According to a National Center for Health Statistics estimate, 28 million Americans—almost 10 percent of the population—have a hearing loss of some degree. Of these 28 million people, about 2 million are classified as deaf; that is, they can’t hear speech or everyday sounds, even with the use of a hearing aid. And of these 2 million, about 10 percent were born without the ability to hear; the other 90 percent lost their hearing later in life.
American Sign Language (ASL) is the natural language of approximately 500,000 deaf people in the United States and Canada. A “natural” language, in linguistic terms, is one that’s learned as a first language in childhood. Not all deaf people learn ASL as their first language. Some use it as a second language, while others use very little ASL, if any. On the other hand, many hearing people are fluent signers, and more hearing people are registering every day to learn ASL in high school and college classes. In recent years, sign language has experienced such a tremendous increase in popularity that an estimated 13 million people can sign with some level of proficiency. This makes ASL the third most commonly used language in the United States!
The most widespread misconception about American Sign Language is the belief that it’s a signed version of English. In fact, ASL is not English at all. Instead, it’s a distinct language with its own grammar and syntax. Yet it’s as capable as English or any other spoken language of communicating complex and abstract ideas. For deaf people who use ASL, their common language is more than a means of communication. It’s also a source of great pride and cultural unity.
THE HISTORY OF SIGN LANGUAGE
To truly understand the deaf experience in today’s America, we need to look to the past. Historically, as a minority group, deaf people have faced great adversity in attaining their basic civil rights. In ancient times, Aristotle and other philosophers claimed that people could learn only by hearing spoken words. As a result, the accepted belief among many cultures was that deaf people did not have the capacity to learn, and so were not entitled to any rights under the law. The deaf were forced into inferior social positions or labeled “non-persons” by law. Most of the time, deaf people were not permitted to marry or to own property. In some cultures, they were even assigned to the care of a guardian.
Aristotle’s words went unchallenged until the 1500s. Then, as the Renaissance spread through Europe, new ideas emerged about the intellectual potential of the deaf. The revival of learning and experimentation characteristic of the times inspired a few pioneering scholars in different countries to make the first serious attempts to educate the deaf. Their separate successes changed beliefs about deafness that had endured for nearly 2,000 years, and helped pave the way for the development of a standard language of signs. But many years would pass before sign language was widely accepted as a means of communication and education for the deaf.
The Development of Deaf Education
An Italian physician named Geronimo Cardano was one of the first known scholars to recognize that hearing is not essential to the learning process. In the 1500s, he announced that deaf people could be educated through the written word. Believing that “the mute can hear by reading and speak by writing,” Cardano tried using a code of symbols to teach his own deaf son. At about the same time in Spain, Pedro Ponce de Leon, a Benedictine monk, showed much success in educating the deaf sons of Spanish noble families. He taught the boys how to read, write, and even speak so that they would be permitted to inherit their family’s property.
The earlier successes of Cardano and Ponce de Leon inspired Juan Pablo de Bonet, also a Spanish monk, to use his own variation of proven methods in teaching the deaf. Bonet used not just reading, writing, and speechreading as tools for education, but also a manual alphabet, in which a series of handshapes represented the various speech sounds. In 1620, Bonet published the first book on instructional methods for teaching deaf people, which included his manual alphabet.
Despite the successes of Bonet and his predecessors, organized education for the deaf was virtually nonexistent until the 1750s. At that time, Abbé Charles Michel de L’Epée, a French priest, established the first religious and social assocation for the deaf in Paris. As the story goes, Abbé de L’Epée met two deaf sisters one day while he was visiting a poor section of Paris. When the girls’ mother asked him to give her daughters religious instruction, L’Epée was inspired to help the two girls and other children like them. This chance meeting sparked his lifelong commitment to deaf education.
In 1771, Abbé de L’Epée founded the first free public school for deaf children, the Institut National des Jeune Sourds-Muets (National Institute for Deaf-Mutes). Students from all over the country came to the school, bringing with them the different sign systems used in their own homes. L’Epée learned his students’ signs, and then used the signs to teach them the French language. Gradually, a standard language of signs emerged. As more schools were established, many more students learned the language—now called Old French Sign Language—and brought it back to their own communities. In this way, L’Epée’s language of signs gained popularity throughout France.
In all, Abbé de L’Epée established twenty-one schools for the deaf. To further promote the use of sign language in teaching deaf children, he published The Instruction of Deaf and Mute Persons Using Methodological Signs, in which he wrote: “The natural language of the deaf is the language of sign…they have no other language as long as they have no other instructors.” He also published the first dictionary of standard French signs. Today, L’Epée is called “The Father of Sign Language and Deaf Education” because of his many contributions to the deaf community.
While Abbé de L’Epée advocated the use of sign language in deaf education, proponents of a method called oralism were also making progress with deaf students. Oralism, or the oral method, uses a system of speech and speechreading instead of signs and fingerspelling. One of the most successful promoters of oralism was Samuel Heinicke, a German educator. Heinicke taught his students speech by having them feel the vibrations of his throat as he spoke. Although his teaching methods were different from L’Epée’s, Heinicke’s contributions were no less important in proving that deaf people are as capable of intelligent thought and communication as hearing people.
American Sign Language Is Born
There isn’t much information available about the use of sign language among America’s deaf population before 1815. We do know that about 2,000 deaf people were living in America in the early 1800s. Although there was no standard language of signs at this time, different signing systems developed independently within small deaf communities. Many of these early signs—now called Old American Sign Language—are related to our modern American Sign Language.
The clearly known history of ASL can be traced back to 1814, when Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a minister living in Hartford, Connecticut, met his neighbor’s nine-year-old deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell. Gallaudet recognized that Alice was highly intelligent, even though she couldn’t hear or speak, and became interested in teaching her to communicate. Although he had some success in teaching Alice how to spell and read, Gallaudet didn’t know of any effective methods for educating deaf children. So with the help of Alice’s father, Mason Fitch Cogswell, Gallaudet gathered support from the community, and by 1815 had raised enough money to travel to Europe, where he could study proven methods in deaf education.
In London, Gallaudet met Abbé Roche Ambroise Sicard, the successor to Abbé de L’Epée as the head of the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris. Abbé Sicard was visiting London to lecture on his theories of deaf education and to demonstrate his successful teaching methods. With him were two highly accomplished deaf teachers at the National Institute, Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc, who had once been Sicard’s students. Amazed by all that he saw and learned in London, Gallaudet accepted an invitation from Sicard to visit the Paris school.
During his two months at the National Institute, Gallaudet attended daily classes with Sicard, Massieu, and Clerc to study their methods of teaching. He also took private signing lessons from Clerc, who had been teaching at the school since his graduation in 1806. Clerc was regarded as one of Sicard’s best teachers, and Gallaudet knew that his help would be invaluable in establishing a school for the deaf in America. When Gallaudet was ready to return home, he invited Clerc to join him. Eager to help promote deaf education in America, Clerc agreed to make the journey.
In 1817, Gallaudet and Clerc welcomed seven students to the American Asylum for Deaf-Mutes (now the American School for the Deaf) in Hartford, Connecticut. Their school was the first free public school for the deaf in America, and Alice Cogswell had been the first student to enroll. With Gallaudet as principal, and Clerc as head teacher, the school quickly grew in size, and a large number of deaf people from across America were brought together for the first time. As in L’Epée’s National Institute, students of the Hartford school brought with them the different signs used within their own communities—a variety of signs that are now called Old American Sign Language. Gradually, these signs blended with the French signs that Clerc taught in the classroom, and the result was the standard language of signs that we know as American Sign Language. Perhaps two-thirds of today’s sign language has evolved from the French sign language.
Gallaudet retired from his job as principal of the Hartford school in 1830. Clerc continued to teach at the school until the late 1850s. Many of Clerc’s students and trained teachers—deaf and hearing—founded other schools around the nation or taught in them, using Clerc’s teaching methods. By 1863, there were twenty-two schools for the deaf operating in the United States.
Hope for Higher Education
After Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s death in 1851, two of his sons continued his pioneering work in deaf education. Thomas Gallaudet opened Saint Ann’s Church for Deaf-Mutes in New York City in 1852. His younger brother, Edward Miner Gallaudet, accepted a teaching position at the Hartford school. Edward’s dream was to one day establish a college for the deaf, although a lack of funds made the achievement of his dream seem impossible. But the outlook changed in 1857 when Edward received a letter from Amos Kendall, a wealthy philanthropist from Washington. Kendall had donated several acres of Kendall Green, his own estate in Washington, D.C., to establish a residential school he called the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind. On the recommendation of a friend, he wrote to Edward to offer him a position as the school’s superintendent. Edward accepted the job, but he was not ready to give up on his hope of founding a college for the deaf.
With Amos Kendall’s help, Edward presented his idea before Congress. In 1864, Congress passed legislation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, allowing the Columbia Institution to confer college degrees. The school’s college division became the National Deaf-Mute College, which opened in June of 1864 with eight students. In 1869, the first three graduates of the college received their diplomas. Sadly, Kendall died just a few short months after sharing in the triumph of this first commencement. The remaining eighty-one acres of his estate were eventually sold to the Columbia Institution for $85,000. More than two decades later, in 1891, the first training center for teachers of the deaf associated with a United States college was established at the school.
At the request of the alumni association, the National Deaf-Mute College was renamed Gallaudet College in 1893 in honor of Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. The school’s name was changed again to Gallaudet University in 1986. Today, Gallaudet University is known as the first and only liberal arts university for the deaf in the world.
Sign Language Surpasses the Spoken Word
Today, sign language is accepted as a natural method of communication and education for the deaf, but this wasn’t always the case. Even as sign language became widely used among deaf and hearing people, proponents of oralism insisted that the deaf should learn spoken language in order to fully participate in the hearing world. In 1867, the Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf-Mutes in New York and the Clarke Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Northampton, Massachusetts, began pioneering techniques for teaching by oral means alone. Methods of teaching speech, listening, and speechreading became common in schools across the country.
Alexander Graham Bell was one of the most ardent supporters of oralism. Bell regarded sign language as a foreign language, and believed that deaf people needed to lipread and speak English in order to function in society. In 1872, Bell opened a school in Boston to train teachers of the deaf to use the oral method. Several years later, in 1890, he founded the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, Inc., which is now called the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf.
The debate over the value of signed communication versus spoken language intensified during the last two decades of the 1800s. In 1880, the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf convened in Milan, Italy, to address the issue, with leading educators from around the world in attendance. Proponents of oralism triumphed when the Congress passed a resolution affirming “the incontestable superiority of speech over sign for integrating the deaf-mute into society and for giving him better command of the language.” The results were dramatic and far-reaching. In the ten years following the conference, the use of sign language in education declined dramatically. Strong arguments in favor of oralism resulted in the decision to add lipreading and speech to the curriculum in many schools for the deaf. Some supporters of oral communication suggested eliminating sign language entirely. By 1920, 80 percent of deaf students were taught in oral education programs. The numbers of deaf teachers dropped drastically from 40 percent of the profession in the 1860s down to 15 percent.
Despite the controversy surrounding manual education versus oralism, sign language continued to be widely used outside of the classroom. In the United States, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) was founded and gained support in reaction to the Milan resolution. The NAD argued that oral communication alone was inadequate for many deaf people, and was instrumental in keeping sign language and manual education alive.
Finally, in 1960, a hearing Gallaudet College professor named William Stokoe published a breakthrough monograph that “legitimized” sign language once and for all. In Sign Language Structure, Stokoe presented his thesis that American Sign Language is a unique language, separate and distinct from English—not a simple translation or “mimicry” of English. His research proved that ASL is a natural language with its own grammar and syntax, as capable as spoken languages of communicating abstract ideas and complex information. As a result of Stokoe’s research and advocacy, American Sign Language was finally recognized as an important national language. Stokoe went on to co-author the Dictionary of American Sign Language in 1965, and to establish the Linguistics Research Laboratory at Gallaudet in 1970, which he ran until 1984.
Supporters of sign language received more welcome news in 1964 when Congress issued the Babbidge Report on oral deaf education. The report stated that oral education was a “dismal failure,” finally and effectively dismissing the Milan resolution after almost a century. Many deaf and hearing people alike viewed the report as a long-overdue acknowledgment of the superiority of sign language in deaf education.
Interestingly, a movement that began in 1970 did not attempt to establish the superiority of either signed or oral education, but rather to blend several different methods. The result was Total Communication, a philosophy that became the foundation for a new approach to deaf education. Total Communication allows deaf people the right to any information through all possible means, including sign language, fingerspelling, pantomime, speech, lipreading, writing, computers, pictures, gestures, facial expressions, reading, and hearing aid devices.
By 1975, Public Law 94-142 passed, requiring handicapped children in the U.S. to be provided with free and appropriate education and allowing many to be mainstreamed into regular public schools, where they receive special instruction but interact with the general public school population.
What Causes Deafness?
The main cause of deafness in children seems to be heredity. Most of the time, the trait is not passed directly from one generation to the next. In fact, a great majority of children who are born deaf actually have hearing parents. However, deafness at birth is not always hereditary, but may be attributed to complications during the mother’s pregnancy. For instance, in the 1960s, a large number of babies were born deaf because their mothers contracted rubella, or German measles, during pregnancy.
Causes of hearing loss in children and adults can also include certain illnesses, such as meningitis, or prolonged high fever; the use of certain medications; and head injury. About half of the cases of hearing loss in adults are due to either continual exposure to loud noise—including loud music—or the aging process. Approximately 30 percent of all people 65 and older have some trouble hearing.
Hearing losses that are caused by disease or obstructions in the outer ear can sometimes be corrected or lessened with surgery or a hearing aid. For people who have a malformation or deterioration of the cochlea in the inner ear, cochlear implant surgery is sometimes successful, although this procedure is still somewhat controversial.
THE DEAF COMMUNITY
Not all deaf people use American Sign Language. But those who do share a common language bond that unites them as part of the deaf community. In addition to using the same language, members of the deaf community are linked by similar beliefs and attitudes about themselves and the world around them. Some deaf people choose not view themselves as disabled. Instead, they describe themselves as sharing a common cultural experience, and take pride in their rich heritage. This strong sense of identity is nurtured by others in the deaf community, and is passed down through generations.
Because the shared language of ASL is the common bond among the members of the deaf community, people who do not use this language are not considered part of this group. However, hearing individuals who use ASL can take part in the social and cultural life of the deaf community. For instance, the hearing children of deaf parents acquire ASL naturally in childhood. They grow up using ASL to communicate with their parents and others around them who use the language.
As a minority group in a hearing world, deaf people have faced restrictions and adversity. However, joining together in the struggle to advance deaf causes has helped them to define their culture. As we have already discussed, the acknowledgment in the late 1960s that sign language is appropriate in deaf education was a triumph for members of the deaf community. Renewed support for signing in education meant that many deaf students and their teachers were able to use their native language in the classroom for the first time.
Another triumph for deaf rights was the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement at Gallaudet University. DPN was set in motion in March of 1988, when the University’s Board of Trustees named a hearing candidate, Elisabeth A. Zinser, as Gallaudet’s seventh president. Students, faculty, and alumni of Gallaudet were stunned that a hearing candidate was chosen over two qualified deaf finalists, and demanded that a deaf president replace Zinser. In a movement that made national headlines, the protestors shut down the entire campus. After a week of protests and pressure, Zinser resigned and I. King Jordan—a long-time faculty member at Gallaudet—was appointed as the University’s first deaf president.
DPN was remarkable in more than its immediate success. The movement unified deaf and hard-of-hearing people of different ages and backgrounds in a collective struggle to be heard. Their ultimate triumph was a reminder that they don’t have to accept society’s limitations.
True proficiency in sign language goes beyond building an extensive sign vocabulary. The best approach to gaining a genuine appreciation of the language and its complexities is to understand signing in the context of deaf culture. Practice your skills with people who use sign language in day-to-day life, and soon you will begin to notice many of the subtle nuances that make the language so beautiful and unique.