In the past, deaf culture was viewed in a vastly different light than it is today. Today, deafness is a celebration of a different sensory universe; not something to be seen as a disability. Deaf history is full of differing viewpoints and derogatory ideals written not by those who actually experienced it — much of deaf history was written by the hearing.
In the beginning, ancient Greeks denied education to the deaf. Aristotle, a well-known philosopher from ancient Greece, said that people could not be taught without the ability to hear, that they were unable to learn. Early Christians offered a similar, yet different, viewpoint. They said that a child was born deaf as punishment for their parents’ sins, according to hearinghealthmatters.org.
Early records of history, such as those in “The Rule of Saint Benedict” (a book written by Benedict of Nursia in the eighth century), show that the actions of the Benedictine Monks are one of the only notable and favorable actions toward the deaf community. They took vows of silence to honor God which led them to develop their own form of sign language.
The earliest record of deaf education was in 1504 when a Spanish Benedictine Monk named Ponce de León established a method for teaching the deaf. He used traced letters and lip movements to help them learn various words and pronunciations. Before there was an accepted standard of sign language, people tried to develop their own signs. An early form of sign language was developed on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Everyone on the island used signs to communicate. They called it Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language.
In the 18th century, the first organized school for the deaf was started in Paris by Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée. L’Épée is known as the “father of the deaf.” He was a firm believer in manualism, meaning he supported the use of sign language in the teaching of the deaf, according to a biography posted on yourdictionary.com.
L’Épée inspired many others to start other schools throughout Europe. In Leipzig, Germany, another school for the deaf was opened. This school was started by Samuel Heinicke.
Heinicke used oralism to teach his students, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. This method involved lip reading, a technique of watching a speaker’s lips, facial expressions and gestures to understand speech. This method focused on teaching the deaf to understand and produce spoken language. It did not incorporate sign language.
This led to a Methods Debate. Oralism was pitted against manualism. Oralist did not want to teach anything other than spoken language, they did not want to accept such a flaw in humanity that prevented people from hearing, and by extension, speaking. However, America embraced manualism, according to an article published by lifeprint.com detailing deaf education and the methods debate.
Gallaudet University offers a brief history of the school which states that with the turn of the century came an acceptance of manualism and sign language in America. In 1815, Thomas Gallaudet traveled to Europe to get a sense of teaching techniques for the deaf. He met Laurent Clerc, a prominent figure in deaf teaching. Gallaudet brought Clerc back to the States and together they founded a school for the education of the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Clerc is known as the “Apostle of the deaf in America.”
Gallaudet and Clerc worked to help the hearing to understand deaf culture. According the PBC documentary, “Through Deaf Eyes,” they were so effective in their efforts that, in the 1850s, Congress considered setting aside a Western state for deaf individuals to live together, away from the prejudice of hearing society. In 1864, then-President Abraham Lincoln declared the college Gallaudet University.
However, the victory for manualism was short-lived. America entered into what is called the Dark Ages of Sign Language. Beginning in the 1870s, people started to turn away from sign language, according to a timeline established by The Sign Language Company. The biggest antagonist being an inventor we rely on so heavily today: Alexander Graham Bell.
Bell was a firm believer in the oral method of teaching the deaf. He taught at various school, all the while working on a way to transmit telegraphed messages. This led him to invent the telephone, which ousted the very people he was trying to teach. Bell went as far as to try and ban marriage between deaf individuals. He believed that, were the deaf to marry the deaf, it would create a “deaf-mute variety of the human race.”
Richard Wolkomir wrote an article for the Smithsonian titled “American Sign Language: It’s not mouth stuff — it’s brain stuff.” In this article, Wolkomir quotes the president of the National Association of the Deaf who called Bell the “most to be feared enemy of the American deaf.”
Things got even worse for the future of sign language in 1880. International deaf educators came together in what is known as the Conference of Milan. It was here that oralism was declared the superior method for teaching the deaf. A ban was placed on the usage of sign language in deaf schools as discussed in a verywellhealth.com article referencing the Milan Conference of 1880. Still, American delegates fought for manualism.
However, people were motivated to form communities that kept the spirit of sign language alive. They believe that just because it could not be taught in the school, it did not mean that they had to abandon the most reliable form of communication they had.
The 20th century was a major turning point in deaf history. A timeline created by the National Association of the Deaf showed that many deaf people began to participate more and more in public life thanks to the fact that they were not permitted to fight in the wars. This allowed them to take on factory jobs which helped to establish the deaf as good workers and productive members of society.
Some examples would be William “Dummy” Hoy in 1909. Hoy was a baseball player best known for inventing the signs for “strike,” “ball” and “out” signs we still use today. Another well-known sporting tradition that began with deaf players is the football huddle. In 1920, players from Gallaudet University formed a huddle to hide their signs from the other team. In 1964, due to the Civil Rights Movement; the efforts of William Stokoe; and a change in the social climate, oralism was deemed a failure in deaf education. Additionally, in 1987, Marlee Matlin was the first deaf actress to win an Academy Award and, in 1995, Heather Whitestone was the first deaf Miss America.
Today, American Sign Language is offered by a plethora of institutions as a foreign language. This is a vast improvement from when it was thought to be a hindrance in learning written and spoken language. However, modern linguists have found that learning sign language at an early age enhances the ability to learn spoken and written language.