Silent history

Silent history

The history and culture of deaf people has been largely neglected by historians until recently. Jill Morris explores changing attitudes to deafness down the centuries

Jill Morris, is a regular writer for Discover Your Ancestors Periodical.

Jill Morris

is a regular writer for Discover Your Ancestors Periodical.

What is meant by deaf history? Throughout history there have been deaf or hearing-impaired people, and interest in their history has been steadily building over the past few decades. Deaf history concerns how deaf and hearing-impaired people have been treated, communicated with, assisted and educated over the millennia. As anyone who is deaf or has a deaf relative or friend will well know, the deaf community is one with a very strong sense of belonging to a shared culture and heritage, which deaf history also explores.

French inventor of a sign language system
The Abbé de l'Epée, French inventor of a sign language system, teaching some of his pupils Mary Evans Picture Library

Sadly, this narrative includes the many struggles that the deaf community has faced and historical events that have done it a great deal of damage. Throughout much of history, the two have gone hand in hand. It would be unfair to say, though, that deaf people have always faced discrimination: the ancient Egyptians believed them to have a special relationship with the gods, on account of how they behaved and sounded. Unfortunately, the ancient Greeks’ ideas were more disparaging. Despite there being references to deaf people using sign language in the era of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, the Greeks believed that deaf people could not reason and were incapable of being educated. Although Jewish scriptures make some provisions for deaf people, they also specify what they cannot do within the religion and society. In the New Testament, while Jesus is portrayed as loving those with disabilities, the gospel writers’ stress is on his curing them, making them more ‘whole’, and bringing them into communion with God and society at large. Superstition and belief in demonic possession and witchcraft has also affected how deaf people have been treated, particularly throughout the Dark Ages and in medieval times.

Juan Pablo Bonet’s sign language AJuan Pablo Bonet’s sign language B, C and D
Juan Pablo Bonet’s sign language, 1620, letters A, B, C and D. His system influenced many sign languages, including French. In turn, the French system influenced the American, so American sign has far more in common with French sign language than it does with British. Biblioteca Nacional de España

Changing attitudes
It was the 16th century before society’s attitudes towards the deaf began to change. A number of pioneers began to develop deaf education: the Spaniard Pedro Ponce de Leon is the first recorded teacher of the deaf and another Spaniard, Juan Pablo Bonet, published the first book on deaf education in 1625.

Queen Victoria depicted using sign language
Queen Victoria depicted using sign language to talk to Mrs B Tuffield, a deaf mute

It was in Germany, though, that systematic education of the deaf was begun, by Samuel Heinicke. Heinicke favoured teaching methods akin to speech therapy over use of sign language. However, in 1760s France Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée founded a free school for deaf people, conversely favouring use of sign language, and it was his model of teaching that dominated in Europe for the next century or so.

children learning via the oralism method
This page from the Russian Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (1890–1907) shows children learning via the oralism method, which encouraged them to use mirrors to copy lip patterns

In Britain, the first deaf school was Thomas Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb, which opened in the same decade as de l’Épée’s, in Edinburgh. The first London school, also founded by Braidwood, opened with six pupils in 1792. In America, the first deaf school – Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, now the American School for the Deaf – was founded by prominent educator Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787–1851) and French pioneer Louis Laurent Marie Clerc (1785–1869) in 1817. A proportion of the school’s early pupils were descendants of British immigrants from Kent, who had settled in Martha’s Vineyard. These earlier settlers had carried dominant or recessive genes of deafness, which were in turn passed down to their descendants, a significant number of whom were thus deaf or hearing impaired.

The first deaf school in the world to offer higher education to students was founded in 1864 in Washington, DC, and was renamed Gallaudet University in 1986. Although it has been questioned as to how much the education pupils received within early deaf schools would have equipped them for life in the outside world, these were nevertheless major steps forward.

Women’s art class at State School of the Deaf, Delavan, Wisconsin
Women’s art class at State School of the Deaf, Delavan, Wisconsin, c1880

The Milan Conference
A single event of 1880, the Milan Second Congress of Educators of Deaf Mutes (often called the Milan Conference), undid a great deal of the work of early pioneers of deaf education. Despite there being only a tiny proportion of deaf delegates within the overall attendance of around 160, Milan decreed that the ‘pure oral method’ – oralism, a lip reading and speech therapy-style approach – was the best route for teaching deaf people, and signing in schools was strongly discouraged. Although there was no legal requirement to use the oral method, Milan’s resolution cast a shadow over deaf education for the next century, with oralism being pushed by colleges training teachers for deaf people. However, the American delegates in Milan, which included Thomas Gallaudet, ensured that American schools continued to allow students to sign.

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It took until the 1960s and 1970s for oralism’s failings to be recognised, by which time deaf education had suffered hugely. These two decades – especially in an America buoyed by the civil rights movement – witnessed deaf societies pushing for deaf rights and the recognition of signing both within deaf society and education. Many American deaf schools began to use ‘total communication’ methods, a combination of oralism and signing, in turn influencing deaf education in the UK, France, USA, China, Germany and Australia in particular. Currently, there is a move towards sign language as the first language of deaf children.

Sign languages and the future
While hearing people may consider deafness or hearing impairment as a disability, deaf people – particularly those who have been deaf from birth – are proud of their culture and would often prefer to liken themselves to an ethnic community. They share a bond, identity and communality expressed through sign language. Sign languages are varied, and it is estimated that there are around 200 in use in the world. In the UK there are distinct variations between signs used in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the north and south of England, and even between counties, regions and cities. However, it was only in 2003 that British Sign Language (BSL) was recognised as a language in its own right. In many countries, though, signing has no official legal recognition. There is clearly still some way to go in redressing the balance of history.

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