Perceptions of a silent language

Forbidden Signs
October 24, 1997

In 16th-century Spain, a deaf son could not inherit his father's estate unless he could prove his humanity by demonstrating that he could speak. During the Enlightenment, the French Abbe de l'Epee, concerned lest deaf children be denied the word of God and thereby salvation, established the first school for deaf children using adaptations of existing sign language. Thus began the dynamic tension that has continued to this day over the methods and purposes of deaf education. Oralists wished to prohibit signing in order to integrate deaf people into the larger community. Manualists wished to permit signing without excluding speech in order to promote deaf people's intellectual and spiritual development.

In the US, the manualists initially held sway; however, the tide began to turn in the middle of the 19th century, and the decline in the acceptance of sign language in education culminated in the infamous 1880 Milan international conference on deaf education, where a declaration was passed condemning the use of sign language and advocating purely oral educational methods. The pendulum has since swung back towards the use of signed communication, if not always natural sign language, in schools.

The reasons behind these pendulum swings are the subject of Douglas C. Baynton's excellent book. His two purposes are first, to show that broader historical trends can account for the initial acceptance of sign language in the US and its subsequent disfavour among hearing educators of deaf children and second, to use the particular lens provided by the history of sign language acceptance to focus on trends in American cultural history. Although a number of previous works have addressed the rise of oralism, Baynton's is the first to explore reasons for the initial acceptance of sign language. In addition, the reader benefits from the trained historian's ability to consider the vicissitudes of deaf education within a broad historical perspective.

Baynton contrasts the historical world views that he sees as having influenced the initial acceptance of signing versus the ascendancy of oralism: emphasis on religion vs. emphasis on science; the importance of (liberal) education vs. the emphasis on (utilitarian) training; the predominance of agrarian and craft occupations vs. the rise of industry and professionalism; and rather divergent views of progress (degeneration from classical ideals vs. evolution), equality (respect for differences vs. uniformity), and gestural communication (closer to God vs. primitive).

In addition, Baynton cites two other important factors contributing to the decline of sign language in the schools: first, the influx of female teachers who provided a cheap labour pool for the smaller classes required by oral methods; and second, the rise of nativism that viewed difference and diversity as threatening, as much in immigrant and native American populations as in deaf persons. Baynton provides ample and convincing evidence for these points.

As with any good book this one prompts the reader to respond. In many ways, the oralists and manualists were talking at cross purposes. For example, while Baynton rightly makes much of oralists' vs. manualists' differing views of "natural" (manualists: natural means closest to nature; oralists: natural means normal), he does not discuss the shift in construal of the word "deaf".

It is clear from the 19th-century literature that a great many of the people in deaf schools either were adventitiously deafened (that is, they became deaf after they had acquired spoken language), or would now be classified as hard-of-hearing. These were the very persons who might most plausibly benefit from oral education (though it remains an open question whether sign language would hinder their education), and who most likely would not be attending schools for the deaf today.

Even the influential oralist Alexander Graham Bell acknowledged that congenitally deaf children required visual access to language and that it was hopeless to teach lip-reading to pupils who did not already know English.

A second point I would liked to have seen addressed in greater detail is the role played by philosophy and politics in leading to these changes in perception; Baynton mentions the influence of Platonism on manualism, but not the influence on oralism of positivism, which underlies many of the developments in late 19th- and early 20th-century behavioural sciences. Additionally, the political decline of France, a manualist stronghold which later gave way, and the ascendancy of Germany, an oralist stronghold (viz. France's loss in the Franco-Prussian war), probably had an impact.

Users of American Sign Language have access to a rich and rule-governed linguistic system capable of conveying all the nuances of any other natural language. Yet after early use in the US in the early 19th century, it was later denied to many deaf children. Baynton clearly explains why.

Historians and specialists in sign language or education will gain valuable and unexpec-ted insights into their own disciplines from this book while learning painlessly about others'. I only wish there were a bibliography.

Susan D. Fischer is professor of applied language and cognition research, National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology, United States.

Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language

Author - Douglas C. Baynton
ISBN - 0 226 03963 3
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £21.95
Pages - 228

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