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Deaf Education:  Oralism

Many older Deaf people learned ASL from their "Dorm-Mother" or "Dorm-Father" [dorm counselor] or the older students at a residential school for the Deaf.

[Note: Times are changing. There is quite a bit of turnover in the dorm counselor positions these days. You almost never hear dorm counselors referred to as "Dorm Mother" any more.
There is very little stability these days. Many  Deaf Schools have been and are being shut down for so-called "financial reasons," (or the hearing administrators just don't realize that oftentimes a
Deaf school is indeed the Least Restrictive Environment.)]

Sandy: Are more schools using signing now to teach deaf children?

DrVicars: Oh yes! A major change in philosophy for most of the schools out there. It started
happening in the mid-eighties. (Some say earlier, some say later.)

Now signing is becoming very popular with all the youth, and so it stands to reason that as the
general population starts thinking of sign language as "cool," more schools will be willing to
adopt it.

Sandy: Thank goodness - what was their major objection - to the point of tying hands?

DrVicars: Actually it was beyond just tying hands, it was to the point of maiming hands. They
used to whack you with a stick. First offense they would slap your hand. Second offense they
would place your hand on your desk and whack it with a ruler. Third offense, you would have to
stand behind the teacher's desk. She would open the right front drawer and place your fingers
in it. Then she would shove you from behind so that as you fell forward, your weight and
momentum would slam the drawer shut on your fingers.

Sandy: :(

DrVicars: I'm not making that up. I have older friends who experienced it.

Lii: The school I volunteer at actually uses some signs for some hearing kids who have trouble
communicating through verbal means. Some autistic kids are even using sign language to

DrVicars: That's great! Right Lii, I see lots of schools using signing with their communicative
disorder-type kids these days. It really seems to help!

Monica: Many schools and colleges in Florida offer signing as a foreign language!

DrVicars: Good! Many of the states are offering it as a foreign language now. Utah passed a
law requiring the acceptance of ASL in fulfillment of foreign language requirements at all
institutions of higher education throughout the state.
KC: An authority figure here told me "the deaf prefer to speak!" I think she is wrong.

DrVicars: :) and I agree with you KC, she is wrong!

[Authors' note: "Let's not be stereotypical here--MANY "physically deaf" people DO prefer to
speak. Culturally Deaf people prefer to sign.  Heck, my wife is legally deaf, her first language was ASL, but she ends up voicing much more than signing--because it makes it much easier to get along in the hearing world.  Three of my children are hearing.   Their teachers are hearing.  Their friends are hearing.  The neighbors are hearing.  Sarah's bus driver and aide are hearing.  The granparents are hearing.  Belinda is in a hearing world--whether she likes it or not.  But since she is d/Deaf she would prefer that EVERYBODY in the entire world knew sign language and used it around her. Can you see their are many sides to this argument?]

DrVicars: The Deaf would prefer to sign and you ALL to sign :) But that brings up an
important point. There are many deaf out there who believe oralism is the way to go. There is a
whole camp of people out there who believe that it is morally wrong to teach deaf kids to sign
because they say that will slow down their development. My philosophy is "Why not learn
both?" Learn signing first, then go ahead and learn to lipread and speak to whatever extent you
have a facility for it. I've read some studies that support the idea that signing actually helps
facilitate the development of speech! Please realize that not everybody can pick up speech and
lipreading, just as not everybody can get the hang of surfing or skateboarding. It doesn't mean
you are less intelligent. It just means you are intelligent in other areas! If you meet someone
who feels lipreading is the best way to go, relax, maybe it's the best way to go for THEM.

Lii: ASL is a fun language to learn and use. It's also a very beautiful language to watch.:)

DrVicars: Yes.

In a message dated 4/3/2006 6:21:12 PM Pacific Daylight Time, carolr27@ writes:
Hey Dr. Bill, Thank you for your work. I enjoy all of your opinions! I am hearing, but have a 5 year old grandson whom was born deaf and has a CE. He goes to the Clarke School for the deaf in MA, but they only believe in vocal communication. I love to sign to him. Clarke is AWESOME, but why don't they encourage ASL? I understand the fact that they want them to vocalize, but a deaf child/adult will always need the ability to sign. They are deaf and regardless if they have an implant they will need to communicate I am curious about your opinion.
Oralists believe that by not providing the option to sign they are helping children by forcing them to develop oral communication skills.
My opinion is simply that every decision we make in life involves a trade off.
Time spent teaching a child to talk could have been invested teaching that child to sign.
As with any decision you have to weigh the costs against the benefits--both long term and immediate.
As with any purchase you have to ask yourself, am I getting the best value for my money?
The moment you start talking about "values" you will find yourself surrounded with controversy because people value different things.
Some parents value having a child who can communicate orally.
Other parents value making sure that a child has maximum early cognitive development.
Some parents value having a child that speaks the same language as them.
Other parents value new experiences and are willing to learn whatever language best fits the need of their child.
Some parents feel it is better to be able to communicate in a stilted manner with millions of people.
Other parents feel it is better to be able to communicate fluently with a smaller number of people.
The best decision as to the communication mode of a child will depend on many factors.
Are the parents cognitively and situationally capable of effectively learning a second language?  Some adults are simply not going to succeed at picking up sign language at their stage in life.
Does the family live in an area where there is a strong Deaf community and opportunities for signed communication? How much residual hearing does the child possess? Is there a Deaf School nearby? What does the child want? Are there other Deaf children around who are using a particular mode of communication?
You asked about my opinion. So I'll give it.  I feel that, in general, Deaf children are better off growing up bilingual and literate.  By bilingual I mean: having exposure to both languages throughout the week.  I'm not talking about simultaneous voicing and signing, but rather signed ASL and written English, along with formal instruction in both languages.  I feel some children can and do benefit significantly from speech training. However, if it is apparent that a child will not benefit significantly from speech training there is no point in continuing to waste his time.  The time should be (much) better invested expanding the child's visual gestural communication abilities.  Additionally I feel, (and research backs me up on the fact), that learning ASL actually enhances a child's ability to learn English.
Dr. Bill


Also see: Oralism and the Deaf Community


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