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How Gallaudet University Pioneered the Teaching of Sign Language in the U.S.

Published on March 19, 2020 by Nicole Coen

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Deaf History Month occurs annually from March 13 through April 15, celebrating Deaf history and highlighting contributions made by people in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community to American culture and society. We will kick off commemoration by reviewing some of the history of Deaf education. In particular, we’ll look at Gallaudet University (formerly Gallaudet College), one of the primary centers for higher Deaf education in the U.S.

The History of American Deaf Education

The history of American Deaf education goes back to the early 1800s. Prior to 1800, there were few schooling opportunities available for Deaf children, so most wealthy colonists sent their children to be educated in Europe.

Towards the early to mid-1800s, however, several schools dedicated to Deaf education were founded in the U.S. to make it more accessible. Most Deaf education in the U.S. used sign language for communication, a method also known as manualism. Some schools taught students through oralism, a technique that teaches Deaf students through spoken language with lip reading, speech, and mimicking mouth shapes and breathing patterns of speech. Many Deaf educators differed over which was the most practical method for communication.

Gallaudet vs Bell: Sign Language vs Oralism

One prominent school was Gallaudet University, founded in Washington, D.C. in 1864. Gallaudet started as a grammar school and later became the first school to provide advanced education of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. The school’s first superintendent, Edward Miner Gallaudet, was a strong advocate for sign language. He often clashed with Alexander Graham Bell who, in addition to fame as the inventor of the telephone, was a well-known supporter of oralism.

Alexander Graham Bell was one of the strongest naysayers towards sign language and believed it was a “foreign language” that should not be allowed in America. He insisted that oralism would help the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community learn English and assimilate into modern American society. Despite public support for sign language and manual education, oralism gained favor in the second half of the nineteenth century. Oralists increasingly pressured schools to integrate the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community into mainstream spoken-language society. This pressure threatened the cultural significance of sign language communication for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community.

When Sign Language Was Banned

In 1880, the International Congress on Education of the Deaf (ICED) in Milan brought international Deaf educators together to propose a solution to Deaf education. The Pereire Society, a group supporting oralism, organized the event with underlying intent to ban sign language. They invited a majority of Deaf educators who supported oralism to secure the result they desired. Only the delegates from the U.S. and Britain voted against the removal of sign language in education. As a result of the conference, teaching sign language in schools for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing was banned. This ban was only formally lifted in 2010 by ICED’s new Statement of Principle, entitled "A New Era: Deaf Participation and Collaboration," adopted July 19 at the 21st ICED in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In support of their Deaf students, the university decided to allow sign language usage despite the ban. Edward Miner Gallaudet had attended the Milan Congress and acknowledged a need for oralism, but also strongly believed in the value of sign language. Gallaudet supported the concept that students should learn through whichever method or combination of communication methods best met their individual needs. This concept later influenced the modern approach to Deaf education, which relies on specialized programs tailored to the individual.

The Return of Sign Language

Oralism continued to dominate deaf education into the twentieth century, resulting in the decline of successful Deaf professionals and diminishing quality of life and educational opportunities. Some deaf educators, however, supported sign language as a viable means of communication. William Stokoe, a researcher and chairperson of the English department at Gallaudet University, proposed that the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community shares a unique culture and that sign language is a complete language. The accepted belief at the time was that sign language was only an imitation of English, so did not qualify as a separate language.

Stokoe initially faced resistance as an outsider to the community who attempted to challenge long-accepted ideas. He persisted with research and eventually received a grant in 1960 to study sign language linguistics, which attracted other linguists and researchers from around the country. Stokoe’s work altered the landscape of Deaf education forever. This led to more holistic teaching methods and contributed to cultural acceptance of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community.

Modern-Day Representation in Deaf Education

As Deaf education evolved, Gallaudet students and faculty sparked a new era of activism. In March 1988, the university announced the hiring of a hearing president over two other highly qualified Deaf candidates. The community response was harsh, in part due to decades of frustration over insufficient Deaf representation in education. Students and their supporters sparked a protest that led to the resignation of the selected hearing candidate, and election of the 124-year-old university’s first Deaf president. This event, called Deaf President Now (DPN), has inspired other Deaf and Hard of Hearing students and communities to stand up for equal representation. Because of their activism, these communities now have greater freedom and access to education than ever before.

The story of Gallaudet University is just a small part of the history of Deaf education. We encourage you to continue learning about the ways it has evolved over the last several hundred years.

 

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