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Chapter 2: Historical Fact in Deafness

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Introduction

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Hospitals and Otology

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Schools and Education

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) People who had an effect on Deaf People

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Oralism Versus Manualism

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Developing Communities

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) The Schools and how they developed

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) The decline of schools in the 19th century

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Oral Re-generation and Professionalisation

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Technology and medicine return

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Deaf Protest ignored

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Parents were used to support the approach

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) So how does the history affect deaf people - why is it important?

Answers to History Questions


In this section we will consider the roots of our knowledge of deafness. Most of this is history written by hearing people but it is important as it gives us insight into the way in which hearing people thought about deafness.

What would you predict about this? What would hearing people have understood about deafness say, 2000 years ago or 500 years ago?

Because there were no methods for testing hearing and very little knowledge about how the brain worked, people could only observe the outward features. Nowadays, their ideas seem strange. Yet we can see how lack of hearing was the key point for most hearing professionals (mostly doctors).

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Hospitals and Otology

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Ears were recognised as the organ of hearing from the very earliest times. In Egypt in the Ebers Papyrus (1600 BC) priests would have specialist roles in dealing with ailments of the ears. Most of this involved putting compounds or solutions into the ears eg goat’s urine, mixed with various ashes such as bat’s wing, ant eggs or lizards was used to stop discharging ears. Hippocrates in 400 BC thought that discharges in the ear were caused by fluids built up in the brain which drained through the ear. Celsus, a Roman in the first century BC, thought that otititis media could cause insanity and he prescribed the use of vinegar instilled into the ear to kill insects before removing from the external canal.

Main developments in this came in Italy in the 16th century, Fallopius discovered the cochlea. Eustacius discovered the tube which has the connections in the inner ear. But it was not until the 18th century that the first surgery was begun. The developments were slow and only in the 19th century was it discovered that the ear was also involved in balance. Toynbee was a very famous otologist who recorded all the bones of the ear but died at an early age while attempting to relieve his tinnitus by self-administration of chloroform. Weber in 1825 developed the testing of hearing by the use of tuning forks.

The first attempts to develop hearing aids were made in the latter part of the 19th century. The most effective was developed in the USA. The Ewings from Manchester were very important in the assessment of deaf children and their work in the 1930’s brought them great fame. The first real provision of hearing aids was in the period just after the Second War. It was only in this century therefore that the development of audiology has progressed. Deaf children were only separated from partially hearing children through the work of the Ewings and their ideas had a profound impact on education.

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Because of the prominence of medical authorities in all of education, their decisions and proposals created a view that deaf children were children with problems in hearing and they focused the attention of teachers and parents on the hearing loss.

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Deaf people can often recall experiences where they visited medical experts. This was often when parents were looking for a cure. Do you know or have any first hand experiences of this?

Experiences vary a lot. Some deaf people can remember going to Manchester to be assessed. Others remember the hospital visits with parents and the general lack of understanding of what was happening, except that their ears were being investigated.

What this did was to set the tone of all the dealings which the professionals had with deaf people over many years. The main description of deafness was of the weakness in the ears and the solution to this was to fix the ears. As result, deaf people were seen from the beginning as deficient in hearing. All of what followed in education was designed to overcome or to remedy or even to deny the weakness in the ear.

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Schools and Education

Deaf people were part of society long before we knew about them. In prehistoric times there must have been deaf people. Flint(1979) claims that

"... for thousands upon thousands of years the congenitally deaf were probably somewhat easily assimilated into society." p19 and

"...the special needs of the deaf child did not begin to surface as a human concern until very late in man’s bio-social evolution." p 20

"Undoubtedly, the development of speech and writing ultimately set the stage that set the deaf apart for their fellow man."

What he is saying is that in terms of basic humanity deaf people were no different from hearing people. Only with the development of speech and writing were the problems beginning to appear.

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The first references to deaf people come in the ancient laws of the Middle East. The Bible mentioned

"Then the Lord said unto him, who hath made man’s mouth? Who makes him dumb, or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?" Exodus, 4:11

And also in Leviticus 11:14,

"You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind..."

Deaf people were given some rights as citizens but they were not allowed to hold property, which was a major disadvantage. In Greek times, Socrates assumed that the deaf had to use gesture and pantomime. Aristotle said that deaf people were also dumb, but they could make sounds (not speech).

This was a major statement which the Christian Church accepted and so all deaf people were treated as if they were dumb and as a result could not be educated at first. Although this seems strange, the Church was the main authority. The Church taught that only God has the power to create and to cure deafness and through the Ministers of the Church, God could affect the sensory abilities of the individual. As a result, deafness was determined by God’s will. To find out if someone was deaf he would need to be taken to the priest, who could pronounce on such things. Since the priest could not alter the deafness, then the people became labelled and their position in society was fixed. They could not marry and they could not hold property. For over 1,000 years deafness was not treated other than by trying to fix the ears. And the Church saw deafness as having happened because God had decided.

At the beginning, sons followed their fathers and the girls were kept at home to learn how to keep house, later on people became attached to other jobs. All education was on the master and apprentice model where the master spoke to the apprentice and so deaf people had to be excluded. Roman Law confirmed these ideas and would not allow deaf people to marry. One more positive report on the son of Quintus Pedius, a consul with Caesar around 63BC explains that he was able to learn to paint very well even though he was deaf.

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People who had an effect on Deaf People

In Britain the earliest record is supposed to be that of the Venerable Bede but the reference is only to someone who was dumb. Although there are organisations and institutions which take the name of St John of Beverley there is some doubt as to whether there was a clear association with deafness. Other early reports include the curing of a deaf person St Elizabeth of Hungary in the 13th century.

Leonardo da Vinci is supposed to have identified the idea of lipreading. Cardano in 1663 claimed that the deaf could hear by reading and speak by writing. But it was not really until Ponce de Leon (1520-1584) set up his school in Spain that deaf education was supposed to have started. He had pupils from all over Spain from the families who had enough money to pay. We do not know a great deal about this work. Bonet also from Spain published the first book on teaching deaf children in 1620. His work in Spain was also based on signing and fingerspelling although the main aim was to teach articulation and language. Other important figures in this period were:

Alberti in German published a monograph in 1591 which distinguished hard-of-hearing from deaf.

Schenck (around the same time) described hereditary deafness - passed on through families. But this was not as common as today since deaf people were kept apart and it was quite hard to marry.

Bulwer (1644, 1648) was the first published record of deafness and sign language in Britain. Extracts are in Resource Room at the Centre for Deaf Studies and are worth reading. You should try to understand it as it is written in an old form of English. He proposed to set up an academy where sign could be taught. Although he had all these ideas he never put them into practice and there was no direct progress from his writings. Philocophus (1648) is considered the first book which is really devoted to deafness.

Dalgarno (1626-87) was a head teacher of a grammar school who became interested in the issues of deafness and claimed that the deaf people could learn to read and write. He proposed the first use of the fingerspelled alphabet to teach deaf children. There were already alphabets available but Dalgarno’s is a little different from the one which was eventually adopted. This appeared in the pamphlet called Digit Lingua, in the late part of that century.

John Wallis (1616-1703) was a Mathematician who was interested in speech and grammar. He became involved with the teaching of deaf people as part of an academic debate.

William Holder (1616-98) taught a deaf boy, Alexander Popham, and he was probably the first oralist. He published a book which indicates how to teach speech.

Johann Konrad Amman (1969-1724) was Swiss but moved to Holland where he did most of his work. He was a medic who became interested in teaching deaf-mutes to speak. The Amman Foundation has special school. Although it was strongly oral it has begun to change and has signing classes as experiments.

Henry Baker (1698 -1774) also followed oral methods but tried to keep them secret as they were his way of earning a living. He seems to be very similar to Amman in approach.

Jacobo Rodriguez Pereira (1715 - 1780) was Portuguese but he did most of his work in France. He took only small numbers of pupils and he used a one-handed alphabet.

The main advances according to Flint came with the arrival of two major enemies:

"Charles Michel de l’Epee (1712-1789) and .. Samuel Heinecke (1729 -1790) were both founders of schools that ultimately became the first state supported schools for the deaf in the word. It was with the establishment of these two public schools that the principle of free, universal education for the deaf was irrevocably embedded in the educational fabric of the world during the next two centuries." Flint, 1979, p 26

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De l’Epee set up the first public school in 1775 in Paris. He created the French method which was a system of standardised signs. This is a form of signed speech and was an attempt to regularise the signing so that tit could fit better with speech and written language. There was probably a bias towards the signing as de l’Epée felt there should be an exchange of skills and views rather than a simple transmitting of the ideas to the deaf person. The French was a much more human method.

Heinecke set up his school for the deaf in Leipzig in 1778. This was solely using the oral method. He felt that thought came from oral language and written language was a translation of the thought.

Heinecke and de l’Epee were entirely opposed in the their approaches and they were identified in terms of the French and the German method and this persisted well into the next century.

Sicard was a famous follower of de l’Epee who took over the Paris Institute in 1790, but the school became amalgamated with the blind school. This is thought to be the first time when this happened. It is sometimes said that Sicard was not so strong in his ideals and he was converted by people to allowing some oralism.

Thomas Braidwood (1715-1806) was the founder of the first school for deaf children in Edinburgh and then in London. His school started as a simple gathering of the pupils he had been teaching individually. It started in a single room and then later became more formal.

He tried to keep his approach a secret but it gradually it got out. Although there was an attempt to say it was a very fair decision - the use of the combined method, involving speech and signs - it has not been convincing. It does not seem likely that the teachers would suddenly learn sign language. The reality was that volunteers were taking over the socialisation of children because the teacher and parents very not very supportive.

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Do you know when your school was set up? If it was a deaf school, note down what you know about its history? How would you find out more?

Often people do not know about their schools. However, there are still many of the original deaf schools still open. Donaldson’s Hospital in Edinburgh, the Royal School for the Deaf in Exeter, and the oldest, The Royal School for the Deaf in Margate (over 200 years). You should be able to find out more about your school from its own records. Many schools have attendance lists of all former pupils and many have annual reports and minutes of the meetings of governors. You will also find that there were reports on all the schools written and published in the 1880s in the Journal of Deaf Mute Education.

Francis Green was an American from Boston whose son had been educated by Braidwood in Edinburgh. He became an activist and urged the setting up of the first school for the deaf in the USA. This was done at Hartford in 1817. In the period which led up to this there was an attempt to set up a school in Baltimore and also in Virginia. John Braidwood, the grandson of Thomas Braidwood, came to the USA to set it up and was expected to make it an oral school. However, he had a drinking problem which affected his teaching and led to his early death. By 1815, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet had been sent to London to find out about the methods used. He was unable to gain access to the school’s approach but did learn of the French method and so went to Paris where he trained. He brought Clerc back to the USA and they began work in the new school in Hartford in 1817. This was mainly a signing school.

Another event occurred which was to affect the smooth development of the signing system in the USA. Gardiner Hubbard had a deaf daughter who had lost her hearing. When he approached the Hartford school he was told that she would definitely lose her speech in a few months. He was very upset and wanted to do something before she was 10 when she could start at school. So the Clarke school was set up ( in 1866) and this developed a new oral method. The basic opposition was set up in the USA. What was also significant was that Mabel Hubbard who was the focus for the setting up of the school, subsequently married Alexander Graham Bell and it was on her success with speech and some work he did with deaf children that he based all his ideas on the importance of oralism.

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Oralism Versus Manualism

This is often termed the great debate as it has lasted for over 200 years. The basic notion is that deaf children need to be educated by a systematic method and this has to be followed consistently. Although there were combined methods from the beginning - Bonet used signs and speech and Braidwood did also - educators tried to simplify things for the teachers who did not receive formal training. The results were then seen as the teacher’s experience of working with a small group of children.

The approach of manualism seemed to accept the condition of deaf people and so as the 19th century developed the old idea for improving deaf people and making them part of the human race appeared again. We have to remember that in this time Darwin’s theories of evolution were having a major impact. So people could see that one of the key differences between the animals and man was the use of language. Since signing was not thought of as a language even though some people were able to describe its use, we find that the main thinkers of that time were keen t o see deaf people moved away from the state of having no language. The roots of the debate are in this idea of being human. We can see in the 19th century this philosophical debate and the writings of Tyler(1865, Researches into the History of Mankind) are very interesting in this.

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Developing Communities

The history of deaf people up to the end of the 18th century is in the reports of individual educators or theorists. It was only as the principal schools began to open that we find new data appearing. By the end of the 18th century, there were schools in many countries.

In 1837, the Penny Encyclopaedia has a long entry on the deaf and dumb. The article gives figures for the number of deaf people in each country (these were figures which were provided by the Paris Institute):

Portugal (2,407) Spain (7,255) France (20,189) Italy (12,618) ..... England (7,570) and so on. Since these are all given as the same proportion of the population as a whole it is likely that only the figures for France are related to any data collection. It is obvious that a major issue is to identify the number of people with deafness so that the scale of the problem can be appreciated.

When it comes to deafness itself, the description is in terms of the types of deafness, how severe it is, how much speech can be learned, not in terms of any characteristics of culture or language. You can compare this with the anthropological accounts at this time of the Indians in the USA where there was a great deal of interest in their culture.

One interesting comment is that the statistics of the London Institute show that there were 20 families which had 159 children and of these 90 were deaf. Two families had 7 deaf children and one 6 ..... There was no real explanation of cause as this had not been discovered but it is easy to see that the medical idea of difference is already in these descriptions.

The schools themselves became focused on method. This arose from the debate in the previous century and from the need to follow rules of operation. There was no training programme and so there was not a professional body of teachers who would use their skills and background knowledge to adapt the curriculum.

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The Schools and how they developed

There was considerable expansion of deaf education during the early part of the 19th century. Schools were opened in nearly every major city. Bristol was one of the last. Even Exeter (1825) had a deaf school before Bristol (1841). The schools were concerned to help poor deaf children. They saw deaf children as in need of care and attention and as such they provided a home type environment as far as was possible. So most schools had residential facilities - communications were not so good. Often the headmaster and the housekeeper were related. In Bristol, the headmaster was Matthew Robert Burns and the Matron was his sister. She also acted as his interpreter.

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Stop for a moment and note down how you think Matthew Burns felt. He had already been a master of a school in Aberdeen but Bristol was probably a richer and more promising city at that time. Yet he was surrounded by hearing people. And they made all the decisions.

A major interest in the schools was to each a trade. Deaf people were given a manual education which was taken to mean the training a manual trade. So deaf people became shoemakers and upholsterers and so on. Deaf girls were trained in sewing and washing. The main aim was to find a placement for the young person once he/she was ready to leave school. There was not often very much choice. The deaf person was pushed into a particular type of role.

In the early part of the century there were no deaf clubs - only gradually did the former graduates of the schools go back to ask for the use of the premise on a Sunday or out of school hours. There seemed to be a strong link with their old masters. Probably because they were the only hearing people who could use some signs and could understand the deaf person. We can assume that as the deaf clubs began to develop so the community and culture became more obvious. People could see groups of deaf people on the street and they would have been able to see that they communicated in sign. Because the history was mainly written by hearing people this aspect of life was rarely commented on.

Bristol was rather late in forming a deaf club - as it had been with the deaf school. It was not until the mid 1870s that the good people of the city got together to set up a mission to the deaf. An account of this is given in the paper which was distributed. You can think about how much it reflects the view of deaf people. Most of the information is factual but it seems to miss out a lot.

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Try to imagine what it was like to go these early deaf clubs.

People would know each other very well since they went to the same local schools. Most deaf people had trades and so would have worked hard throughout the day (even on Saturday) before going to the deaf club. However, most deaf people worked with hearing people just as they do now. But it is interesting to try to think about how the deaf club was without electricity and all the other features which we take for granted.

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The decline of schools in the 19th century

One of the features of the schools was their stability. When a master was installed, he was able to stay there for a very long time. There were fewer jobs and people were expected to stay in their post for much longer. Because of the rapid expansion in the early part of the century, the head teachers were appointed quite young. We can see that many remained in post until quite late in the century. not surprisingly the methods used and the organisation reflected the views of the older members of the staff. New ideas were absent and the schools slipped into a decay and there was a lack of new initiative. Signing became associated with low achievement and institutionalisation.

Charles Dickens was interested in deaf education and he became a governor of the school in London - it is not clear how active he was but he did write about deaf education. We can only imagine what it must have been like to be a new teacher at that time. he old guard were in place and there was little room for new ideas. When the new ideas came - they came with bang.

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Can you think of any new ideas which have come along in education in the last 20 years? Do you know of any new ideas in deaf education?

Most people will think of the national curriculum and the major re-organisation of schools which have taken place recently. This has been a huge change in schools and it has affected all schools - including deaf schools. However, there have been other shifts - child-centred education, information technology and so on. In the field of deafness people will often say cochlear implants are new but this is really a medical invention. Others might mention the expansion of mainstreaming, but this has been in the UK since the second world war. Perhaps the most significant new idea for deaf people has been the rise of bilingual education. This is of great importance to the deaf community.

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Oral Re-generation and Professionalisation

Experiments with oralism happened in the 1860s - these were probably only repeats of the situation nearly 200 years earlier when Baker and others took individual pupils. However, what was not possible was to compare the progress of the individual pupil with the progress of the deaf child in the deaf school. What they found, perhaps not surprisingly was that the child who was taught individually was better in learning the main target - speech. So the early successes of this type of approach contrasted markedly with the slow development of deaf children in the schools - who also were slipping into deaf stereotype jobs.

This apparent success was valued by parents and it was the parent lobby which began to give a fresh momentum to deaf education. The movement went in two directions at once - it decided to teach speech and it decided to make sure that the teachers were formally trained in method. There was no great tradition of teacher training - it was mainly the master-apprentice model. Since there were few masters who could teach oralism, the parents decided to set up their own college. The teachers’ organisation became the force behind the professionalisation of teachers. By the latter part of the century, all the meetings of head teachers discussed the need to develop training for the teachers. Such training was in the oral method and deaf people were almost automatically excluded.

But there were deafened people and also hard of hearing such as Alexander Graham Bell’s wife who shone out as examples of what oralism could achieve and these began to be spokespersons for deaf people. They said that deaf people would speak if they could. As a result the battle for speech teaching was won. But the changes were slow. Although Bristol had a class with oral education in the 1870s it was not until the school closed in 1907, that signing was taken away from deaf education in the city. In Glasgow, the signing tradition was maintained into the 20th century.

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Technology and medicine return

As has been repeated time and again, technology was seen as the great saviour of deaf people. Every year there were new discoveries about medicine and about hearing. It was expected that deaf children could be cured to the extent that they would disappear altogether. The medical strand came together with the educational in 1915 when the young Alexander Ewing set up the department in Manchester which came to be called the Department of Audiology and Education of the Deaf. Because of the medical advances in the testing of hearing, the eminence of the department was assured. Because Ewing married a teacher of the deaf - twice - the influence on deaf education was immense. Not surprisingly this training which was offered there, reflected the real advances in the assessment of hearing and in the treatment approach. Parents were guided to a better more systematic approach which ensured that the child would learn to speak.

This movement was sustained by the availability of hearing aids after the war. Now all deaf children could be fitted with hearing aids on the National Heath and so this meant that the aids were free. The immediate result was that some deaf children could hear. Now it was possible to separate out the deaf from the partially hearing children. Hearing aids were a wonder as now deaf children could be seen to talk. The extract in Pictures in the Mind of the film "Mandy" which shows how deaf children can be saved by learning to talk, gives a clear indication of the ideas which were common at that time.

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What can you remember of your early childhood. If you are deaf did you wear hearing aids - what were they like? Did they help you? How do you feel about your childhood, now that you can look back on it?

Many profoundly deaf people are angry about this time in their lives. The emphasis on speech for all those who were in school from the 1950s to 1970s, very often meant that there was very little time for other study. Many deaf people report that they feel cheated. This helps to explain why these courses on research and deaf studies are popular. Deaf people are just trying to catch up.

When Conrad reported his findings in the 1970s, people said the problems were because the children did not have proper hearing aids or new hearing aids - they had not had the benefit of technology (Powell and Braybrook in a number of papers). Nowadays the technology is cochlear implants - another medical development in education. Despite the claims, there is no proof that the money is better spent on costly medical treatment than on extended education.

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Deaf Protest ignored

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Throughout the history of deaf education, the protests of deaf people seem to have been ignored. There was no power base and even when the deaf community came together in the late 1880s to try to overturn the change which seemed to have come from the Milan conference, they were seen to be irrelevant to what was happening in schools and what was happening in the law. The very strong arguments put forward by the scientist, Alexander Graham Bell, meant that what deaf had to say was seen as irrelevant. They were always looking back - while science and education looked forward. There was little point in saying things were better in the past, hearing people and society wanted to move forward. Deaf adults were seen as having been educated in the past and so they showed up all the old errors of education. The hearing teachers wanted new ideas and new methods - and they wanted to believe that speech could be achieved.

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If you are deaf, have you ever tried to talk to teachers about your school experiences? Were you successful in changing their minds about the education you received? Do you think you could influence teachers nowadays?

Quite a few deaf people have gone back to their old school - with mixed feelings. For many it was a happy time when they mixed with other deaf people of the same age. However, it was also a very difficult time when they were more likely to fail than to succeed. Sometimes the teachers have changed in their attitude. In other cases, the deaf people feel as if they still have to lip-read the teachers and feel at a disadvantage. Most people feel it is very difficult to influence the education of today by talking to teachers about the experiences which they had in school.

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Parents were used to support the approach

Not surprisingly, parents were brought into play on the side of progress. Parents want the best for their children and they were persuaded always that there was a solution to be found in the denial of deafness - the overcoming of deafness. They still do. The result is a continuing tension between the child as he is and the child as the parents want him to be. When technology can solve so many problems, why should the technology not solve the problems of the deaf child?

However, the complicating factor has been the provision which has been available. Although it has always been the aim to meet the needs of the child, the reality has been that it is whatever is available which is offered to the child. Commonly parents were not told about signing and the resources devoted to signing programmes were much less as they became less fashionable, and as they became the last option. Children tried out with oralism first. Then if they could not cope, they were able to catch up in sign. But it was second best. Parents did not want second best.

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So how does the history affect deaf people - why is it important?

So this short account of a long story is important for deaf people in what way? It is mainly important for the way in which it shows the strands which have been followed over time. It allows us to separate out the strands for explanation - which were medical and which were educational. When we are able to understand these we can see that at the points where they came together, there were ever problems for deaf people. They have come together again in the area of cochlear implants and now deaf people have mobilised to complain. But when technology allies with medicine and when teachers back the approaches, then there is little which can be done. The accounts are well developed and appear in the journals. Deaf people are excluded not only from the decision making but also from the sources which are used by the hearing people to make those decisions.

Understanding these factors and how they interact has to be a priority for deaf people. When it is achieved it becomes possible for deaf people to put forward their own views. A deaf history which will have an impact on society becomes possible.

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Answers to History Questions:

From this part of the course you should have become aware of the situation of deaf people. There are thousands of deaf people who report on these frustrating exercises which have occurred in their schooling. It is part of the movements and changes in the history of deafness. Nearly always the arguments have been fought out by hearing people. Deaf people and especially, deaf children have sat on the sidelines. We can think about the trends which have happened and then see the key points when education changed - such as the Milan conference, or the setting up of the first school for the deaf. We can think about the factors which have had an impact and we should be able to see the influences on deaf people - medical, the church, education and then in recent years - technology. None of these seem to have been sympathetic to deaf people. All of them have tried to improve the situation of deaf people without every asking deaf people. This has to change.

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This course was prepared by
Centre for Deaf Studies
© 1997 Centre for Deaf Studies
University of Bristol

This course was funded under
the FORUM Project
in the EU Horizon Programme