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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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For “Children Who Vary from the Normal Type”: Special Education in Boston, 1838-1930
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That the Connecticut Asylum initiated institution-based special education in the United States is no surprise. Education of the deaf had been discussed and carried out for generations in Europe, so the evidence that deaf students could benefit from carefully planned instruction-that they were, in fact, educable-had existed for generations as well. Since the seventeenth century the belief that deaf people could reason and learn even though they lacked speech had been posited and accepted by many. The work of Melchor de Yebra and Juan Pablo Bonet in Spain, Anthony Deusing in Holland, and Abb Charles Michel de l’Epee in France, to name only a few, had proposed methods of instruction and advanced the ideas of signing and of liberal education for the deaf. When Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet decided to establish a school for the deaf in the United States, he traveled to Europe to observe the teaching methods being used in schools for deaf children there. In France he enlisted the services of Laurent Clerc, a deaf individual who taught at the Royal Institute for the Deaf in Paris. Together with Gallaudet and Mason Fitch Cogswell, Clerc helped found the Connecticut Asylum using five thousand dollars in funds from the state of Connecticut. It became the American Asylum at Hartford in May 1819 (and is now known as the American School for the Deaf). Similar institutions in other states soon followed. By 1880 there were fifty- five institutions, many of which received financial support from state governments, providing education to deaf individuals. Numerous founders of and teachers at these other institutions trained at Hartford.1

Until the 1860s these schools relied almost exclusively on the use of manual signs for teaching and communication. Then, in the late 1860s, schools emphasizing the oral method of instruction opened in New York City (the New York Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf-Mutes, later the Lexington School for the Deaf) and Northampton, Massachusetts (the Clarke Institution for Deaf-Mutes). The oral method had originated in Germany and constituted a pointed alternative to signing both as a means of communication and as a statement on the nature of the relationship between the deaf and hearing communities. Clerc’s and Gallaudet’s staunch advocacy of manualism was countered by Horace Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe, who visited Europe in 1843 and prepared a glowing report on oral instruction in German and Prussian schools. The report, included in Horace Mann’s Seventh Annual Report as secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, led to a “fire-storm” of controversy regarding the proper education of deaf people. Oralism found its most influential advocate in Alexander Graham Bell, who for the next several decades argued forcefully in its favor as a means to integrate the deaf community more effectively with the world of the hearing and reduce what he considered the highly negative effects of a segregated deaf culture that relied on signing as an exclusionary means of communication.2

The pitched battle between oralism and a combined method of communication based on signing was fully joined by the 1870s; it yielded serious, at times even bitter, confrontations between and among educators of the deaf in the professional literature, at professional conferences, and in the popular press. The combined method drew strength from near-universal acceptance of the use of signing as established at the American School for the Deaf and employed by most residential institutions for the deaf in the United States. Proponents of the combined method argued that signing was a legitimate, albeit alternative, method of communication among people. While recognizing the value of speechreading and speaking, combinists insisted that signing could serve not only as a valuable means of communication and instruction but also as a unifying and distinguishing feature of a valid and honorable deaf culture. Proponents of oralism believed that the combined method, with its heavy emphasis on a sign language mysterious to all but a few, worked only to segregate, ostracize, and stigmatize deaf individuals within mainstream society. Taking the view that deafness was an undesirable disability to be overcome rather than a cultural feature to be celebrated, Bell and other oralists maintained that deaf people needed to demonstrate their capacity to communicate with hearing persons as an important step toward participating as fully as possible within the hearing world. While Edward Miner Gallaudet (son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet) and Bell led their respective movements, virtually everyone involved in deaf education or associated with deaf individuals accepted one view or the other in this highly polarized debate. Professional journals, associations, and conferences provided the forums for intense, often heated discussions. Especially strong for several decades after 1880, the controversy over whether a combined approach or oralism represents the best way in which deaf students should learn continues to this day as a defining issue in deaf education.3

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