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History > A History of Deaf Education in America

History of Deaf Education in America

math class sign languageThe first half century of the school's existence was a time of flowering and growth for deaf education in America. ASD served as a model institution and a training ground for numerous schools for the deaf which opened elsewhere during this period. Instruction was in sign language, with the goals of imparting literacy, training for productive labor, and religious salvation. ASD was a Congregationalist school in its early years, which was consistent with the civil government of Connecticut at the time the school was established.

An important feature of manual communication as a teaching language is that it allows deaf people to be teachers. Many alumni did go on to become teachers and principals at schools for the deaf throughout the United States, which spread sign language throughout the country. A deaf culture developed during this period, with periodicals, organizations, social relations and all the other features to be expected of a minority culture dispersed through the general population. So rapid and positive was the spread of this language and culture that the period is today referred to as a golden age.

The culminating achievement of that time was the establishment of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf at Washington, D.C. in 1864. Now called Gallaudet University, it is still the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the world, although there are now many other institutions offering college and post graduate degrees to the deaf.

The later half of the nineteenth century witnessed the rise of oral theories of deaf education. Although there are a variety of these theories, they have in common an emphasis on the importance of oral skills (speech-reading and speech) in the education of deaf children. A leading proponent of oral methods was Alexander Graham Bell, whose mother and wife were both hard of hearing. The first major oral school in the U.S., Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, opened in 1867.

This difference in philosophy between the proponents of traditional sign language and supporters of the oral method was a crucial division throughout the second half of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. The dispute was often bitter, leading to deep divisions within the deaf education community. It is beyond the scope of this history to go into the merits of the argument, but a few points are worth noting.

The ability to learn oral skills depends in large part on the degree of hearing loss, the age at which the student became deaf (especially whether it was before or after acquiring spoken language), and other factors. There is therefore a wide range of success and failure dependent, not on intelligence, but on these factors. Oral skills are not usually very useful for communication among deaf persons, and the use of the oral method practically bars the deaf from careers as teachers. The American School for the Deaf, during this period, tried out students in oral classes first, and if they did not succeed, put them in manual classes instead, under a philosophy called the Combined System. Many other schools for the deaf embraced the oral method to a greater extent.

The twentieth century has seen a loosening of the grip of the oral method, as sign language has regained legitimacy. The school's current educational and commnication philosophy, Total Communication, is described in the last paragraph.

As the oral/manual dispute has waned, a new philosophical division has appeared; the mainstreaming debate. Public Act 94-142 mandates that each child be taught in the "least restrictive environment" possible, and this has been widely interpreted to mean the local public school. The mainstreaming, or "inclusionist", movement has led to a decline in the proportion of deaf and hard of hearing students attending center schools such as the American School for the Deaf.

Without going into detail, it is fair to say that this debate shares some features with the oral/manual debate of 100 years ago. Success in a mainstream setting is very dependent upon degree of hearing loss and degree of oral skill. Deafness is a very low-incidence condition, and very few public schools have more than one or two deaf students within their districts. Since it is uneconomic to hire a teacher exclusively for the education of those few children, once again, deaf people are prevented from obtaining teaching positions, and deaf children in the mainstream setting are prevented having deaf adult role models in the school setting.

It can also be very restrictive to be blocked from easily communicating with classmates and teachers, from participating in sports or from normal social interaction without the need for an interpreter. The philosophy of the American School for the Deaf is that there is no one easy answer that applies to all situations, but that each child's education should be based on the specifics of that child's needs. There is a place for mainstreaming and center schools both.

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