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American Annals of the Deaf

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To the Lexicon and Beyond: Sociolinguistics in European Deaf Communities

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A close interdependence has always existed in Britain between language and educational issues in relation to Deaf people. This is no surprise in the context of a community where more than 90 percent of community members’ parents are hearing and share neither the preferred language nor their children’s developmental experiences. The Elementary Education Act of 1893 made it a legal requirement that deaf children between the ages of 7 and 16 be educated, but clear and careful attention was not given to the manner of that education until after World War II.

The oral education tradition continued throughout the twentieth century. In 1946 the influential Mary Hare Grammar School (MHGS) was established. Firmly oralist in its policies, it nevertheless provided a standard of education that, when allied with the signing skills that children learned for themselves, has furnished the Deaf community with a great many of its more prominent members. While the MHGS was being founded, early experiments began with the creation of “partially hearing units”—small specialist units for deaf children within mainstream educational institutions. Again oralist in orientation, the units provided positive environments for neither Deaf cultural nor sign linguistic interaction and development.

The BDDA, the association of Deaf adults, however, continued to pass resolutions at its congresses throughout the century, arguing for wider acceptance and recognition in policy terms of BSL. At the same time, however, although the thrust has been strongly in favor of signing, acknowledgement of the value of speech was not entirely jettisoned. In a resolution passed in 1950, members recorded that

while appreciating the genuine desire and efforts of the teaching profession to furnish deaf children with a satisfactory education by means of the Pure Oral Method, [BDDA members] are nevertheless gravely perturbed at the general low standard of achievement under a system which ignores completely the value of manual means of communication. It being their considered opinion, based on personal experience, that no one method is sufficient to meet their needs in adult life, they desire, therefore, that the Minister of Education shall with the utmost speed institute a special inquiry into the results of the present system and if necessary in the light of conclusions thus established, take such steps as he may think desirable to include the use of fingerspelling and signing, in conjunction with the oral teaching in the curriculum of all Special Schools for the Deaf. (Grant 1990, 87)
The next wave of change in Britain began to break in the 1970s.2 The BDDA dropped the words “and Dumb” from its title in 1971—though there was considerable opposition from within (ibid.)—and became the British Deaf Association. The National Union of the Deaf was established as a radical, Deaf-led campaigning force, thanks to the energy of Raymond Lee, Paddy Ladd, and others. Following a commission of inquiry, the Lewis report (1968) had tentatively paved the way for exploration of the value of manual communication in the education of deaf children, and this bore fruit in policy design and practical implementation from the early 1970s onward in the form of the Total Communication approach (i.e., seeking to use a range of communicative means as appropriate to meet the needs of particular children; see Evans 1982).

In the late 1970s the BDA secured support from the Department of Health and Social Security for a project that led, over time, to the establishment of both a national register of sign language interpreters (1982) and the first training course for Deaf tutors of BSL (1985). Hearing people began to learn BSL in greater numbers, many inspired by a short BBC television series introducing learners to the language (Miles 1988). Early linguistic research into BSL culminated in the first major research workshop in 1979, featuring contributions from authors of major works in BSL studies such as Margaret Deuchar (1984), Mary Brennan (1990, 1992; Brennan and Colville 1980), Jim Kyle and Bencie Woll (1985).

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