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A Brief History of Sign


Deaf people have been around a long time, probably since the beginning of human existence, well before languages developed. It’s hard to imagine oral languages arising without a precursor of guttural and gestural forms of communication. In some ways Sign is the mother of all languages.

Deaf people became fringe characters as oral languages took hold. It was of little consequence when people lived as hunter-gatherers in small tribes, but it was a different story after the agricultural revolution. People began gravitating to cities where one could easily get lost in the crowd. Deaf people were left on the outside as the cultural and knowledge base grew. Communicating by way of gestures was not enough.

Things didn’t begin to change until the 16th century. Oddly enough it began with a hearing group, the Catholic Brotherhood in Spain. They took a vow of silence, but decided fingerspelling the Spanish alphabet wasn’t cheating. A monk named Fray Melchor de Yerba published drawings of the hand shapes that associated with the alphabet. His motive was to give absolution and eternal heaven to the deaf.
Sign began with a secular purpose, but found other reasons for being. Sign spread and a Deaf community arose. Education of the deaf began in several European countries, and profit making private schools were widespread by the late 18th century.

Deaf education in the United States had some catching up to do. A hearing minister named Thomas Gallaudett accepted the challenge and went to Europe in hopes of returning with the skills to teach deaf children. He returned with Laurent Clerc, a brilliant Deaf man and teacher from France. It was a perfect union. Clerc was socially and intellectually accomplished, a perfect role model for other deaf people. He was also a model hearing people felt comfortable supporting. Clerc’s competence allowed Gallaudett to focus on managing the school and its finances.

In 1817, Gallaudett became the administrator of the Connecticut Asylum For the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, located in Hartford, Connecticut. The school is now called the American School for the Deaf. Gallaudett’s job was to garner political and financial support for his school. The school began with private donations, but soon became state supported. The state supported model took hold, and by 1843 there were six state supported Deaf schools in the United States. All of these schools had Deaf teachers who used Sign as their primary language of instruction.

There were a few Deaf communities before Clerc's arrival, Martha’s Vineyard being the largest. The Deaf and hearing people mingled in these communities, and Sign was commonly used, but these were only small pockets in the landscape. These communities were separate from each other, and so was their Sign. The Deaf school was to become a magnet for Deaf people who brought their diverse languages into contact with Clerc’s French Sign Language. Their offspring was to become American Sign Language.

In 1864, the Columbia Institution of Maryland, divided itself into two parts. One part continued its function of teaching deaf children. The other part became the National Deaf–Mute College. It was later renamed Gallaudett College in honor of Thomas Gallaudett, who worked so tirelessly to get education for the deaf started. In 1986, an act of Congress renamed it Gallaudett University. It’s now the largest Deaf university in the world.

The deaf schools were residential by necessity. Even as populations and cities grew, the deaf were still spread far and wide. A residential setting was the only way to educate a widespread population. Deaf people flourished in these residential settings. They communicated in their natural language, and developed lifelong relationships. The Deaf community grew as a whole, and Deaf people began creating organizations for themselves. It was a Golden Age.

It was also the calm before the storm. There was a battle brewing that took a few decades to gather momentum. It was between the proponents of teaching orally and the proponents of using Sign. The oralists believed that Sign tended to isolate the Deaf from hearing culture. They believed the Deaf would better integrate with hearing society if they could communicate in English. They felt that Sign was not a real language and was a distraction from learning English. They believed that all instruction to the deaf should be through oral means, and discouraged all signing.

Imagine being in a sound proof room, separated from another sound proof room by a sheet of glass. A group of Chinese people are in the other room, and you have to communicate with them. How do you make sense of those moving lips? How do you learn the sounds they’re making? That was the expectation the oralists had of their deaf students.

Yet, the oralists won the day at the Milan Congress in 1880, and the Dark Ages were on their way, full steam ahead. The proponents of Sign struggled against the tide, but they had little political clout. It was, and still is, a hearing world. 7.5% of deaf students were taught orally in 1880. By 1919 the number of orally taught deaf rose to 80%.

There were various attempts to preserve Sign against the onslaught of the oralists. Joseph Schuyler Long, a Deaf man, wrote The Sign Language: A Manual of Signs. He described signs through English descriptions, and organized the book in an English like fashion. The National Association of the Deaf had another approach. They used film, the new technology of the day. From 1910 to 1920 they recorded master signers, both Deaf and hearing.

These efforts to preserve Sign are an indication of the importance that Deaf people placed on their language. Sign was the glue that held the Deaf community and their culture together. Sign and Deaf culture endured, if not thrived, despite the oralists’ dominance. Deaf people continued to meet on their own turf, and continued using Sign.

Things changed in 1965 when William Stokoe published the first linguistic study of Sign. He described structural and grammatical elements of Sign, giving credence to Sign being a true language. Sign officially became American Sign Language, and the Deaf world began to change. ASL found its way back into the Deaf schools, both as a teaching medium and as a class to be taught.

In the Spring of 1988, Deaf students peacefully shut down Gallaudett University for a week, because they wanted a Deaf president and Deaf controlling interest in the Board of Trustees. They raised money and attracted national attention. They got what they wanted.

The world changed, but not just for Deaf people. Hearing people also changed. They became more aware of the Deaf and their language. American Sign Language is now taught in hearing schools as a second language. Hearing peoples’ interest in Sign language continues to grow, as evidenced by you reading this book.

   
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