Deaf Awareness: Edmund West Looks at Attitudes to Deafness and the Education of the Hard of Hearing, over the Centuries

By West, Edmund | History Today, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Deaf Awareness: Edmund West Looks at Attitudes to Deafness and the Education of the Hard of Hearing, over the Centuries


West, Edmund, History Today


Ancient references to the deaf are rare and mainly derogatory although, as Ferdinand Berthier (1803-86), founder of the first social organization for the deaf, pointed out: 'Among the Egyptians ... and the Persians, the fate of the deaf was a matter of religious concern. Their handicap was regarded as a visible sign of heaven's favour.' In Plato's Cratylus, Socrates says: 'If we had neither voice nor tongue, and yet wished to manifest things to one another, should we not, like those who are at present mute, endeavour to signify our meaning by the hands.' Berthier also noted that Ottoman sultans kept deafmutes as servants. This was, he said, an ideal arrangement as you had to be silent in the Sultan's presence, and conversations could be had without being overheard. Their first employment was as assassins as they naturally could not say who their paymaster was.

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Far more common were attitudes like Aristotle's in De Sensu: 'Language is the cause of the education which we receive ... blind people are more intelligent than deaf and mute.' St Augustine added: 'This impairment prevents faith ... a man born deaf is incapable of learning to read which would lead him to the faith.' St Paul and the Talmudic laws agreed that deaf meant obtuse. Partly as a result of Biblical and Aristotelian attitudes, the deaf could not own property under Roman law.

Charles Michel de l'Epee (1712-89) founded the first deaf school in the 1760s. After twenty years, his school in Paris had sixty pupils. He (mistakenly) thought that the sign language in use at the time--which had been developed by the local deaf community without outside help--lacked grammar and tried to create one for it. But he also published his own sign alphabet which forms the basis of that used today. His disciple, Roch-Ambroise Sicard (1742-1822), who wanted his pupils to be able to read and write normally, preferred to teach by drawing objects, writing the object's name over the sketch then rubbing it out, leaving the name. Sicard learnt signs from his pupils, rather than basing them on French words as Epee had done.

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This 'deaf renaissance' spread to the United States via one of Sicard's students, Laurent Clerc (1785-1869) who was deaf following an accident in early childhood. Clerc founded the first American deaf school in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817, in association with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a Philadelphia-born preacher. In 1864 his son Edward Gallaudet (1837-1917) founded the National Deaf and Mute College in Washington.

Deaf educators have traditionally divided between 'manualists' who believe sign language should be used, and 'oralists' who believe the deaf should be taught to lip-read and speak and that sign language cuts them off from society. One leading proponent of oralism in the later nineteenth century was Alexander Graham Bell, the pioneer of telephony. In 1880, an international congress of deaf educators met in Milan, where the delegates in favour of using pure oralist methods and driving out sign language. Among the many prejudices about sign language are that it has no grammar, can only work for nouns, is pantomime and cannot be used in the dark. …

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