Special Education in the 21st Century: Chapter Eleven
Although Bell accepted Fay’s results, Bell’s followers were unable to accept them. To some extent, perhaps, they were unable to come to terms with the information that marriages of Deaf individuals tended to be just as normal as marriages of hearing individuals. Because of this reluctance to accept Fay’s conclusions, myths and misunderstandings continued throughout the twentieth century despite evidence that, from the beginnings of education of the Deaf in North America, thousands of Deaf individuals have functioned in a bilingual/bicultural environment. The first teacher of the Deaf on the continent, Laurent Clerc, was quadrilingual—French Sign Language and French in his native country as well as American Sign Language and English in America. Many Deaf individuals with excellent oral and English skills are part of Deaf culture and the Deaf community by choice. Intelligible speech for a Deaf person is a mark of success by oralists. It is not so for Deaf adults who have other criteria for success.
The acceptance of a bilingual/bicultural philosophy frees an individual from the constraints of an either-or dichotomy. One can be fulfilled in a variety of ways. This fact is something that most Deaf adults have known instinctively as they interact with hearing parents, siblings, and children or as they shop, buy gas, go to movies, buy homes, and establish IRAs. It is something that some educators of Deaf children have yet to learn.
The emergence of bilingual educational programs—programs that in some way instruct Deaf children using English and American Sign Language (ASL)—represents a logical culmination of the move away from oral-only systems of instruction that began in the 1960s. To some extent, it also represents a recapitulation of the nineteenth-century “oral-manual” controversy, which, at that time, was seen as resulting in the final victory of oralism, exemplified by the 1880 Milan Conference in which it was declared that neither signs alone nor signs coordinated with speech should be used in the instruction of Deaf children. The victory of oralism was seen as so complete that, by the end of the nineteenth century, Edward Miner Gallaudet, perhaps the leading hearing advocate of signs in instruction, published an article titled, “Must the Sign Language Go?” (1899).
Obviously, the sign language did not go. It was kept alive by the Deaf community in the face of hostility, ridicule, and oppression, and it has now witnessed both an acceptance as a legitimate language and a resurgence of use in the classroom. Today, sign language is seen as a defining characteristic of a recognizable ethnic group (Reagan 1990).