View Our Catalog

Join Our E-Mail List

What's New

Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

Press Home

From Integration to Inclusion: A History of Special Education in the 20th Century
Previous Page

Next Page


As the controversy on communication raged from about 1870 on, the continued commitment of many institutional instructors, administrators, and deaf adults to enforce sign language as the fundamental solution to deafness defiantly opposed the oral contentions—to little avail. The first decade of the new century witnessed a rapid conversion to oralism. In 1907, the Ontario school’s annual report noted that “among educators of the deaf the preponderance of opinion and of observed results is in favor of oralism, so far at any rate, as related to the large proportion of the pupils” (Ontario Department of Education, 1907, p. 510). In the same year, 96% of American schools for the deaf were designated as oral schools under oral methods of training (Crouter, 1907). It was reported that students “receive all instruction, of whatever character, by and through speech and lip-reading, and not through the medium of the sign-language or the manual alphabet” (de Land, 1919, p. 665). By 1919, there were 66 schools for the deaf in North America, of which all but six taught some speech (Numbers, 1974).

As an educational policy and approach, oralism reigned for the next half century. The model viewed deafness from the perspective of pathology—abnormality of structure and function characteristic of disease. The field, in its efforts to handle pathology, became populated by the “troubled-persons industries” (Lane, 1997, p. 157) with the mission to prevent, compensate for, or cure deafness. It was legitimized by the invention of hearing aids in the 1920s and by the growth of the fields of otology, microsurgery, and audiology. Educators sought to normalize deaf children by eradicating sign language and stressing speech, speechreading, and auditory training. The major criterion for success was intelligible speech (Miller & Moores, 2000). The orthodoxy of sign, the “beloved language” of the deaf (Schein, 1989, p. 29), became the new heresy. Sign language faced a barrage of hostility, ridicule, and oppression, relegated to the status of a ghetto slang. Together with the culture of deafness, it was driven underground.

A brief excursion into the world of deaf teachers illustrates with some precision the changing ideologies in deaf education. In 1852, deaf males formed about 40% of the teaching staff; by 1870, deaf teachers were about 42% of the teaching personnel in North American schools for the deaf (Jones, 1918). As oral advocates seized dominance of the profession, deaf teachers were jostled to the side. In the oralists’ eagerness to obtain intellectual results and prove the validity of their mode, they made it one of the tenets of their philosophy that no deaf person should be employed in any school for the deaf in any capacity whatsoever (Draper, 1889). Deaf people who wanted to teach were not admitted into the graduate program at Gallaudet College for teachers. Hearing applicants could practice teach at the Kendall Demonstration School on Gallaudet’s campus. Deaf candidates could not practice at all; they could do only individual tutoring.

The late 1950s witnessed a retransformation of deaf education that began with generous federal funding together with enabling legislation. Between 1954 and 1970, more than 100 projects relating directly or indirectly to the rehabilitation of deaf people were funded (Adler, 1991). In 1964, the federal government commissioned a report on the status of services to deaf students (Babbidge, 1965). The Babbidge report pointed to multiple problems and, joined to a later report, deemed the education of deaf and hard of hearing students as unsatisfactory (Easterbrooks, 1999). For example, pupils ages 6 to 20 attending schools and programs for the hearing impaired in the United States were surveyed, and even by age 16, many were found to have achieved a reading age of only about 5.0 and a vocabulary level of 3.7 at age 16 (Gentile, 1969).

Until the 1960s, American Sign Language (ASL) was viewed as an invented language somewhat in the vein of the later fictional or artificial language systems associated with the Klingons in Star Trek (see Davis, 1997). In the decade of the 1960s, a veritable explosion of research from the fields of linguistics; psycholinguistics, and sociolinguistics created new conceptions about language for both hearing and deaf children. The work of William Stokoe (1960) demonstrated that ASL was indeed a language with its own set of syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic rules that often include aspects of processing that have no analogy in spoken English and do not conform in many cases with rules of spoken English.2

New humanitarian movements in the 1960s played a significant role in changing the attitudes and perceptions of society toward disability. Deaf people tuned in: they inserted their own perspectives and began to stress their own characteristics, status, and image. In 1972, they organized Deaf Pride, which sought to counter years of self deprecation, shame, isolation, and passivity among members of the Deaf community, which they now referred to with a capital D. Colorado began Deaf Awareness Week, and many other states followed suit (Gannon, 1991). Organizations such as the National Association for the Deaf became increasingly more vocal about the rights of deaf people. Public attention focused on Gallaudet University in March 1988 when students protested to demand that the board of trustees appoint the first deaf president in the school’s history.

Coming full circle from the 1850s, it was accepted that deaf people “constitute a legitimate cultural and linguistic group” (Reagan, 1988, p. 1). The Deaf community was not a claim about hearing status: it was an expression of the selfrecognition that is defining for all minority or ethnic groups. Within the cultural framework, what educators called disability, the Deaf community called ability. To label deaf people as disabled demonstrated a failure to understand that such people were not disabled in any way within their own community. Instead, it is an asset in the Deaf community to be deaf in behavior, values, knowledge, and fluency in ASL (Lane, 1993).

Throughout the 1980s, educational programs changed and expanded, communication modes became more flexible, and the skills and competencies required by teachers broadened. Teachers of “hearing impaired” students required not only the same repertoire of skills as all teachers but also a considerable number of techniques peculiar to the education of hearing impaired students, specifically in the areas of speech, audition, and particular communication modes that required using manual methods such as ASL or Total Communication.


Previous Page

Next Page