The history of sign language is littered with shocking events. At several points in history, some not long ago, deaf people were strongly oppressed. At one point, they were even denied their basic rights. How their language, sign language, was treated during these oppressive times is directly related to why the deaf place such a high value on sign language today.
The first person to make a claim about deaf people was Aristotle. He theorized that people are only able to learn by hearing spoken words. Deaf people, then, were seen as unable to be educated.
Deaf people were denied their basic rights because of this claim. They weren’t allowed to marry or own property. The law actually labeled them as “non-persons.”
During the Renaissance in Europe, the claim was finally challenged. After 2,000 years of believing that deaf people couldn’t be educated, scholars made their first attempts to educate deaf people. This point in the Deaf history was the beginning of signed language development.
The Beginning of Deaf Education
An Italian Physician named Geronimo Cardano recognized that to learn, you do not have to hear. He found that by using the written word, deaf people could be educated.
In Spain, Pedro Ponce de Leon around the same time was educating deaf children. He was a Benedictine monk and was successful with his methods of teaching.
Juan Pablo de Bonet was inspired by Pedro Ponce de Leon’s success and used his own methods to teach the deaf. He was a Spanish monk and used earlier methods of teaching the deaf that included writing, reading, speechreading, and his own manual alphabet. Juan Pablo de Bonet’s manual alphabet represented the different speech sounds and was the first known manual alphabet system in the history of sign language.
Until the 1750’s, organized education of deaf people did not exist. Established in Paris by Abbé Charles Michel de L’Epée, a French priest, was the first social and religious association for the deaf.
There is a popular story that has been retold throughout Deaf history about Abbé de L’Epée. The story claims that while L’Epée was visiting a poor part of Paris, he met two deaf sisters. The mother had wanted them educated in religion, and she wanted L’Epée to teach them. L’Epée was inspired to educate them after he discovered their deafness. Soon after this encounter, he devoted his life completely to the education of the deaf.
In 1771, Abbé de L’Epée founded the first public school for the deaf. The name of the school was the Institut National des Jeune Sourds-Muets (National Institute for Deaf-Mutes). Children travelled from all over the country to attend this school. The children who attended the institute had been signing at home and creating a sort of “home sign language” with their families. Abbé de L’Epée learned these home signs and used them to teach the children French.
The signs L’Epée learned from his students formed the standard sign language that L’Epée taught. More schools for the deaf were established and the children were bringing this standard language home to their communities. This standard language became the first standard signed language in Deaf history and is now known as Old French Sign Language. More and more deaf students were becoming educated so this standard language spread widely throughout Europe.
Abbé de L’Epée established twenty-one schools for the deaf and is known today as the “Father of Sign Language and Deaf Education.”
Abbé de L’Epée is also often credited with being the inventor of sign language. This is inaccurate. Sign language was invented by deaf people. Even before they were formally educated, deaf children were signing with their families using home made signs. However, Abbé de L’Epée was the first to bring together these signs and create a standard sign language to educate the deaf.
Abbé de L’Epée claimed that sign language was the natural language of the deaf. However, a German educator named Samuel Heinicke thought different. He supported the oral method of educating deaf children. Oralism is the term used for educating the deaf using a system of speech and speechreading instead of sign language and fingerspelling. Samuel Heinicke taught his students how to speak, not sign. While he spoke, he had his students feel the vibrations of his throat.
Oralism was the first major roadblock after all of the positive advancements with the history of sign language. Abbé de L’Epée is known as the “Father of Sign Language” and Samuel Heinicke is known as the “Father of Oralism.”
American Sign Language
American Sign Language is traced back to 1814. Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a minister from Hartford, Connecticut, had a neighbor named Mason Fitch Cogswell. Cogswell had a nine-year-old daughter named Alice who was deaf. Gallaudet met Alice and Gallaudet wanted to teach her how to communicate.
Gallaudet did not really know anything about educating a deaf child. So, he raised enough money to travel to Europe to learn their methods of deaf education.
Gallaudet met Abbé Roche Ambroise Sicard who was Abbé de L’Epée’s successor and the head of the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris. Gallaudet also met Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc, two accomplished teachers of the deaf from the same institution.
Gallaudet attended classes with Sicard, Massieu, and Clerc at the Institute. He studied their methods of teaching and took private lessons from Clerc.
Preparing to return to America, Gallaudet asked Clerc to join him. He knew that Clerc would be instrumental in starting a school for the deaf in the United States. Clerc agreed to travel with him back to America.
The American Asylum for Deaf-Mutes (now known as the American School for the Deaf) was established in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut. This was the first public school for the deaf in America.
Deaf people from all over the U.S. travelled to attend the school. Just like at Abbé de L’Epée’s school in Paris, children brought signs they learned at home with them. From these signs and the signs from French Sign Language that Gallaudet learned, American Sign Language was created.
A Deaf College
In 1851, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet died. However, his two sons, Thomas Gallaudet and Edward Miner Gallaudet succeeded him and continued work in deaf education.
Edward wanted to establish a college for the deaf, but the funding always stopped him. In 1857, though, Amos Kendall donated acres of land to establish a residential school in Washington, D.C. called the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind and wanted Edward to be the superintendent of the school.
Edward accepted the offer, but still wanted to start a college for the deaf. So, he presented his idea for a deaf college to Congress and Congress passed legislation in 1864 allowing the Columbia Institute to grant college degrees.
The Columbia Institute’s college division (the National Deaf-Mute College) opened in 1864. In all of Deaf history, this was the first college for the deaf.
The National Deaf-Mute College was renamed in 1893 and again in 1986 to the name it still has today-Gallaudet University. Gallaudet University was the first and is still the only liberal arts university for the deaf in the world.
Oralism versus Sign Language
Sign language was spreading widely and was used by both deaf and hearing people. However, supporters of oralism believe that deaf people need to learn how to speak to be able to function in society.
The Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf-Mutes was founded in New York in 1867 and the Clarke Institution for Deaf-Mutes was founded in Northampton, Massachusetts. These schools began educating deaf children using oralism only. If that wasn’t bad enough, these schools encouraged all deaf schools to use only the oralism approach as well. The oralist methods of teaching speech, listening, and speechreading spread quickly to schools across the nation.
Alexander Graham Bell was one of the strongest supporters of oralism. In 1872, he established a school in Boston. This school trained teachers to use oralism to teach deaf children.
Bell established the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, Inc. in 1890. This association is now called the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf.
From 1880 to 1990, the sign language versus oralism debate intensified. Meeting in Milan, Italy in 1880, the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf met to address this issue. Many leaders in education attended this conference that is now known as the Milan Conference.
Oralism won the debate at this conference and Congress then passed a declaration stating “the incontestable superiority of speech over sign for integrating the deaf-mute into society and for giving him better command of the language.”
Because of this conference, the use of sign language in deaf education declined drastically over the next decade. Some oralism activists wanted to eradicate sign language completely.
By 1920, 80% of deaf children were taught using the oral method. Teachers of deaf children were once 40% deaf and 60% hearing. By the 1860’s, only 15% of teachers of the deaf were deaf.
Outside of the classroom, however, sign language was still widely used. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) was established in the U.S. and supported the sign language method of deaf education. The NAD argued against oralism saying that it is not the right choice for the education of many deaf people. They gained support and kept the use of sign language alive during this time.
Amid this great debate, William Stokoe, a hearing Gallaudet College professor, published his claim that proved American Sign Language is a real language. He proved that ASL is a language separate from English and that it has its own grammar and syntax.
American Sign Language was then finally seen as an important national language.
Congress issued the Babbidge Report in 1964 on oral deaf education that stated oral education was a “dismal failure.” This quote dismissed the decision that was made in Milan.
In 1970, a movement began that did not choose between signed or oral education. The movement was called Total Communication and attempted to mix several methods of deaf education. Total Communication gave deaf people the right to information through all possible ways. This method of teaching can include speech, sign language, fingerspelling, lipreading, pantomime, computers, pictures, facial expressions, gestures, writing, hearing aid devices, and reading.
The changes that have occurred throughout the history of sign language makes sign language and the lives of deaf people what they are today. Deaf people have experienced great hardships as well as great achievements to bring sign language, the language of the Deaf, the respect that it deserves.