Education and Deafness: Understanding the Past and the Needs of the Present Enables a Better Tomorrow

By Zapien, Cheryl | The Exceptional Parent, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Education and Deafness: Understanding the Past and the Needs of the Present Enables a Better Tomorrow


Zapien, Cheryl, The Exceptional Parent


The subject of education of the students who are deaf is highly charged, both emotionally and politically. There are no perfect answers and no simple ones.

On the average, deafness is confirmed at two and-a-half years of age in the United States, though most parents are aware that something is awry well before that time. The vast majority of pediatricians put off early testing, so many valuable months have passed, by the time there is a confirmation of deafness. Parents find themselves in the untenable position of being told that they need to make important decisions about their child's schooling immediately. Concurrently, they may be in a mental spin over having a child who is deaf. If this scenario is not bad enough, they soon discover that there are conflicting views as to the best way to educate their child.

The controversy

For at least a century, the education of children who are deaf has been polarized into two main camps, the manualists (those who sign) and the oralists (those who rely on speech and speechreading for communication). In addition, there is now a third camp, those who use cued speech. Cued speech is not really speech at all, but a visual representation of English sounds. Parents have a better chance of being able to filter feelings from fact if they understand the history behind the controversy.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc established the Hartford School, later known as the American School for the Deaf, in 1817. The school used the sign language method based on the teachings of French priest, Roche-Ambroise Sicard. During the next 63 years, sign language was the order of the day. During this period, many schools teaching this method were established and about one half of all teachers of the deaf were deaf themselves. During this golden era of education using signs, Congress established the National Deaf Mute College in 1864, now known as Gallaudet University. However, the trend toward using sign language as an educational method was to change dramatically.

The Conference of Milan

The Conference of Milan was an international conference on the virtues of the two major instructional methods. Teachers in the United States traditionally used sign language to teach the deaf population. Other countries used oral methods--reliant on speech and speechreading.

Prior to Milan, there had always been bickering between educators as to which method was superior, sign or speech. It is also important to remember that the participants of this battle royale cared deeply for the children under their care. However, their very human preferences and agendas have haunted all of us to this day.

The conclusion of the Conference was that the oral method was superior. This changed the course of teaching history for the next 80 years. Within ten years, the number of teachers of the deaf who were deaf themselves dropped to one quarter of total teachers. Milan affected members of the Deaf Community profoundly, professionally, and personally.

Signing in the classroom became a forbidden thing. Educators believed that signing would dissuade a child from learning to speak. Students were forced to speechread their teachers and learn to use spoken language in class. English is a difficult language to speechread since many words look identical on the lips. Additionally, effective speechreading requires an excellent grasp of the English language, something which is extremely difficult for any who have never heard it spoken.

For many individuals, the frustration caused by this system, and the poor scholastic performance that resulted, added fuel to a bitter situation. Many people have unhappy memories of being forced to sit on their hands. It was not uncommon for children to have their hands slapped for signing. These children had poor communication with their teachers and no effective way of communicating among themselves. …

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