Sunday, September 16, 2012
The Communications Debate
In the early 1600s it was commonplace for educators of children who were deaf to employ a combination of manual communication with speech instruction. However, by 1778 when the first oral school opened in Germany, the belief that manual communication would retard the development of deaf children and deter entrance into hearing society took hold.
The division--which still exists today--became personified in the 1800s by Alexander Graham Bell (yes, inventor of the telephone) and Edward Miner Gallaudet. This history is documented in Never the Twain Shall Meet: The Communications Debate by Richard Winefield.
A. G. Bell was a passionate defender of oralism whose views were shaped by the strong example of an elocutionist father (inventor of Visible Speech) and oral deaf mother. He was also married to a deaf woman who eschewed deaf culture and other individuals who were deaf.
E. M. Gallaudet was also influenced by his father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet for whom Gallaudet University is named. T. H. Gallaudet was a leading figure in the field of deaf education with a strong belief in the merits of American Sign Language for instruction of children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Like Bell, E. M. Gallaudet's mother was also deaf but unlike Bell's mother she did not excel at oral methods such as speechreading, preferring instead to "communicate all she wished by using signs".
The debate over method of instruction is heated, passionate and bitter but the common ground is the belief by both camps that theirs alone holds the key. This stubborn adherence to being "right" has left many deaf children victim to the fallout. One size does not fit all.
Educators must work towards mending this schism. In The Mask of Benevolence Harlan Lane writes, "Speaking practically, this means that deaf and hearing adults need each other and must be willing to take steps towards each other, frequently against their instincts, in the interest of deaf children".
Check out both books if you want to learn more about the history of deaf education. They are interesting reads.