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Mysteries of the Deaf

One has, indeed, a strong sense of pollination, of people coming to and fro, bringing regional languages, with all their idiosyncracies and strengths, to Hartford, and bringing back an increasingly polished and generalized language. The rise of deaf literacy and deaf education was as spectacular in the US as it had been in France, and it soon spread to other parts of the world.

Lane estimates that by 1869 there were 550 teachers of the deaf worldwide and that 41 percent of the teachers of the deaf in the United States were themselves deaf. In 1864 Congress passed a law authorizing the Columbian Institution in Washington to become a national deaf-mute college, the first institution of higher learning specifically for the deaf. Its first principal was Edward Gallaudet—the son of Thomas Gallaudet, who had brought Clerc to the United States in 1816. Gallaudet College, as it was later rechristened, was for years the only deaf college in the United States and even now there is only one other.

The great impetus of deaf education and liberation, which had swept France between 1770 and 1820, thus continued its triumphant course in the United States until 1870 (Clerc, immensely active to the end and personally charismatic, died in 1869). And then—and this is the turning point in the entire story—the tide turned, turned against the use of sign language by and for the deaf, so that within twenty years the work of a century was undone.

Lane is impassioned, polemical, at times even virulent, about this tragic regression, as he sees it, and the forces and agents responsible for it—impassioned, but not entirely clear. The central obscurity and mystery in the whole matter—why did people suddenly turn against a powerful and proven instrument?—he suggests but does not resolve in his history.

Indeed, what was happening with the deaf and sign language was part of a general (and, if one wishes, “political”) movement of the time: a trend to Victorian oppressiveness and conformism, intolerance of minorities, and minority usages, of every kind—religious, linguistic, ethnic. Thus it was at this time that the “little nations” and “little languages” of the world (for example, Wales and Welsh) found themselves under pressure to assimilate or conform.

Specifically, there had been for two centuries a countercurrent of feeling, from teachers and parents of the deaf, that the goal of deaf education should be teaching the deaf how to speak. Already, a century earlier, de l’Epée had found himself in implicit if not explicit opposition to Pereire, the greatest “oralist” or “demutizer” of his time, who dedicated his life to teaching the deaf how to speak (a task, indeed, for which dedication was needed, for it required years of the most intensive and arduous training, with one teacher working with one pupil, to have any hope of success, whereas de l’Epée could educate pupils by the hundred). Now, in the 1870s, a current that had been growing for decades, fed, paradoxically, by the immense success of the deaf-mute asylums, and their spectacular demonstration of the educability of the deaf, erupted, and attempted to eliminate the very instrument of success.

There were, indeed, real dilemmas, as there had always been, and they exist to this day. What good, it was asked, was the use of signs without speech? Would this not restrict the deaf, in daily life, to intercourse with other deaf? Should not speech (and lip reading) be taught instead, allowing a full integration of the deaf into the general population? Should not signs be proscribed, lest they interfere with speech?

But, on the other side, if the teaching of speech was arduous, occupied dozens of hours a week, might not its advantages be offset by these thousands of hours taken away from general education? Might one not end up with a functional illiterate, who had, at best, a poor imitation of speech? What was “better,” integration or education? Might one have both, by combining both speech and sign? Or would any such attempted combination bring about, not the best, but the worst, of both worlds?

These dilemmas, these debates, of the 1870s seem to have been gathering force beneath the surface throughout a century of achievement—an achievement that could be seen, and was seen, by many, as perverse, as conductive to isolation and a set-apart people.

Edward Gallaudet himself was an open-minded man who traveled extensively in Europe in the late 1860s, touring deaf schools in fourteen countries. He found that the majority used both sign language and speech, that the sign language schools did as well as the oral schools as far as articulating speech was concerned, but obtained superior results in general education. He felt that articulation skills, though highly desirable, could not be the basis of primary instruction—that this had to be achieved, and achieved early, by Sign.

Gallaudet was balanced, but others were not. There had been a rash of “reformers”—Samuel Gridley Howe and Horace Mann were egregious examples—who clamored for an overthrow of the “old-fashioned” sign-language asylums, and for the introduction of “progressive” oralist schools. The Clarke School for the Deaf, in Northampton, Massachusetts, was the first of these, opened in 1867. (It was the model and inspiration of the Northampton School in England, founded by the Reverend Thomas Arnold the following year.) But the most important and powerful of these “oralist” figures was Alexander Graham Bell, who was at once heir to a family tradition of teaching elocution and correcting speech impediments (his father and grandfather were both eminent in this); tied into a strange family mix of deafness denied—both his mother and his wife were deaf, but never acknowledged this; and, of course, a technological genius in his own right. When Bell threw all the weight of his immense authority and prestige into the advocacy of oralism, the scales were, finally, overbalanced and tipped, and at the notorious International Congress of Educators of the Deaf held at Milan in 1880, (though deaf teachers were themselves excluded from the vote), oralism won the day, and the use of Sign in schools was “officially” proscribed. The deaf were prohibited from using their own, “natural” language, and thenceforth forced to learn, as best they might, the (for them) “unnatural” language of speech.12 And perhaps this was in keeping with the spirit of the age, its overweening sense of science as power, of commanding nature and never deferring to it.

None of this would matter if oralism worked. But the effect, unhappily, was the reverse of what was desired—or, rather, exacted a perhaps intolerable price for the acquisition of speech. The deaf of the 1850s who had been to the Hartford asylum, or other such schools, were highly literate and educated—fully the equal of their hearing counterparts. Now the reverse is true.

It is Lane’s persuasive and frightening thesis that this reversal was caused by the sacrifice of sign language. He shows us—especially through his translations of Desloges, Massieu, Berthier, and others—that sign language is as easy (as “natural”) to acquire for the deaf as speech for the hearing, and that signing is by far the best (and often the only) foundation for teaching children a second language (English, French, or whatever). He indicates that oralism has resulted in a dramatic deterioration in the educational achievement of deaf children and in the literacy of the deaf generally. (Many of the deaf now are functional illiterates. A study carried out by Gallaudet College in 1972 showed that the average reading level of eighteen-year-old deaf highschool graduates in the United States was only at fourth-grade level, and a study by R. Conrad, in England, indicates a similar situation there, with deaf students, at graduation, reading at the level of nine-year-olds.)

These dismal facts are known to all teachers of the deaf, however they are to be interpreted. Hans Furth, a psychologist whose work is concerned with cognition of the deaf, states that the deaf do as well as the hearing on tasks that measure intelligence without the need for acquired information. He argues that the reason the congenitally deaf are inferior to the hearing is that they suffer from “information deprivation”—and that there are a number of reasons for this. First, that they are less exposed to the incidental learning that takes place out of school—for example, to television, unless it is captioned. Second, that the content of deaf education is meager compared to that of hearing children: so much time is spent teaching them speech—one must envisage between five and eight years of intensive tutoring—that there is little time for transmitting information, culture, complex skills, or anything else.

Yet the desire to have the deaf speak; the insistence that they speak—and from the first; the odd superstitions that have always clustered around the use of sign language; to say nothing of the enormous “investment” in oral schools, allowed this deplorable situation to develop, practically unnoticed except by the deaf, who themselves being unnoticed had little say in the matter. And it was only during the 1960s that historians like Lane and psychologists like Furth, as well as parents and teachers of the deaf, started asking, “What has happened? What is happening?” It was only in the 1960s and early 1970s that this situation reached the public, in the form of novels such as Joanne Greenberg’s In this Sign (1970) and more recently the powerful play Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff.

There is the perception that something must be done: but what? Typically, there is the seduction of compromise—that a “combined” system, combining signing and speech, will allow the deaf to become adept at both. A further compromise, containing a deep confusion, is suggested: having a language intermediate between English and Sign (i.e., a signed English). This category of confusion goes back a long way—back to de l’Epée’s “Methodical Signs,” which were an attempt to “translate” French into Sign. But sign languages, as definitively shown by Klima and Bellugi, are in fact complete in themselves, complete in a “Chomskian” way. Their syntax and grammar are complete, but have a different character from that of any spoken language. Thus it is not possible to transliterate a spoken tongue into Sign word by word or phrase by phrase—their structures are essentially different. It is often imagined, vaguely, that sign language is English or French: it is nothing of the sort; it is itself, Sign. Thus the “Signed Exact English” now favored as a compromise is an absurdity. Deaf students are required to learn the signs not for the ideas and actions they want to express but for phonetic English sounds they cannot hear. If Sign is to be reinstated, it must be a “pure,” a “natural” sign language, whatever is indigenous in that part of the world.

But what, more importantly, of the “combined” system by which students not only learn natural sign language but learn to lip read and speak as well? Perhaps this is workable, if education takes account of which capacities are best developed at different phases of growth. The essential point is this: that the deaf, the profoundly deaf, show no native disposition whatever to speak. Speaking is an ability that must be taught them, and is a labor of years. On the other hand, they show an immediate and powerful disposition to sign. This is most apparent in the deaf children of deaf parents using sign language, who make their first signs when they are about six months old and have considerable sign-fluency by the age of fifteen months. This is intriguingly earlier than the “normal” acquisition of speech, suggesting that our linguistic development is, so to speak, retarded by speech, by the complexity of neuro-muscular control required. If we are to communicate with babies, we may find that the way to do so is by Sign.


Language must be introduced and acquired as early as possible or its development may be permanently retarded and impaired, with all the problems in “propositioning” which Hughlings-Jackson discussed. This can be done, with the profoundly deaf, only by Sign. Therefore deafness must be diagnosed as early as possible. This is now easily done in the first months of life with electrophysiologic tests, provided the parents’ suspicion is taken seriously by doctors. Deaf children must be exposed to fluent signers, whether these be their parents, or teachers, or whoever. Once signing is learned—and it may be fluent by three years of age—then all else may follow: a free intercourse of minds, a free flow of information, the acquisition of reading and writing, and perhaps that of speech. There is no evidence that signing inhibits the acquisition of speech. Indeed the reverse is probably so.

Great technical advances have been made facilitating the acquisition of speech by the deaf, and a very reasonable and intelligible (if somewhat monotonous) speech will usually become possible. (But not always. There are some deaf who, despite high intelligence, and motivation, and the most arduous application, never achieve reasonable speech.) If one thing is clear—and it may be the only thing that is clear here—it is that “pure oralism,” or the exclusive “forcing” of speech, while ignoring or prohibiting sign language, will be severely disabling for most deaf people. The only certain way of ensuring the early and competent acquisition of language is to introduce it by sign in the first years of life.

A tragic division into “deaf” and “hearing” worlds has taken place. One of the reasons why most of us do not encounter the deaf—despite their considerable numbers in the world—is that they are frequently sequestered away in deaf families and communities, with insufficient speech or lip reading to enter the hearing world (let alone “make it” in the greater world). There may be a high degree of culture, and strong affectional bonds, in the deaf world—the deaf still tend to marry the deaf—but it may be an inbred one, set apart from the wide world. But, paradoxically, this enclosure, which is due to defective lip reading and speech, is aggravated by oralism, by the misguided enterprise of “forcing” speech when there is no real foundation of language to hold it.

Very slowly, now, we are reversing the militant oralism of the past century, undoing the mishap (or should one say calamity) of the Milan conference of 1880. But we must understand history, so that we do not fall victim to it, and this is where Harlan Lane’s books are of sovereign importance—for they can teach us, if we let them, the lessons of history.

Have the deaf always and everywhere been seen as “handicapped” or “inferior”? Have they always suffered, must they always suffer, segregation and isolation? Can one imagine their situation otherwise? If only there were a world where being deaf did not matter, and in which all the deaf could enjoy complete fulfillment and integration! A world in which they would not even be perceived as “handicapped” or “deaf.”


Such worlds do exist, or have existed in the past, and such a world is portrayed in Nora Ellen Groce’s beautiful and fascinating Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. Through a mutation, a recessive gene, brought out by inbreeding, a form of hereditary deafness existed for 250 years on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts—in some villages there was scarcely a family unaffected. In response to this, the entire community learned Sign, and there was free and complete intercourse between the hearing and the deaf. Indeed the deaf were scarcely seen as “deaf,” and certainly not seen as being at all “handicapped.”

In the astonishing interviews recorded by Groce, the island’s older residents would talk at length, vividly and affectionately, about their former relatives, neighbors, and friends, usually without even mentioning that they were deaf. And it would only be if this question was specifically asked that there would be a pause and then, “Now you come to mention it, yes, Ebenezer was deaf-and-dumb.” But Ebenezer’s deaf-and-dumbness had never set him apart, had scarcely even been noticed as such: he had been seen, he was remembered, simply as “Ebenezer”—friend, neighbor, dory fisherman—not as some special, handicapped, set-apart, deaf-mute. The deaf on Martha’s Vineyard loved, married, earned their livings, worked, thought, wrote, as everyone else did—they were not set apart in any way, unless it was that they were, on the whole, better educated than their neighbors, and often looked at as the most sagacious in the community.

Intriguingly, even after the last deaf-mute had died in 1952, the hearing tended to preserve Sign among themselves, not merely for special occasions (telling dirty jokes, talking in church, communicating between boats, etc.), but generally. They would slip into it, involuntarily, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, because Sign is “natural” to all who learn it (as a primary language), and has an intrinsic beauty and excellence sometimes superior to speech.

I was so moved by Groce’s book that the moment I finished it I jumped in the car, with only a toothbrush, a tape recorder, and a camera—I had to see this enchanted island for myself. I saw how some of the oldest inhabitants still preserved Sign, delighted in it, among themselves. And, speaking to one of the very oldest there, I found one other thing, of very great interest. This old lady, in her nineties, but sharp as a pin, would sometimes fall into a peaceful reverie. As she did so, she might have seemed to be knitting, her hands in constant complex motion. But her daughter, also a signer, told me she was not knitting but thinking to herself, thinking in sign. And even in sleep, I was further informed, the old lady might sketch fragmentary signs on the counterpane—she was dreaming in sign. Such phenomena cannot be accounted as merely social. It is evident that if a person has learned Sign as a primary language, his brain/mind will retain this, and use it, for the rest of that person’s life, even though hearing and speech be freely available and unimpaired. Sign, I was now convinced, was a fundamental language of the brain. Groce writes at the end of her book:

The stories which these elderly Islanders shared with me, of the deaf heritage of the Vineyard, merit careful consideration. The most striking fact about these deaf men and women is that they were not handicapped, because no one perceived their deafness as a handicap. As one woman said to me, “You know, we didn’t think anything special about them. They were just like anyone else. When you think about it, the Island was an awfully nice place to live.” Indeed it was.

  1. 12

    One of the consequences of this was that hearing teachers, not deaf teachers, now had to teach the deaf. The proportion of deaf teachers for the deaf, which was close to 50 percent in 1850, fell to 25 percent by the turn of the century, and to 12 percent by 1960. More and more, English became the language of instruction for the deaf, taught by hearing teachers, fewer and fewer of whom knew any sign language at all—the situation depicted by David Wright, of his school, in the 1920s.

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