Thu. Sep 21st, 2023

Deafness not a disability but a culture; ASL a true language


Oralism is the teaching of deaf people to communicate via speech and lipreading, while manualism is the teaching of deaf people to communicate via sign language

When I was in kindergarten, my teacher taught American Sign Language to the class, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. My playmates and I would sign to each other, and I remember feeling like a part of a remarkable community. 

Once I entered primary school in a different district, though, I stopped practicing and quickly lost fluency because none of my friends understood sign language. Nevertheless, I always wanted to relearn ASL as an adult, but I could never enroll in a course due to my hectic schedule.

However, this winter break, I was finally given the opportunity to take a three-week ASL course with Melissa Ratsch, teaching associate professor for the Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences.

Under her instruction, I learned numerous signs, facial expressions, grammar rules and sentence syntax – all the normal aspects of any language course. But I also learned about the history of the Deaf culture and community, and I was shocked to discover the events that have transpired in the Deaf community.

In the late 1700s, Samuel Heinicke, a German man, bitterly opposed Deaf individuals solely relying on sign language to communicate with society. As a result, he founded oralism: the pedagogical approach of teaching Deaf people to communicate using lip-reading, speech, mimicking mouth shapes and breathing patterns of speech. 

And in the late 1800s, Alexander Graham Bell popularized oralism, declaring that oral education was superior to manual education (i.e., sign language), and forcefully promoted preventative measures to decrease the transmission of hereditary deafness. During this time, deafness was seen as a disability that needed a “cure” rather than the more modern-day view of deafness as a culture. 

These preventative measures included removing sign language from Deaf schools, replacing Deaf teachers with hearing ones, integrating hearing students with the Deaf and decreasing intermarriage among Deaf people to create a more homogenous society, according to an essay by Brain Greenwald, professor at Gallaudet University.

Bell’s endorsement of oralism, coupled with his followers’ support, convinced the leaders at the Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (also known as the Milan Conference) to sign a law abolishing ASL in the U.S., which marked the beginning of the Dark Age of Deaf Education. 

“[The oralism movement] was dumb. It forced people to speak a language that they couldn’t speak,” said Mia Murphy, sophomore business marketing major whose first language is ASL. “People think that just because we can read …….


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