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree with an endorsement in art and deaf education from the Catholic University of America in 1972. Later in life, she would convey a cheeky sense of pride in her scholastic achievements, arguing that they had helped her transcend the artificially imposed barriers of her youth. She stated, “I don’t like seeing people tell me I can’t do something … I remember when I was growing up that people said I couldn’t go to school because I was deaf. And I went to college and graduated, and I got a master’s degree and 30 hours beyond that” (Gauger 1B). Eckberg had a knack for “confounding skeptics,” and she derived great joy from her ability to disrupt the misconceptions concerning deafness that were harbored by her hearing cohorts (Gauger 1B). Thanks to her enriching higher educational experiences, Eckberg was able to stride confidently into her adult life, equipped with the tools necessary to deconstruct the oppressive practices of the society with which she was surrounded (see Figures 4a and 4b).
In 1970, Eckberg was hired as an art teacher by the Vocational Department at the Nebraska School for the Deaf (NSD), a primary and secondary residential school that specialized in the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing children (see Figure 5). Students who attended NSD regarded their alma mater as the only place where they weren’t constantly reminded of their deafness—a place where they could be at home, so-to-speak. Eckberg worked at the school for nearly thirty years and came to regard it not only as her workplace, but also as her second and truest family. Throughout her time at the school, she would impart immeasurable knowledge and encouragement to “hundreds of children,” many of whom went on to pursue college careers, engage in lucrative professions, and raise prosperous families (Eckberg 1B). In addition to the time that Eckberg spent instructing