To simplify a complicated subject,
there are two basic attitudes towards deaf people.
One is cultural, the other is medical.

In the cultural view, deaf people are seen as whole, non-defective persons, as members of a socio-linguistic minority culture. They have a full-fledged, sophisticated language (American Sign Language in this country) that can be used in everyday life. Deaf people enjoy having their own sign-based schools, churches, theatrical events, and celebrations.

In the medical view (also known as the "pathological" view), deaf people have a disability that needs to be remedied. If they have defective, damaged, or incomplete auditory equipment, they can use prostheses (hearing aids and cochlear implants) to correct or lessen this disability. Since hearing people use speech and listening to communicate with each other, deaf people should strive to improve their speech and listening skills to fit comfortably into this community. "Separatism" is discouraged. Sign language is looked on with disfavor or indifference, since it isn’t a "hearing" means of communication. Speech is "normal," signing is not.

Education is the means of training children to become independent citizens, to take their places in society. Schools have been used to transform oppressed minorities into first-class citizens. Schools have likewise been used to transform members of "alien cultures" into approximations of the ideal by stripping them of their "alien" identity–suppressing their native language and forcing them to speak and behave a particular way, punishing them when they revert to "unacceptable" patterns. Gain control over an "alien" community’s children, and you gain control over that community. A community is only as strong as its schools. Schools can be agents of positive social transformation–or negative change. Schools can liberate, or they can oppress.

Ever since the mid-18th century, there have been, essentially, two opposing approaches towards educating deaf people. One is the oral/aural approach, which seeks to train the deaf persons to use their residual hearing, speechreading, and listening skills to comprehend spoken communication and to develop "proper" speech skills. Sign language is characteristically ignored, forbidden, or otherwise discouraged in this approach. The aim is to enable a deaf person to speak as much like a hearing person as possible, and to function as normally as possible in hearing society ("mainstreaming").

The basic oral approach is several centuries old, and was practiced in various European countries before it was brought to the United States. Although it has spawned numerous modern variations, such as Acoupedics, Auditory-Verbal, and Cued Speech, the basic aim remains consistently the same: emphasis on speech, speechreading, and listening. More emphasis is placed on listening (aural skills) than speechreading (visual skills) in some approaches. Numerous other variations have been developed, foisted on deaf pupils, and ultimately discontinued in favor of other methods. Some methods allow the use of fingerspelling (use of the manual alphabet); some allow the use of signing as an auxiliary mode (as in "sign-supported speech"); some methods (such as the "pure-oral" approach) forbid any use of manual communication whatsoever. Cochlear implants are often an integral part of oral-based education, although not all students enrolled in oral/aural programs have implants.

As far as the success of this approach, we have seen wildly divergent claims that many deaf children do splendidly well, succeeding in the mainstream and enjoying excellent and high-paying careers–and contradictory claims that oralism doesn’t work for the majority of deaf students, and that the failures of oralism are not publicized as vigorously as are its few spectacular successes. We know a number of deaf adults who have had oral/aural educations and are bitter and angry about their experiences. They feel that they’ve been cheated of a real education while forced to endure a tedious and unproductive regimen of speech therapy and listening-skill training.

The sign-language-based approach originated in Paris, France, at the French National Institute, the world’s first public school for the deaf, and was brought to the United States by Laurent Clerc, who was deaf. It was used at the first successful school for the deaf in the New World, the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut (founded 1817). The school was co-founded by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a hearing minister-turned-teacher who learned sign language from Clerc. Gallaudet and Clerc trained a generation of teachers of the deaf, both deaf and hearing, who founded or dozens of new schools across the states. All of these were sign-language-affirmative.

In sign-based education, sign language is used in and outside of class. New arrivals to school, if they’re from nonsigning families, may not sign well, but they pick it up quickly, achieving fluency in a short time. Traditionally, deaf children have taught other children sign language. Deaf children thrive in this rich, total-immersion signing environment. The earliest generations of deaf people educated at Hartford and its satellite schools held a variety of jobs, and were highly literate. The most prestigious career for a deaf person was teaching the deaf.

Exactly what kind of signing–"natural" sign language (the kind learned informally and taught spontaneously by deaf people to each other) or a more artificially constructed signed form of the national spoken language–was used in the earliest U.S. schools, or should be used in modern classrooms, is still being discussed, debated, and argued. Proponents of signing say that a good teacher can lecture on any topic and make it understandable to everyone in the audience. Unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary can be introduced by fingerspelling. Improvised and spontaneously invented signs are coined every day.

The establishment of the signing schools spawned what we call the Deaf Community. Children came from far corners of the state to attend the schools, and after they graduated, many married other alumni and settled nearby, participating in alumni-oriented social and cultural events and sending their deaf children to their alma mater. Thus the schools became the hubs of their communities. A flourishing Deaf press, affectionately known as the "Little Paper Family," helped alumni of the schools stay connected with each other. These newspapers and newsletters were typically printed at schools for the deaf, where both students and faculty were involved in their design, layout, printing, and dissemination. They provided an important means for deaf people to network, since they could not benefit from the telephone. Another unique cultural institution was the Deaf club, which gave deaf people a means of socializing, entertainment, sharing news and gossip, and communicating freely and openly with each other.

While Clerc and Gallaudet were setting up their school in Hartford, educating deaf children and adults, and training teachers, the oralists were busy setting up their own schools and enlisting public support for their cause. The vast majority of oralists were, and have been, hearing persons who considered themselves authorities on communication and language by virtue of their hearing. The most famous and influential oralist was Alexander Graham Bell, who founded the organization now named in his honor, and whose goal remains the promotion of speech among deaf people.

Bell believed that the deaf population was a debilitating influence on society, and that deaf people should relinquish sign language, schools for the deaf, their clubs and publications, and assimilate into the hearing majority culture. By abolishing schools for the deaf and preventing deaf children from signing to each other, the process of assimilation would be facilitated. Bell helped legitimize oralism, and, extreme as his views might be, helped influence public opinion, which ultimately turned against sign-based education.

The Milan Congress of 1880 was a brief international rally organized by oralist teachers of the deaf–with a stacked deck, as the saying goes. Its mission was to enable oralists to gain ascendancy over sign-language advocates, to enable oralists to take over education of the deaf. Deaf teachers were not welcome. One sneaked in. The pro-signing faction was roundly outvoted. The tide was beginning to turn against sign language. The Congress is considered a calamity in the history of deaf education.

But that same summer of 1880, the National Association of the Deaf was formed. Although the oralists, well-organized and well-funded, would prove more powerful and influential than the tiny Deaf community, the Deaf advocates fought back bravely, trying to preserve sign language and, fearing that it might be soon irretrievably lost, recording it on film.

After 1880, the oralist onslaught against sign language gained momentum. Oralists soon took control of the schools for the deaf, forcing deaf teachers out of the profession, refusing to hire deaf persons, and trying their best to eradicate sign language by outlawing it. By the turn of the century, virtually all schools for the deaf had switched to the rigid pure-oral method. Even if schools managed to maintain signing classes, the oral and manual sections were kept strictly segregated from each other. All new students were placed in oral classes and expected to make progress, and if they failed to thrive, they’d be transferred to a separate "Manual Department." These students were known as "oral failures." Signing was considered a strictly inferior approach to communication; speech was superior, and students who preferred signing to speech were stigmatized. Students in the Oral Department nonetheless continued to sign to each other, even though they were punished if they were caught signing. They signed to each other on the sly, and while the oralists controlled the administration, teaching faculty, staff, and curricula, a clandestine signing subculture flourished.

If the period preceding the ascendance of oralism is known to Deaf people as "The Golden Age of Deaf Culture, the ensuing period is known as the "Dark Age of Oralism."

At the many oral day schools that were set up across the nation, deaf students had little contact with other deaf children and returned to their nonsigning families each afternoon. Students who were mainstreamed (enrolled in public schools usually without sufficient support services) were even more isolated. They might be the only deaf student in their school. Bell approved of this arrangement, but the majority of deaf students, isolated and occasionally mistreated, didn’t.

As time went on, it became apparent that the rigorously oral regimen of speech training, speechreading, and auditory training were not producing alumni with good speech or good educations. After the oralists had settled into power, the literacy level of deaf students plummeted. The emphasis of oral/aural education was on producing speech, not on literacy. It showed.

During the late 1950s, tentative steps were taken to ease the rigidity of the oral approach. Dr. Roy Kay Holcomb, a deaf teacher and administrator, popularized an educational philosophy known as Total Communication, which represented the first real breakaway from the pure-oral approach that had dominated education of the deaf for over 50 years. TC maintained that each deaf student is an individual with unique needs. Since each one has a right to accessible and comfortable communication, "communication" should not be limited to the oral approach only, but should embrace signing as well, if a deaf student benefits from it.

Gradually, the tide began to turn again, although some schools remained rigorously oral, and most teachers of the deaf remained hearing. Deaf people re-entered the profession, and began taking pride in their long-suppressed, unrecognized sign language. The discovery by William C. Stokoe that ASL was indeed a full-fledged language, and the influence of the Civil Rights Movement both encouraged deaf people to take pride in their Deaf identity and their language–Deaf Pride.

However, there was, and remains, considerable controversy about the role ASL should play in the deaf classroom. Scholars, linguists, deaf teachers, students, advocates, and friends became embroiled in an ongoing debate as to just which kind of signing should be permitted in class. Should teachers use Signed English, a constructed form of sign language with elements of English grammar appended to the signs? Or should they use ASL, a language whose visual syntax is radically different from that of English?

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s youngest son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, founded Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., as the world’s first, and still the only, liberal-arts college for deaf people. For over a century, it attracted the best and brightest deaf people from across the States and beyond. It was always a signing institution, although not impervious to the influence of the oralists. (Until they feuded over the question of deaf people’s right to sign, E.M. Gallaudet and Bell were originally friends, and many of their ideas were not radically divergent.)

Gallaudet College (which became a university in 1986) remained a small, relatively quiet institution, known to relatively few hearing people–until an extraordinary event put it squarely on the front pages and gave it prime-time coverage. That was the "Deaf President Now!" uprising in March 1988. When the Board of Trustees appointed a hearing administrator who didn’t yet know sign over the two sign-fluent deaf candidates, the community erupted in protest. Suddenly, the Deaf community and its concerns were front-page, prime-time material. DPN sent shockwaves throughout the Deaf community across the globe. The media took note, and the community responded with a remarkable show of unity. DPN even unified the oralist and ASL factions of the deaf population–at least for the time.

DPN had some lasting effects, although the media spotlight (and hearing people’s interest in understanding deaf issues) was brief.

The increasing recognition of ASL led to the establishment of charter schools for the deaf that used the Bilingual-Bicultural approach–using ASL as the foundation language to teach written English and other classroom subjects. A few innovative schools for the deaf had already instituted Bi-Bi curricula, and the classroom-signing debate raged on.

Deaf advocates lobbied for legislation recognizing ASL as the language of deaf children, and succeeded in several states. (Naturally, this initiative was opposed by oralists.) Official recognition of ASL also meant that hearing (and deaf) high-school and college students could study ASL to fulfill foreign-language requirements. A number of colleges and universities accept ASL for foreign-language credit.

The oralist movement, while in decline, had never completely died out. Their goals–to encourage deaf people to speak and speechread without the use of sign language–had remained constant. New oral approaches were developed and publicized, such as Cued Speech, which uses hand signals as an aid to speechreading and literacy. The remaining oral schools for the deaf in the U.S. had decriminalized sign language, although they did not permit students to sign in class and tried to discourage its use. Students at oral schools used a variety of auditory-assistance equipment, such as FM units and group hearing aids, to capitalize on their residual hearing.

The first experiments involving surgically implanting electrodes inside a deaf person’s head were conducted by two French doctors in 1957. Cochlear-implant technology steadily evolved from the early single-channel electrode to the current 24-channel devices. The FDA approved cochlear implants for adults in 1985, and fin 1990, for children down to age 2. Later, following the development of a compact unit, the age was lowered to infancy. Large numbers of children received implants, and the Deaf community’s outcry at what it perceived as the unnecessary mutilation of healthy deaf children provoked a ferocious verbal debate between those who advocate implanting children as early as possible and those who believe that implants should be strictly a matter of choice.

A number of deaf people see the cochlear implant as the latest "weapon" wielded by oralists against the Deaf community–the potent biotechnological symbol of the oralist backlash. Just when Deaf people have achieved significant gains as citizens, just when ASL starts getting accorded recognition and some degree of respect, along comes the implant. Once again, implant surgeons and oralists are blithely, even eagerly, predicting the downfall of the Deaf community, which they describe as "obsolete" and "a dying ghettoized subculture," as a viable social institution.

The increasing number of deaf children with implants has led to the establishment of new day schools and programs serving only deaf children with implants. These are typically rigorously oral. No signing is allowed. Some children with implants have enrolled at schools for the deaf. While many children with implants see themselves as members of the hearing community, a growing number of them identify as Deaf, embracing a Deaf identity, learning sign language, and connecting to the Deaf community.

It’s not over yet. The bitter division still holds deaf people apart. The cochlear-implant controversy continues to rage. The basis of the debate remains unchanged–how we view being deaf and how we respond to it. Are we a population with hearing disabilities and auditory deficits? Or are we an ethno-linguistic community? The questions remain. The debate goes on.

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