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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Signs and Wonders: Religious Rhetoric and the Preservation of Sign Language
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Considering sign language as a sign of a lower stage of evolution, oralists garnered support for the oral method of deaf education. Their claims appealed to the desire to bring deaf people “up” to a human level with the use of spoken English. Oralists gained support by using evolutionary theories to suggest that sign language was a primitive form of communication.

One of the strongest proponents of the oral method was Alexander Graham Bell, for whom speech reflected the value of being human.20 Although he had a hard of hearing mother and a deaf wife, Bell wanted to see an end to sign language and deafness. Using his notoriety and wealth from inventing the telephone, Bell supported the oral method and the end of sign language.21 His opposition to manualism served as the culmination of the oralists’ argument—deafness threatened a national identity, evolutionary thinking showed sign language to be inferior to speech, and advancement in scientific thinking demonstrated that deafness indicated a deficit. Combining his interests in eugenics and deaf education, Bell argued that the nation would face a “great calamity” due to the high rate of intermarriage among deaf people.22 After conducting his own investigation of the records of several American schools for deaf students, Bell presented his findings to a meeting of the American Academy of Sciences at New Haven, Connecticut, in 1883. Bell concluded from his study that intermarriages between congenitally deaf adults would result in “a deaf variety of the human race” that would be “a defective race of human beings.”23 His conclusion echoes both the concern for a unified national identity and the evolutionary lens that influenced his analysis. Bell perceived problems with creating a law that would prevent deaf individuals from marrying each other; he claimed the result would be sexual promiscuity and illegitimate children. Instead, he proposed preventive measures that included the elimination of residential schools, sign language use in schools for deaf children, and deaf teachers in deaf schools.24 Bell wanted to dismantle the American deaf community that had emerged from the schools where manualism and Protestant ideology were intertwined.

While the deaf community had been viewed as a collective group early on in the nineteenth century, it was in Christian terms. Thomas H. Gallaudet’s description of deaf Americans was that they were heathens, thus emphasizing the need for the salvation of an individual’s soul. The oral method offered deaf Americans an opportunity to learn to speak and lipread, skills that oralists argued would allow them to interact and to participate in society at large. Historian Douglas C. Baynton thoroughly examines the context of the emergence of oralism in American schools for deaf children: “Oralists likened the deaf community to a community of immigrants” because “the use of sign language encouraged deaf people to associate principally with each other and to avoid the hard work of learning to communicate in spoken English.”25 The oralists offered a shift in thinking in the latter half of the nineteenth century that considered deaf Americans who used sign language as outsiders to the American culture, which was partially defined by spoken English. This argument was in line with anti-immigrant thinking in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.

Manualism Supported by Protestant Practice and Theology

The change in national climate in late nineteenth-century America caused deaf community leaders to protect sign language use at the most fundamental levels—at the schools for deaf children. Carrying on his father’s mission, Edward Miner Gallaudet entered the field of deaf education and became an advocate of sign language use and a leader in the American deaf community. In 1850, he became the first superintendent of the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind, which was funded by Amos Kendall, a prominent Washington philanthropist. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill allowing the Columbia Institution to grant college degrees, and the school divided into two departments, the second of which was the National Deaf-Mute College. Edward M. Gallaudet is most widely recognized as the president of this first college in the United States for deaf students. In 1893 the name was changed again, this time to Gallaudet College in honor of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.26 Since 1986, the school has been recognized as Gallaudet University. The long legacy of the Gallaudet family in deaf education in the United States is the preservation of the deaf community and sign language despite the efforts of oralists like Bell. Edward M. Gallaudet’s opinions on deaf education were valued by the deaf community just as much as his father’s were. And with changing pedagogical philosophies, Edward M. Gallaudet deviated slightly from his father’s original teaching methods.

As Edward M. Gallaudet’s experiences grew and his exposure to the oralists’ teachings persisted, he began advocating a combined method that purported to best accommodate individual students’ needs and abilities. He held that students who were capable of speech should be allowed the benefit of the oralists’ techniques to improve their articulation. He warned, however, of the danger of enforcing this method of teaching on all students inasmuch as many would never learn a language at all if oralism were the only technique employed. He recognized that many deaf students would never be able to articulate speech and would best be served by instruction in sign language and written English. Edward Gallaudet argued that at the center of the combined method was deaf students’ goal of becoming productive members of society and forming their own religious convictions.27 The only way they could achieve these goals, according to Edward M. Gallaudet, was through the continuous use of sign language—even if it were in addition to oral practices.

The American deaf community faced oralists at home who found great support from their peers abroad. In the late nineteenth century, it was clear that manual practices were in the minority on an international front. Leaders in the education of deaf students met at the Milan Congress in 1880, an offshoot of the International Congress for the Improvement of the Condition of Deaf-Mutes held two years earlier. Brothers Edward and Thomas Gallaudet Jr. were two of five U.S. representatives at the Milan Congress. Among the five U.S. delegates, James Denison, principal of Kendall School in Washington, DC, was the only deaf representative in attendance. At the conference, a motion was passed valuing speech over signs:

The Convention, considering the incontestable superiority of speech over signs, (1) for restoring deaf-mutes to social life, and (2) for giving them greater facility of language, declares that the method of articulation should have the preference over that of signs in the instruction and education of the deaf and dumb.28
The delegates from the United States cast five of the six votes against the motion. Although the American deaf community was being attacked by proponents of oralism at home and abroad, its members were also becoming a community with leaders willing to fight for the preservation of sign language.

Edward Gallaudet frequently presented and published on the virtues of the combined method, citing the significance of sign language in the deaf community and the benefits of the oral method for some students. In a speech delivered to the Second Congress of the British Deaf and Dumb Association in Glasgow in August 1891 and published in the American Annals of the Deaf in October 1891, Edward Gallaudet echoes his father’s use of religious themes, references, and reasoning to support his argument. He concludes his speech by quoting from scripture, specifically Mark 7:37: “It was said in proof of the divine beneficence of our Saviour’s mission upon the earth: ‘He hath done all things well, for he maketh the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak.’”29


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