The History of American Sign language
In 1817, Laurent Clerc, a Deaf teacher from the National Royal Institution for the Deaf in Paris, came to the United States to help Thomas H. Gallaudet, a hearing American, start America’s first School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Now known as the American School for the Deaf, the school brought together two main sources in the development of ASL signs and grammar: the school’s two teachers and the bringing together of Deaf pupils to learn in an environment ripe for helping them find an identity as Deaf individuals. Clerk brought from the Paris school a highly effective teaching method using Sign Language, the language of Deaf people.
Graduates of Hartford School went on to establish similar residential Schools for the Deaf in other states. Many Deaf people became teachers of the Deaf and Sign Language was the language of instruction in the classroom. Then in 1864, the first college for the Deaf (now Gallaudet University) was established by a charter signed by President Lincoln. Gallaudet is located in the heart of Washington, D.C., and is highly respected by members of the Deaf community, hard of hearing people, and other individuals who want to work with this population.
Late in the 19th century, the tide began to turn against Deaf people and their language. In 1880, the International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan, Italy, adopted a resolution banning the use of Sign Language in teaching deaf children. The “oral method” of teaching gained momentum; speech and lipreading became the primary educational goal. Deaf people were discouraged from entering the teaching profession, and Sign Language was no longer permitted in the classroom. However, this method proved to not be as effective as they originally had hoped. True, many deaf people who have some residual hearing can learn to lipread and speak clearly. However, for those deaf children who had no useful residual hearing (even with amplification), they were marked as “unteachable” and discarded as unintelligent and, often, useless.
Alexander Graham Bell, most famous for his invention of the telephone, was a primary supporter for the oral method. In fact, he was adamantly against the use of signs and proclaimed that all deaf people can be taught to speak and lipread. Although he is commonly hailed as a foremost promoter for the Deaf, in fact, many of the ideas and movements he participated in were seemingly “anti-deaf.” Eugenics, used by Hitler to attempt to make the perfect society, was considered by Bell to be the ideal way of ridding the world of the deaf population. He introduced the concept that if the United States made marriage between two deaf people illegal and kept all of this population apart from one another, they would then go on to join and fully participate in the hearing world instead of encouraging “deaf” behavior. He also believed that if two deaf people were not allowed to conceive a child, eventually the deaf gene would be obsolete. Since 90% of deaf children are born to hearing families, this theory was obviously defunct.
Also in 1880, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio. This organization brought Deaf people together from around the country to work for their common interests and fight discrimination in schools and workplaces. Over the years, the NAD has fought public ignorance of deafness, underemployment of Deaf people, discrimination against Deaf people who were denied driver’s licenses, discrimination against Deaf teachers, double tax exemption for Deaf people, and the strictly oral method in education of the Deaf.
The years from 1900 to 1960 were spent with strong Oralism and lack of social understanding. However, local Deaf clubs provided a place where Deaf people could congregate to socialize, share the latest news, organize around political issues, plan events and outings, and, in later years, watch captioned movies.
In recent years, there has been increased academic acceptance of ASL in colleges and universities. There has also been a growing recognition of Deaf culture by the general public. Deaf individuals are beginning to attain decision-making positions where they can make a difference in the lives of Deaf people. The “Deaf President Now” rally at Gallaudet University in the spring of 1988 drew widespread support not only from members of the Deaf community, but also from many people in all walks of life. Gallaudet had hired yet another hearing president, even though there was a deaf person running who was just as capable. Through a week of hard protest and demands for respect, the newly appointed president resigned and I. King Jordan because the first deaf president of the university (and remains president at this writing). Though some strong activists for the Deaf culture were not appeased since Jordan is actually considered “late deafened” and not culturally Deaf, most people were ecstatic and excited to have a deaf president after all those years!
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