The history of educating deaf people dates back long before Thomas H. Gallaudet and Alexander G. Bell squared off at the end of the 19th Century. Each of these men believed that deaf people could and should be educated, but each differed in how to accomplish that feat. However, for most of recorded history, deaf people were treated as nothing more than animals. Aristotle believed that because deaf people did not speak the superior Greek language, they could not be civilized. Christianity perpetuated the inhumane treatment of deaf people because they were believed to be punished by God.
In the 1500’s, Spanish monks, who used signs to communicate within their vows of silence, were employed to instruct the deaf sons of the Spanish nobility (Van Cleve & Crouch, 1989). The primary goal was to teach deaf students how to read and write, but there was also a desire to have them learn to speak. The monks believed that using signs and voice made communication between both parties easier. The most important development that emerged from the Spanish attempts at educating deaf people was that it was seen as an attainable and worthy goal. Consequently, deaf people all over Europe began receiving educational instruction.
Two noteworthy educational projects were those of Samuel Heinicke and Abbe Charles Michael de L’Epee. Heinicke opened a school in Germany. His method of instruction was through spoken language. Students learned to mimic his sounds if they had some residual hearing, or just to mimic his mouth movements. Epee opened a school in Paris that utilized manual gestures. He observed that the gestures made by deaf people had specific meanings and that by learning and using the same gestures, the gestures in fact became signs (Mead, 1931). Thus, Epee is credited as the Father of Sign Language.
Although Heinicke’s oral method and Epee’s manual method are decisively conflicting, the action of each to establish a school for deaf education contributed to the creation of deaf communities. The education of deaf children in America did not commence until the early 19th century. The first formalized education offered to deaf children began in 1817 at the Connecticut Asylum for the Education or Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons. Thomas H. Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, a deaf Frenchman who was a student of Epee, chose to use the manual method to educate the deaf students.
This was done because sign language was quickly mastered by persons unfamiliar with written or spoken language (Van Cleve & Crouch 1989). Because Manualism, the exclusive use of sign language to provide instruction, was the first method to be used in America, it was difficult to gain support for schools that taught via spoken language and speech reading. However, two important events shifted the popular opinion (Van Cleve & Crouch, 1989). The first was the Milan Congress and the second was the Industrial Revolution. The Milan Congress adopted the position of Oralism, which held that speech was superior to signs in instructing deaf people.
The American delegation cast the only dissenting opinion, but it was only a matter of time before Oralism spread like wildfire on this side of the Atlantic as well. The catalyst for this was the Industrial Revolution and its subsequent influx of immigrants into the United States (Baynton, 1996). National leaders were disturbed by the fact that these immigrants congregated in neighborhoods and continued speaking their native tongue. Horace Mann’s “Common School” was started to train all children in the English language and American culture. Included in this project were children who deaf.
Mann had visited Germany and was impressed with the Oral method (Van Cleve & Crouch, 1987). The main reason deaf students should learn to speak, advocates believed, was so that they would be normal. Parents supported Oralism because it meant their deaf children would be able to fit in, thus avoiding ridicule and mistreatment. The Deaf community did not sit idly by as the sign language that allowed them to communicate freely with one another was banned in most schools. Educators who were deaf led efforts to establish a National Association of the Deaf (NAD) which advocated the use of sign language.
Deaf students continued to use sign language in informal interactions (Cohen, 1994). Oralism continued to be the dominant instructional philosophy until the 1960’s when Congress received a report that it was a “dismal failure”; for generations of deaf students Oralism was devastating (Baynton, 1996; Van Cleve & Crouch, 1989). The academic achievement of deaf students had not improved and the pressure not to use the manual language that came naturally was emotionally damaging. To further weaken the Oralist position, in 1960, William Stokoe published findings that defended the American Sign Language (ASL) as a true language.
Thus, the gestures that were being used between deaf people were found to have meaning, syntax and sequence. ASL was a valid language, just as French or Spanish. It could be used to express feelings and ideas and to instruct deaf students. Hearing educators, who were by now in control of most schools for the deaf, were reluctant to accept ASL as an equivalent to English (Van Cleve & Crouch, 1989). In the 1970’s, deaf education programs, feeling the growing opposition to Oralism, began using manual gestures again. To claim that these programs were now advocating the use of sign language is misleading because it was not ASL.
Systems such as Cued Speech and Manually Coded English (MCE) merely translated English into sign. As educators of deaf students debated the method of instruction, i didn’t write this paper the country was becoming more concerned with the fact that students with disabilities were being discriminated against and placed into segregated settings. Advocates for students with disabilities argued that these settings cheated students of their right to an appropriate education. In 1975, Public Law 94-142 was passed to protect the rights of students with disabilities, including deaf students