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Deaf Education:

Laurie Boggs



    "In order to communicate effectively and fluently, people must feel at home in their language, and the deaf are no exception." (Gannon, 1981, page 360) This quote was written by Robert F. Panara: poet, professor, and a founder of the National Theatre of the Deaf. It doesn't appear that parents and educators of deaf children have always shared his sediment over the years. In early times, different groups of parents and educators had varying opinions of what "feeling at home" must have meant to a deaf child. The debate over which method of teaching a child to communicate: manualism or oralism continued for centuries.

    The controversy over the most appropriate education of deaf children plagued this country from the 18th to the 20th century. The two methods heatedly debated were oralism and manualism. Oralism was the education of deaf children using the spoken language, while manualism was the education of deaf children using sign language.

    Perhaps the primary reason for the debate stemmed from the fact that "deafness" was an unseen handicap. Deaf children looked "normal," and the only way the deaf child could be identified as being handicapped was by an external show of his/her disability, i.e. the use of sign language or the wearing of hearing aids. No parent wants to admit that their child is different from "normal" children. (Gannon, 1981) In Marcia Forecki's 1985 book Speak to Me! she writes of this fear of evident "handicap" when speaking of her child, diagnosed with a profound hearing impairment at 18 months of age, upon receiving his hearing aids: "Charlie's' handicap was now obvious to anyone, even without their trying to talk to him. I felt sick. I could not wrench from my mind the memory of a picture I had seen in a history book of a blind man begging during the Depression. He wore a placard around his neck, which read "BLIND." My son now wore the indisputable proof of his abnormality. His sign read "DEAF" and it was just as repugnant to me as the blind man's label." (Forecki, 1985, page 32) This is a prime example of the emotional turbulence shared by many parents in the 18th century. Proponents of the oral philosophy of teaching gave these parents the hope and affirmation that their child could learn to talk and lipread, and with those skills he or she would fit into a hearing society as a "normal" child. (Gannon, 1981) Oralists warned parents that using signs, or allowing their children to use signs, would be a detriment to speech development. They stated that the child would depend solely on the signs and would neglect speech and speechreading. In the mid-1800's, educators of oralism attempted to provide pure oral atmospheres in their schools. They prohibited the use of any signs from their students, telling them that signs would prevent them from growing up "normal" and living in a "hearing world." (Gannon, 1981) Oralists, such as Horace Mann and Alexander Graham Bell, argued that using sign language would allow a deaf person to "talk" only to other deaf people; therefore, the deaf must learn to speak and to lip-read. (Wolkomir, 1992)

    The oralists' obsession against the use of signing infuriated proponents of manualism, who felt that forbidding a child to use their natural means of communication and trying to make a "hearing" person out of a deaf child was cruel and unnatural. They stated that the same people who were taking signing away from deaf students would never dream of taking glasses away from a sight-impaired student or a wheelchair away from a physically impaired student. (Gannon, 1981) Manualists felt that a method of communication should be fitted to the child, as opposed to the child being fitted to the established method. (Gannon, 1981) Many educators expressed repeated concerns regarding the heavy emphasis placed on teaching articulation at the expense of a good education. A popular slogan during this time was heard as "What good is it to be able to talk if you have nothing to say?"(Gannon, 1981) In the early 1900's, National Association of the Deaf President James L. Smith stated that "We are friends and advocates of speech and speech-training, but not for all the deaf. In order that the deaf may get the highest measure of intellectual, social, and moral happiness in this world, an adaptation and combination of methods is necessary." (Gannon, 1981, page 361) Manualists noted that the oralists' sole emphasis on lipreading was flawed, in that it is a skill that few people master. They argued that the many hours required to teach a deaf child to mimic speech should be spent on real education. (Wolkomir, 1992) Marcia Forecki parrots this feeling in her book Speak to Me! when she states that "even the best speechreaders lose between 50-60% of what they see." She further stated that using gestures was something that had developed very naturally between her and her son and abandoning this natural form of communication in favor of the "rigors of strict oral training seemed unreasonable." (Forecki, 1985, page 35)

    In the early 1960's, following centuries of debate, a California teacher and mother of a deaf child became frustrated with the lack of progress her daughter, using the oral approach, was making in school. She began using a multi-approach to teaching deaf children in her school. She was very influential in the movement to learn sign language. In her classes, deaf children were exposed to speech, lip reading, auditory training, fingerspelling, and sign language. She called her approach "The Total Approach." (Gannon, 1981) Several years later Roy Holcomb became the first supervisor of the program for deaf students at James Madison Elementary School in California. It was his philosophy that good communication was of utmost importance to the success of the child's learning process. Under his supervision, teachers were interested in providing all students with a barrier-free communicative environment. They used "The Total Approach" at all levels in their school. Holcomb began referring to this method as "Total Communication," and he became knows as the "Father of Total Communication." (Gannon, 1981). The advent of this approach to communication, in which a child is provided opportunities to learn multiple modes of communication and to communicate in the method(s) they find the most comfortable, ended centuries of debate and perhaps finally gave children a language they could "feel at home" with.



Forecki, M. (1985). Speak to Me! Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Gannon, J. (1981). Deaf Heritage. Silver Spring, Maryland: National Association of the Deaf.

Wolkomir, Richard. (1992). American sign language: ‘it's not mouth stuff -- it's brain stuff.' Smithsonian Magazine, 10-40.


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