A brief perspective on the history of the education of deaf children

I have been revising my knowledge of the education of deaf children in history. Comments are welcome, as my abbreviated perspective might be wrong. I was involved as a teaching assistant a long time ago, and I’m happy to be corrected.

This is my summary:

Before  the 1880’s signing was the norm in a deaf classroom.  Signing was the language used to teach deaf children.  But things changed and an inadequate form of oral education became dominant. In fact, a report published in the 1970’s ( a hundred years later) showed that deaf children leaving school at 16 generally had a reading age of less than 10. For centuries there had been debate about oralism versus manual methods of education. The response to the 1970 report was for educators to try all sorts of different methods, with the result that many deaf young people came out of school, unable to communicate with hearing young people, or with other deaf young people, from different schools. “What school did you go?” to became an important question.

Pure oralism was not the great success that its early proponents had hoped. Language and speech was the main focus – in fact, probably speech, and the education curriculum was very narrow.  How did this all come to happen?

A champion and major figure in the history of signing was the  Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée. In 1760, he founded a public, free school in Paris. He began to develop a system of sign language and instruction. His Instructional Method of Signs is an educational method based on gestures. He learned the gestures from the children and incorporated it into sign, but also worked out how to translate that into French written language. The Abbé had recognised that there was already a signing deaf community in Paris but he thought that their language (known as Old French Sign Language) was primitive, and could be improved to give scope for written French. His (hearing) teachers were taught to use the Old French Sign Language with their students casually, but in the classroom, he did not use their language as it was. Instead, he developed an idiosyncratic gestural system using some of this lexicon, combined with other invented signs to represent all the verb endings, articles, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs of the French language. This became the basis of many sign languages, including Signed English. What they had in common was that they could be used in a parallel form to the spoken language. In  other words, we write English much as we say it.  He was trying to take that step with sign, whilst also expanding the gestural lexicon.

The incorporation of gesture was significant in my mind, as it became even more regional.

The first Abbé was succeeded by the Abbé Sicard, who continued his work.

In the meantime, still in the 18th century, Thomas Braidwood, in Scotland, was also championing a gesture based communication method, and he seems to have been a gifted teacher. With an oral method of education, he established the first Academy for the Deaf and Dumb in Edinburgh. By the end of the 18th century, his school was private, and profitable, and he was rather secretive about his methods. It seems now that in fact he was using a form of Total Communication, where signing and oralism were used together. Another very important figure was the German, ex military man, Samuel Heinicke. He is generally considered to be the father of the oral method in deaf education. He was passionate about his methods, and much robust correspondence between him and the French Abbe survives. Heinicke also founded a school, his being  in Leibnitz. The school’s original name was the “Electoral Saxon Institute for Mutes and Other Persons Afflicted with Speech Defects,” and today it is known as the “Samuel Heinicke School for the Deaf”. Against this climate of debate, oralism seemed to be winning. Then in 1880, a major conference was held in Milan, The Second Congress of Educators of Deaf Mutes. There were many professional papers presented, and the congress summary was that Oralism should be recommended as the best form of education.

The oral path was prominently followed by Alexander Graham Bell, who was himself the son of a deaf mother, and whose father, and grandfather were elocutionists, specialising in speech articulation and delivery. Alexander Graham Bell’s father, Melville, pioneered what he called Visible Speech which was a system of symbols to assist people in articulation in any language.  It’s basically a phonetic alphabet, and it’s also known as the Physiologic Alphabet, because of the classification that is based on articulation. Alexander Bell became a teacher of deaf children, but developed his own system of teaching oralism, a combination of speech and lipreading. Bell strongly believed that oral education would make it easier for deaf and hearing people to mix. 

This is where I see the three phases, and for all the formal debate, I think it was about educators confidence.

Initially, deaf education was about teaching children to sign so they could learn about the world.

Then it was oral. But signing seemed more natural, and is easier for children to express themselves. Today, young children who have normal hearing are sometimes taught to sign as it is a faster way for them to be able to express themselves, before their fine motor skills have mastered the complex articulation processes of speech. Imagine – today we teach toddlers to sign, sow they don’t get frustrated, and in the past we wouldn’t let deaf children express themselves.

Schools that were strictly oral started to worry that children who were exposed to signing, might not persist with the oral path, so signing was sometimes not allowed at all.

Hearing aids were commonly used in oral education from about the 1940’s, but they didn’t work well. However, by the 1960’s there was a view that technology could help, and education supposedly went from oral to aural/oral. Children had access to audiology, and their hearing loss was quantified. That is, they were asked to listen to the softest pure tones that they could hear. This wasn’t enough to measure the hearing of some children. It didn’t give much insight into the type of hearing problem, and hearing aids were somewhat basic.

Hearing aids were essentially both large and amplification was linear, and hearing aid maintenance was generally poor. Children were suddenly required “to hear”, but nobody really understood at that time what they were hearing.

It was not until the introduction of cochlear implants, and the recognition that they need to be implanted as soon as possible, that the situation changed. Today children who get a cochlear implant young are likely to develop such good oral language, that they can go through normal school.  With this comfort, educators are much more comfortable with combined signing and oral education. The arguments between the methods was really solved by hearing.  How lucky was I to be involved with that years later.

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