Although the first known reference to deafness was found in the Egyptian Ebers in 1500 BCE, it was not until 1578 CE that the world’s first school for the deaf was established in Spain. The late 1700s saw the start of the so-called Hundred Years War, with disagreement over classroom communication modes arising in Europe: the Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Eppé of France believed sign was the natural language of the deaf (manualism), while Samuel Heinicke of Germany declared that deaf people must be taught via aural/oral means because thought was only possible through speech (oralism).
In the United States, education for deaf children began in 1817 when a wealthy community leader, Mason Cogswell, sought to provide formal schooling for Alice, his deaf daughter. Cogswell sent Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet to Europe to research the best practices. After being rejected by the oralist teachers in England, Gallaudet studied with the manualist teachers in France. Gallaudet persuaded a deaf teacher, Laurent Clerc, to return to the United States to help found the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, now known as the American School for the Deaf.
Within the next few decades, regionalized schools cropped up across the United States. In 1864, Congress authorized the addition of a collegiate department to the Columbia Institute in Washington, D.C., creating the only liberal arts college for deaf people in the world, the National Deaf Mute College, now called Gallaudet University.
Until the late 1860s, about half of the teachers were deaf and all classes in schools for the deaf were taught via American Sign Language (ASL). Change came with the establishment of the New York Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf-Mutes, now known as the Lexington School for the Deaf, which prohibited the use of signs and followed the oralist model.
The battle over modes of communication had found its way to North America and was reflected most clearly in the public feuding between the president of the National Deaf Mute College, Edward Miner Gallaudet (son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet), who supported signs and speech in the classroom, and the famous inventor, Alexander Graham Bell (whose mother and wife were both deaf), who strongly advocated for the exclusive use of speech.
Culturally Deaf people contend that the “Dark Days” of deaf education began in earnest in 1880 at the International Congress on Deafness, held in Milan, Italy. Oralism was chosen as the sole method allowed in educational settings. Due primarily to the efforts of E. M. Gallaudet, manual methods continued to be used in the United States. In response to this defiance of the Milan decision, Bell used his influence to foster a rapid increase of programs teaching deaf students through oral methods, rising from 7 percent in 1882 to a peak of 80 percent by 1919. It was during this time that signing became covert, with older deaf children passing the language to younger children in the dorms of residential schools.
The “Dark Days” ended in the 1960s when Gallaudet University Professor William Stokoe conducted research on the linguistic and grammatical structure of signs used in the deaf community, finding that ASL is indeed a separate and unique language. The tide turned and by the mid-1970s, sign language was once again permitted in schools. However, ASL was not used then, nor is it used in most academic programs today. Instead, various forms of voiced artificial sign systems designed to follow English word order are the means of providing a “total communication” learning environment. In the past ten years, however, there has been a growing movement toward a bilingual-bicultural approach.
Supported by federal legislation in the 1970s, placement patterns shifted from regionalized schools to local public school programs. However, due to the low incidence of deafness, all too often only a few deaf children are placed amid hundreds of nondeaf students in these programs. Therefore, this change has not occurred without controversy, as some people believe that such isolation does not satisfy the intent of the least restrictive environment component of the federal mandate.
The field of deaf education has been and continues to be a highly volatile entity, charged with emotional, political, and philosophical disagreements.
- Marschark, M., Lang, H. G., & Albertini, J. A. (2002). Educating deaf students: From research to practice. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Spencer, P. E., Erting, C. J., & Marschark, M. (Eds.). (2000). Essays in honor of Kathryn P. Meadow-Orlans: The deaf child in the family and at school. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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