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Oralism and the Deaf Community:


Michael Fan
29 May 2016


Oralism and the Deaf Community

Sign language uses manual movements, facial expressions, and other means of communication that don’t involve speech. This, and its usage by the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, is known by most people. Much less heard of is oralism, a method of communication that, simply put, uses things like lipreading and mouth mimicking to get as close to real speech as possible. Oralism and sign language (also known as manualism) are the two sides of a heated debate that delves into issues as complex as human rights and societal integration. The debate rages on today, and has deep and sometimes disturbing roots and connections in history.

America’s Deaf and hard-of-hearing community is large and generally unified and very proud, which must be noted to understand the bigger picture. Most Deaf, if given the opportunity, would not accept a cure (Solomon, 1994), predictably to the surprise of many people. Indeed, the notion of deafness being a medical problem (the “pathological model”) is rejected by most of the Deaf community, and instead, being Deaf is a culture and a source of pride (Solomon, 1994). Sign Language is a part of that culture. Oralism, while not explicitly aiming to “fix” Deaf people, is founded on ideals of integration and “normalcy” that run directly counter to the Deaf community’s sentiment. The history of oralism very clearly reflects such ideals.

Oralism had always been around, but rose dramatically in popularity after Alexander Graham Bell started publicly promoting it over sign language in the 1870’s. Famous for the invention of the telephone, Bell focused most of his efforts on the Deaf afterwards, attracting the support of politicians, teachers, doctors and the wealthy, almost none of them deaf (Benito, 2014). The arguments Bell used especially rang true with parents of deaf children, who, for the most part, only wanted integration. In the harshly judgmental times of the past, sign language was seen as low-class and came with strong racial overtones (Neisser, 1983). “Gesturing” was associated with Italians and Jews and Frenchmen; hearing parents saw poverty in “gesturing”. Meanwhile, oralism inspired hope and a promise to “solve” deafness, and had both confidence in technology and roots in the Protestant ethic of character strength. (Neisser, 1983). In his campaign, Bell always travelled with deaf students who had learned speech, inspiring further hope. This is, however, ignoring the fact that those successful deaf students were rare; to actually succeed in oralism, it was later found, is incredibly difficult.

Bell’s personal life details and opinions are very revealing. In his later years, Bell’s wife—who was also deaf—suffered from the very pitfalls of oralism. Bell’s wife took articulation lessons throughout her life, but her speech was never considered good. Yet Bell had no patience with complaints about this and said it was “good enough” (Neisser, 1983), suggesting some form of denial, and indirectly confirming that oralism may not be the way to go. Furthermore, Bell’s belief in oralism was tied to his belief in eugenics. Eugenics aims to improve the genetic quality of the human population in sometimes forceful ways, and I cannot help but be reminded of Hitler’s attempts to limit the Jewish population. Bell looked upon Deaf culture with distaste, and had this to say about the Deaf community:

“Those who believe as I do, that the production of a defective race of human beings would be a great calamity to the world, will examine carefully the causes that lead to the intermarriages of the Deaf with the object of applying a remedy.” (Benito, 2014).
Bell’s shocking claim that the Deaf are “defective” sums up his beliefs concisely.

At the Congress of Milan of 1880, Deaf educators came together to decide the future of Deaf learning. Bell presented on the benefits of oralism for three days, while advocates of manualism were given only three hours to make their counterpoints (Benito, 2014). At the end of the conference, every single attendee—all of them hearing—passed a resolution to ban sign language and only teach oralism, starting what was effectively a 100-year gag order on Deaf people around the world. In America, ASL was secretly carried on behind closed doors, while children didn’t sign publicly for fear of getting their hands rapped. Fortunately, this did not last; in the 1960's William Stokoe and others, published revolutionary papers on linguistic structure and ASL that validated manualism (Neisser, 1983) (Solomon, 1991). By the 1970-80’s, sign language was back in business, and slowly but surely recovering.

Though no side is “right” as with any debate, scientific evidence seems to favor manualism. Teachers, who were trained in oral methods, were usually unsuccessful; about 10 percent of Deaf students mastered intelligible speech, and lipreading, with a success rate of only 4 percent, was exceedingly difficult to teach (Neisser, 1983). By age five, children who grew up learning ASL had vocabularies thousands of words larger than children who received oral education. In addition, almost all students managed to learn ASL—during the ban of ASL. They simply signed in secret, and from exchanges with other students, familiarized themselves with a more efficient and more effective language (Neisser, 1983).

In validating ASL, Stokoe first focused on its resemblance to spoken language (Solomon, 1991), before suggesting that language is not determined by physical biological limitations, like speech and hearing. Rather, language by itself seems to be an ingrained human trait (Neisser, 1983), and thus ASL, which doesn’t involve hearing or speech, still works to teach language. During the ban of ASL, the emphasis on the use of the spoken word over written English further hampered the linguistic education of the young Deaf. Only gifted children succeeded in an education without signs or books. The rest, who bypassed the key language acquisition ages without actually having learned anything, failed to develop full cognitive skills for the rest of their lives (Solomon, 1991). Oralism deprived Deaf children of both signed language and written language in favor of a system that never really worked, and didn’t stop until it was too late for those children.

Today, oralism still exists. The Alexander Graham Bell Association advocates for, among other things, early intervention, reminding us one of the reasons why the issue is so touchy—it starts with the children. American Sign Language has blossomed considerably since its ban, and is being taught in many universities, high schools, and even online courses. 

In the debate, the side you take usually depends on your ideology and how hard you value integration, though this is not to say that the Deaf community shuns integration. Things have come a long way since the lopsidedness of oralism’s popularity, but the debate continues on.

Works Cited:

Benito, Shandra. "Alexander Graham Bell and the Deaf Community: A Troubled History." Pgs 1-2. Rooted in Rights. N.p., 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 27 May 2016.

Neisser, Arden. The Other Side of Silence: Sign Language and the Deaf Community in America. New York: Knopf, 1983. Print.

Solomon, Andrew. "Defiantly Deaf." New York Times Magazine. Aug. 28 1994: 38+. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 23 May 2016.



Notes:  Also see: Oralism


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