by Corbin Dick | March 2021
The history of the deaf is a long and difficult one. Beginning back with Aristotle, the deaf were judged as “unable to lean or be educated at all.” He believed that in order to learn, you had to be able to hear spoken language. Because of this belief, deaf individuals were often “denied their fundamental rights.” They were known as “nonpersons” according to the law back then. They were not allowed to do many of the things that “normal” people could do like get married or buy land. It wasn’t until the 15th and 16th centuries that this began to change.
During the Renaissance period, people began to try to teach the deaf and discovered that they could be educated. One of these people was Geronimo Cardano. Geronimo Cardano was from Italy and was a mathematician and physician. He was the father of a deaf son. He was the first to figure out that you can be taught without being able to hear. He found that they could be educated using written language instead of spoken language. He was able to use this method of teaching with written language to educate his deaf son. Around that same time, another person began teaching deaf students in Spain. His name was Pedro Ponce de Leon and he was a Benedictine monk. He found success in educating children that had been deaf since birth.
In the 1600s, Juan Pablo de Bonet was the first to use multiple methods to educate the deaf. He used reading, writing, and speechreading. He also created his own alphabet using hand signs that “corresponded to different sounds of speech.”
There was no real organized or standard education for the deaf until around 1750. This is when people began to pay attention to the education of deaf persons. In 1771, a French Catholic priest Abbé Charles Michel de L’Epée established the first, free public deaf school, called the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes. Kids came from all across France and shared what signs they had learned at their house. L’Epée learned all of these signs and then used them to teach the students French. Eventually, these signs became standard and more schools were opened. This system became known as Old French Sign Language.
You would think that this would be the beginning of the growth of sign language and continued deaf education. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. The method of using Oralism came about as people used speechreading to teach the deaf as opposed to a manual language. People using Oralism believed that deaf people must be able to learn oral language in order to “fully function in hearing society.” In America, the two largest schools for the deaf began using only oral methods to teach. Eventually, that spread across the US and only Oralism was used. Alexander Graham Bell was one of the most famous supporters of the oral method. He began an institute to train teachers to educate the deaf using this method. In 1890, the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf was established. This actually could have damaged the lives of the deaf in America. Sign language instruction declined for 10 years after Congress declared “that the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in the education and instruction of deaf-mutes.”
Thankfully, American Sign Language was still used outside of education by people in the deaf community. The National Association of the Deaf was created and they fought for the use of sign language. Finally, in 1960 a professor named William Stokoe published a dissertation that proved that ASL was a language. Things finally began to change in the education of the deaf. After many years, in 1975 legislation was passed to mainstream deaf students into public school, proving once and for all that the deaf could be educated and could learn just like everyone else.
The road to educating the deaf was a long and bumpy one. Many people helped and some hindered the progress. Although it took a very long time, the deaf have rights and can be educated along with all others in society. Hopefully, the progress that has been made in their education will continue and people everywhere will see the successes of the many deaf people that contribute to the world on a daily basis.
Jay, Michelle. “History of Sign Language – Deaf History | Start ASL.” Startasl.com, 26 Aug. 2017, www.startasl.com/history-of-sign-language/.
Linguistics Department, Harvard University. “Deaf History Timeline.” American Sign Language at Harvard, 2021, projects.iq.harvard.edu/asl/deaf-history-timeline.
Murray, Joseph J. “History of the Deaf.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 23 Sept. 2014, www.britannica.com/science/history-of-the-deaf.
PBS. “A History of Deaf Rights, Culture and Language.” Independent Lens. 11 August 2015, www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/deaf-jam_timeline