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American Annals of the Deaf

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From Pity to Pride: Growing Up Deaf in the Old South

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12. Rebecca Edwards suggests that although Deaf education in America began with methodical sign, it was soon discarded in favor of the pedagogical use of natural sign. She claims that in the 1850s, perhaps in response to Horace Mann’s proposal for oral teaching of the Deaf, methodical sign was discussed again. See Edwards, “‘Speech Has an Extraordinary Humanizing Power,’” 58-82. Douglas Baynton suggests that methodical signs remained in use to a limited degree until the 1850s. Baynton, Forbidden Signs, 118-121. From the annual reports I have seen, I would argue that the determination as to which sign system was used in the classroom was based not so much on chronological trends, but rather, it was dependent on the particular beliefs of individual schools and teachers. Also see Harlan Lane’s chapter “The Oppression of American Sign Language” in his book The Mask of Benevolence, 103-120.

13. J. A. Jacobs, Primary Lessons for Deaf-Mutes, 1:15; Jacobs, “Discussion with J. R. Burnet,” American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb 5, no. 2 (1853), 95 and 102; The Kentucky Deaf-Mute, 12 June 1884; J. A. Jacobs, “The Philosophy of Signs in the Instruction of Deaf-Mutes,” American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb 7, no. 4 (1854): 199; “Annual Report for the Kentucky Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, 1853,” unpaginated typescript, Volta Bureau. Even some Deaf people today are adamant that ASL is not the appropriate language of the classroom. As Frances M. Parsons (formerly a professor at Gallaudet, and a graduate of both a residential school for the Deaf and Gallaudet) claims, “During the early years of Gallaudet in the 19th century, peace reigned as the students and faculty used sign language based largely on English. It stemmed from Laurent Clerc, who taught signs to educators of the deaf in proper English-word-order along with a considerable amount of fingerspelling.” Parsons continues, “Laurent Clerc’s classic signs in English-word-order is the true legacy and heritage” of educated Deaf people. She concludes, “Recently, heated arguments about ASL have accelerated tenfold destroying what little was left of Clerc’s signs. . . . If he knew that today’s ASL (which still consists of some of his signs, but not in English-word-order) was to be mandatory at Gallaudet [University], [Clerc] would be literally ‘whirling in his grave.’” (Parsons further claims that “ASLists” are “brainwashing” young Deaf pupils.) Frances M. Parsons, “Why ASL?” in Frances M. Parsons and Larry G. Stewart, American Sign Language: Shattering the Myth (Wilsonville, OR: Kodiak Media Group, 1998), 48-54. While I agree that in the classroom Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet used a sign language based partially on the word order of spoken languages, I disagree with Parsons that this pidgin language of instruction is the “true legacy” of the nineteenth-century American Deaf community.

14. “Twelfth Annual Report of the Officers of the Georgia Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, 1861,” 9. Interestingly, J. A. Jacobs used the same analogy when arguing a very different point. He pointed out that Deaf people thinking in the order of ASL grammar would be likely to translate English into ASL syntax: “You would not say that a Latin sentence, interpreted in the order of the Latin words by English words, was translated into English.” He continues, “The English boy, in the usual way of learning Latin, selects the Latin words and translates them in the order of the English idiom, making a jargon of the Latin.”

15. “Twelfth Annual Report of the Officers of the Georgia Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, 1861,” 9-10.


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