flashBACK: Oral Method in Deaf Institutes (Post-Milan 1880)

Posted by: Staff Writer on March 25, 2013

The use of Manual sign and Oralism has been in a life-long battle since the beginning of education for the Deaf. A speaker in the documentary, “Through Deaf Eyes” describes the period of Oralism in Deaf history as the ‘Dark Ages’- an era we might recall when Deaf students were forced to speak and also punished for using their natural language, American Sign Language.

After the infamous Milan conference in 1880 passed a law requiring the oral method to be used in Deaf institutes and programs to replace sign language, sign language was expelled from the school grounds. Oralism took over and was taught by hearing teachers in deaf institutes. Deaf students weren’t allowed to use their hands to communicate, it was forbidden. If they were caught signing or using any form of gesture, disciplinary actions would result in a trip to the principal’s office where their hands were slapped with a ruler or tied together. Deaf teachers and professionals were pushed out from schools and replaced by oral method specialists. Students were left with only one option, to stop communicating in their natural language and to learn to use their voices and speechread.  

Some institutes went as far as to punish students using sign language off campus as well. If students engaging in some secret off-campus signing had unfortunate witnesses, they would return to school and punished.  

The preservation of sign language during and post-Oralism period was a long upward battle. Successful Deaf professionals, writers, and teachers who were repressed by Oralists fought for the preservation and the right to use American Sign Language.

In 2010, 130 years after the Milan conference, the International Congress on Deaf Education (ICED - the same dudes who thought the oral method was a good idea), wrote a letter of apology to the Deaf community for their decision. Go ASL!

Have you, or do you know someone who grew up not being allowed to use sign language at school? 

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