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A Brief History of American Sign Language

Published on January 28, 2021 by Nicole Coen

In its short, 200-year history, American Sign Language (ASL) has seen both incredible advancements and survived intense controversies. To share why, we've compiled some of the most significant events that have impacted the development and use of ASL today.

Early Sign Language in the United States

In the early 1700's, Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts had an unusually high population of Deaf residents. The community created and learned a new sign language to help eliminate the communication barrier between deaf and hearing residents.

The First Formal Sign Language System

Charles Michel de l'Épée was a French priest who founded the first free public school for the Deaf in Paris in 1755. l'Épée was the first to compose a standardized French sign language alphabet. He also created a French Sign Language (FSL) dictionary based on his students' homemade signs, which included hand gestures for concepts rather than individual letters and words. His method of instruction laid the foundation for future teaching of sign language.

The First US School for the Deaf

Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet established the first American school for the Deaf in 1817. Clerc came from Europe and taught French Sign Language, which had quickly spread beyond France into other European countries. Together they used the American students' homemade hand signs, Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), and FSL to form American Sign Language.

Gallaudet University Founded

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed an act that established the first federally chartered school for the Deaf. Gallaudet University still exists today in Washington, DC, and is the only liberal arts college for deaf and hard of hearing students. The school is also bilingual, with instruction both in ASL and English.

The Spread of Oralism

Alexander Graham Bell is best known as the inventor of the telephone, but he also exerted significant influence over Deaf education in the US. Bell strongly supported oralism, the belief that Deaf individuals should be taught speech and learn to lip-read as a primary form of communication. He believed that that the only way Deaf individuals would ever be part of society was by learning how to speak.

Bell spoke at the 1880 Congress of Milan, encouraging Deaf educators to eliminate sign language in favor of oral education. This congress resulted in a ban on sign language use in schools so that deaf children were not allowed to use sign language to learn or communicate. From then on, the Deaf used and taught American Sign Language in secret.

Sign Language Research and Advocacy

This misguided view of ASL continued into the 1960s, but began to shift when Gallaudet professor William Stokoe published his paper Sign Language Structure. His revolutionary work determined sign language to be linguistic in nature and established ASL as a fully-formed language that should be afforded the same respect as spoken languages. Stokoe and two Deaf colleagues at Gallaudet, Carl Croneberg and Dorothy Casterline, also created the first ASL dictionary during this period.

Further progress was made at the 15th International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) in 1980, a hundred years after the Second Congress of Milan eliminated sign language in education. Delegates revised the findings of the Congress of Milan to declare that "all deaf children have the right to flexible communication in the mode or combination of modes which best meets their individual needs." In 2010, the 21st ICED held a formal vote to make even further changes. The delegates overruled all of the 1880 Milan resolutions, allowing the Deaf community freedom to be educated in their method, or methods, of choice.

 

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