Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Communications Debate

No investigation into the history of deaf education would be complete without diving into 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.


Ms.M said...

Well, you see I learned something new today. :) I didn't know all that info, though I did know of the two sided debate. I agree with you, one size does not fit all.


Xpressive Handz said...

Hi, Gary,

For myself, I prefer "total communication. The more ways and information available, the better. I read lips, but miss a lot, and signs, but miss a lot, but put them together, I do much better. When it come's to communication, the more the better. As for meetings, tv and movies, internet videos and blogs, give me captions. #captionaction #showusthecaptions
It's time we progressed forward and include everyone and the methods they choose. It's time we progressed and met in the middle, stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder and move forward together. That's just my opinion. Great informational post!

Steve Reed said...

Interesting. They sound like two different religions, both so certain, and so unwilling to explore what works for others!

Like you said, it seems each person would develop their own preferred methods of communication, based on what works best for them.

Gary said...

Steve - A. G. Bell commented on the connection with religious fervor as well, writing in his journal "The oral teachers, who were largely women, were not a bit behind the others (oralists) in the intensity of their feelings. The idea of teaching deaf-mutes to speak appealed to them as a holy cause. They threw themselves into the work with all the zeal of religious fanatics. They were glad to become martyrs in such a cause." Intense.

Xpressive Handz - I agree, the more ways and information available, the better. How can we know what works for any child if we never offer choices.

Ms. M. - It is such an interesting history and one that still influences the way children who are deaf and hard of hearing are educated today. It's always a good idea to examine the past.


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