Session 2A - History of Deaf Education

2.1   Introduction

The two sessions covering deaf education will only scratch the surface of the historical evolution of education for deaf children.  For a fuller understanding, especially if you plan to write an assignment on this topic, you should follow up the references, particularly the book by Harlan Lane ‘When the Mind Hears’ and the account by McLoughlin on the History of Deaf Education in England.

Before dipping in to the history of deaf education it is important to contextualise the events and particularly attitudes that make up this history.  In many ways the history of deaf education reflects the social, political and economic history in Britain in general.  For example, when society was quick to judge social or biological deviancy and medical research was still primitive and experimental, deaf children were often victims of attempts to cure deafness or force speech.  Similarly, during the decades when religious philanthropy took care of the poor and the incapable, deaf children were looked after in asylums by guardians of spiritual welfare. 

Due to the short amount of time given over to this summary, todays session will be fairly descriptive.  Rachel will consider education in a slightly broader philosophical context the week after next.

2.2   Up to the Seventeenth Century

It is impossible to embark on a full summary of the way in which deaf people have been perceived over the ages, however it is important to get an idea of the backdrop against which the education of deaf people developed. 

Traditionally the Church, which was a very powerful institution, had propagated the belief that a child’s deafness was a result of God punishing sinful parents.  Consequently deaf people were excluded from taking part in religious worship and their status as human beings was as uneducatable and on a level with ‘imbeciles’.  One of the consequences of having such a low status was that for many years ‘deaf and dumb’ people were not allowed to make a will or to inherit property from their families.

One thing you will notice from todays summary is that, while it describes the evolution of teaching philosophies, it is also punctuated by stories of notable individual achievements.  This is fairly typical of the way in which the education of deaf children has been documented, but it also highlights the fact that, in the absence of general educational provision, landmarks in the field were often made by individuals, typically working alone.

Until the 17th Century reports of deaf people being educated, or at least taught skills such as reading, writing or speech were few and far between.  One of the earliest documentations of speech teaching was of a ‘deaf-mute’ who was taught to speak by the Bishop of Hagulstad who later became known as St. John of Beverley (AD 674-735).  There is speculation however as whether the man he cured was actually deaf as well as dumb.  The medical view at the time was that the inability to speak, rather than being related to deafness was due to damage to the tongue.  Perhaps because of this the Bishop of Hagulstad’s achievements were considered miraculous and he was consequently made a saint.

Often regarded as the first teacher of the deaf and similarly considered somewhat of a miracle worker at the time, Pedro Ponce De Leon (1529-84) was a Benedictine monk in Spain who worked between 1550-1584.  He took students from the richer more educated people and tried to teach them to speak Spanish, initially teaching them to write and then going on to teach them to speak.  As his work became more widely known others started to bring their deaf children to him, and eventually he was able to teach speech, reading, writing, calculation, prayer, Latin, Greek and Italian.

One wider benefit of this teaching was that some of the ingrained prejudice started to be reversed.  For example, lawyers were able to argue in Court that a ‘deaf-mute’ who had learnt to speak was no longer a ‘deaf-mute’ and should be allowed to inherit family property.  Medical opinion consequently concluded that those ‘deaf-mutes’ who could be taught to speak represented a special type of ‘deaf-mute’ whose tongues were not damaged! 

2.3   Seventeenth Century

During the 17th Century, theories and methodology became more diverse, however this period witnessed several of the most significant achievements. 

Juan Martin Bonet who worked until about 1620 is credited with the creation of the one handed alphabet.  The story goes that Bonet was himself not a teacher but a soldier and politician, whose friendship with a powerful family and their deaf son, led him to be involved in educating deaf children.  He published a book entitled ‘Simplification of the Letters of the Alphabet and Method of Teaching Deaf Mutes to Speak’ (1620).  In his book Bonet sets out his belief that deaf pupils should be taught the one handed manual alphabet, followed by articulation and only then, speaking and eventually reading and writing.  His one handed alphabet is directly related to the ones in use in other countries today.

Without doubt many of the initiatives which initially took place in Spain spread throughout Europe in the 17th Century.  In the first part of the 17th Century initiatives towards setting up a deaf school were generally unsuccessful.  For example John Bulwer (1644), a philosopher, having observed two deaf men having an argument in sign language believed that there was a place for sign language as well as for lip-reading.  However, with little experience in teaching and limited finances his attempts to set up an Academy for deaf people were unsuccessful.  Nevertheless, his book ‘Chirologia: or the Natural Language of the Hands’ was published in 1644 and makes reference to the work of his contemporaries abroad, for example, Bonet.

In Britain the manual alphabet was being developed around this time.  John Wallis (1616-1703), a clergyman wrote a book detailing a scientific analysis of speech and outlining his belief that it was possible to teach deaf people to speak by helping them to use a different part of mouth to create the different sound of letters.  Wallis suggested more structured approaches with the building of vocabulary and then formal grammar teaching.  He notably argued for the use of signs and fingerspelling in the pursuit of the goal of speech.

2.4   Eighteenth Century

The first formal schools for the deaf appeared in the eighteenth Century in France, Germany and England . 

In France, the Abbé de L'Épée (1712-1789) had opened a deaf school for deaf children from all backgrounds.  He first taught speech with gestures and writing, later concentrating on teaching and due to the large numbers of poor deaf children, developed a less time-consuming system of signs.  Essentially, he developed Signed French which became known as the ‘silent education’ of deaf children. 

In Germany, L'Épée 's methods were heavily criticised by Samuel Heinicke (1729-90) who in contrast had founded the first completely oral school, greatly influenced by the work of a German writer, Konrad Amman (‘The Speaking Deaf’).  He insisted that speech was the only thing that separated human beings from the animals.  His approach became known as the German method.

In Britain, initiatives were less systematic.  Five years after L'Épée had opened his school, the first deaf school was opened in Britain by Thomas Braidwood (1715-1806).  The school was in Edinburgh and in 1760 initially accepted one deaf pupil.  Braidwood’s success in teaching speech to this boy led to numbers increasing to twenty pupils by 1780.  His approach, due to the use of natural gesture, was known as ‘combined’ rather than being the pure oralism used elsewhere in Germany and most parts of Europe.  Many visitors were impressed by the school and Braidwood’s reputation was widespread. 

The Braidwood family in many ways represented deaf education for nearly half a century, however Thomas Braidwood was keen to keep his precise teaching methods secret, allegedly to avoid competition.  The school in Edinburgh was eventually closed and Braidwood opened a new school in London in 1783.  This school became known as Old Kent Road Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, with Braidwood’s nephew, Watson becoming the new Head.  Three years after Thomas Braidwood’s death, Watson, published a book ‘Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb’(1809) which described their methods of education.

2.5   Nineteenth Century

Developments in America began in 1817 with the founding of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.  The story goes that Gallaudet was engaged to a deaf girl called Alice Cogswell.  With no knowledge of the methods used to teach deaf people, Gallaudet had been sent to England to study the Braidwood method.  Braidwood however insisted that he enrol in a three year apprenticeship, a situation which many believed provided Braidwood with cheap labour. 

While in Britain, Gallaudet met the visiting Abbé Sicard, Head of the Paris school and rather than stay in Britain for three years, Gallaudet was invited to Paris to learn the manual method.  On his return to America he took a deaf ex student of the Paris school, Laurent Clerc with him to teach.  This began what was one of the main traditions of American deaf education - signing and deaf teachers.  If Braidwood had co-operated with Gallaudet, the Americans might well have now been using the two handed alphabet!  As a consequence, the manual tradition in America unlike Europe was quite strong

By 1870, 22 schools were open, many set up by members of the Braidwood family.  The asylums were a charitable concern, founded by private benevolence and public donations and combined the need to encourage intellectual development, religious instruction and material well-being.  Most were family-run, with the father as head, mother as matron and the children involved in some way.  The head teacher often lived in the school, and the children were mostly boarders.  As far as teaching methods were concerned a combined approach was often favoured as a compromise to the increasingly polarised manual/oral methods in existence in different parts of Europe.  Certainly Louis du Puget, Head of a deaf school in Birmingham in 1825 was a supporter of the Paris School and its methods.

The number of Schools grew quickly during the 19th Century.  However many were essentially Institutions or Asylums homing many of the poorer deaf children.  Conditions were often overcrowded and dirty, and the children were rarely allowed out.  Many of the Institutions were attached to missions for the adult deaf which existed under the control of the Missioner.  While relations were close between the Missions and the Schools, the use of manual language flourished.  However, concerns had already surfaced as to the actual standard of education within many of the institutions.  Often the headteachers were in office for 30 or 40 years and typically had not adapted teaching methods during that time.  In London in 1877, a conference of head teachers of deaf schools decided that wider reforms for such teaching institutions were necessary.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, day classes were being opened, initially in London and soon, in many other cities.  By 1880, 577 deaf children were being educated in day classes which over the following ten years saw increasing numbers in London, Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham, Bradford, Bristol, Leicester and Oldham. In 1893, an Act was passed stating that every deaf child between the age of seven and sixteen should receive education.  This meant many local day schools were established.

In terms of methods of instruction, particularly as travel abroad became easier, knowledge and awareness increased among certain groups, for example the more educated parents.  In London in 1872 a school and training college had been set up by a group of parents who had witnessed the oral education of deaf children in Germany and wanted the same results for their children.  This initiative marked the beginning of BATOD, now the teacher training organisation in Britain, essentially a teachers group advocating teaching using the oral method.

One of the most profound influences on the style of education of deaf children was the famous Milan conference in 1880, in which it was decided that schools for the deaf should ban the use of all sign language in favour of an oral approach.  It was thought that the huge impact of the congress in Milan was partly a result of the organisation of the conference i.e. the exclusion of deaf people in voting, and the imbalance in the English and American members access to Italian, and also due to the need for change of some sort. 

Excerpts from Harlan Lane ‘When the Mind Hears’

(pp.376) Incredible as it may seem, it took only a small clique of hearing educators and businessmen, late in the last century, to release a tidal wave of oralism theat swept over Western Europe, drowning all its signing communities.

(pp.387-388)...The meeting was conceived and conducted as a brief rally by and for opponents of manual language.  Setting aside the speeches of welcome and adieu, and the excursions and visits, we find that the Milan conference amounted to two dozen hours in which three or four oralists reassured the rest of the rightness of their actions in the face of troubling evidence to the contrary.  Nevertheless the meeting at Milan was the single most critical event in driving the language of the deaf beneath the surface; it is the single most important cause - more important than hearing loss - of the limited educational achievements of today’s deaf men and women...

...(a report circulated in preparation for the conference states...) the advantage of articulation training that it restores the deaf mute to society, allows moral and intellectual development, and proves useful in employment.  Moreover, it permits communication with the illiterate, facilitates the acquisition and use of ideas, it is better for the lungs, has more precision than sign, makes the pupil the equal of his hearing counterparts, allows spontaneous, rapid, sure and complete expression of thought, and humanises the user.  Manually taught children are defiant and corruptible.  This arises from the disadvantages of sign langauges...

While there is a suggestion that changes towards strict oralism were already on the way in Britain, the conference certainly acted as a catalyst.  The Royal Commission, set up in 1885 was very much in favour of the decision to adopt oralism across Europe, confirmed in the Government Act of 1889.

Schools in Britain and elsewhere using manual methods at the time were heavily criticised.  This was partly because of the living conditions which along with the staff had often remained unchanged for decades and also because academic achievements were poor in those schools. 

2.6   Summary

So, traditionally while deafness was seen to be a curse, the status of deaf people was broadly, uneducatable.  Initiatives tended to be carried out by  individuals with exceptional dedication, and the children concerned were most often from exceptional backgrounds. 

Arguably the most notable happening in the 17th Century was the creation, by Juan Bonet in France, of the one handed alphabet, still in use in an adapted form today.  Formal schooling, however had not yet been established.

The eighteenth Century witnessed the first schools in Europe.  In France, the Abbé de L'Épée developed the ‘silent’ sign based education system.  Concurrently in Germany, Samuel Heinicke,  in contrast had founded the first completely oral school. 

In Britain, the eighteenth Century can be identified as the Braidwood dynasty  after the Braidwood family who dominated education, practising the combined method of communication for many decades.  During the nineteenth Century, education for deaf children was initially in Institutions or Asylums and motivated more by religious philanthropy than sound educational goals. 

The growth in more formal schools led to recognition that haphazard and under-resourced teaching was leading to unacceptably poor results.  Although attitudes were beginning to turn towards oralist methods, the Milan Conference of 1880 provided a somewhat dramatic opportunity to launch an era of oral education.