By: Audrey Sebastian Gonzalez (04/08/17)
From the list of various historical figures who played an important role in deaf history, William C. Stokoe, Jr. (1919-2000), an English professor and American linguistic, is my favorite. Foremost, Stokoe, while teaching at Gallaudet University, researched American Sign Language extensively by observing students sign. From this study, an important conclusion was reached: American Sign Language is its own language. His dissertation “Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf” was a key in alternating the perception of this sign language. Consequently, it revolutionized ASL since, previously, it was believed to be a “broken” or “signed” form of English. Stokoe discovered that ASL was a separate language since it was constituted of a distinct syntax and grammar. During the publication of his work in 1960, oralism was the form used for the education of the deaf. This consisted of lip-reading and voicing (using their voice). As such, publishing this discovery was nonetheless accompanied with skepticism from his colleagues and the Gallaudet University administration. Amongst an era of sign language oppression, discovering the uniqueness of this form of communication was, according to me, exemplary and brave. Due to this achievement, American Sign Language has been validated as a true and “official language.” Now, ASL can be a tool for educating deaf people and is even available to hearing people who want to learn it. Also, he invented a written form of ASL referenced as the “Stokoe notation.” For this accomplishment, he received an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet University in 1988. As such, he is now an important and admired character in the Deaf community.