Today, American Sign Language (ASL) is used as a first or learned language among hundreds of thousands of Americans. But the road to its acceptance was not a smooth one. As I learned more about the history of American Sign Language, I was shocked to learn of the bitter opposition that persisted for over a century in the highest levels of American policy. The scars of this long conflict still linger.
Origin and Early Spread of American Sign Language
As with America itself, American Sign Language owes its genesis to France. As described by the deaf writer Pierre Desloges, eighteenth-century Paris had a sizable deaf community that used sign language to communicate.
But it was a Catholic priest, the abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée, who first aimed to educate deaf French children using sign language. He opened a school in 1771 and developed an elaborate system to modify the indigenous sign language, which he learned from its users, in order to be able to manually express the French language.
This awkward signed form of French was somewhat successful in the classroom but wasn’t used colloquially. Still, the school grew after the abbé’s death and attracted talented students in the time of his successor, the abbé Sicard, chief among whom was Laurent Clerc. After Clerc rose to a teaching position at the school, he happened to meet an American minister about the same age, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who was in Europe searching for a method to bring back to America to educate the deaf.
Rather than take his method, though, Gallaudet persuaded Clerc himself to cross the Atlantic. Then together with Gallaudet’s patron, Mason Cogswell, they founded the first American school for the deaf in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut. Early students were primarily taught Clerc’s version of French sign language before also learning reading and writing English.
However, a group of students arrived already fluent in a sign language developed on Martha’s Vineyard, where there was a longstanding deaf community. The confluence of their signs, Clerc’s, and those of urban deaf communities from cities like Philadelphia and New York shaped what would become American Sign Language.
Even with American Sign Language in its infancy, Gallaudet and Clerc were quickly successful. In spite of their Catholic and Protestant differences, they were driven to bring the deaf knowledge of God. This fervor spread rapidly in the time of the Second Great Awakening and lead to the foundation of similar schools for the deaf in Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, and Ohio.
At these residential schools, similar to boarding schools, students lived together nearly year-round. Instruction was bilingual in written English and the emerging American Sign Language, then known as the natural language of signs. Many teachers and support staff themselves were deaf. In addition to academics, male students could learn a trade such as shoemaking or printing while female students were limited to domestic training.
The Oralist Onslaught
Unfortunately, the early successes of the residential schools’ sign language instruction would be challenged in the years after the Civil War. A number of factors contributed to the rise of an oralist educational philosophy, whereby the use of sign in classrooms was banned in favor of teaching speech and speechreading, a tedious and often invasive task, as the teachers and students would place their hands inside each other’s mouths. It was claimed that through this method, the deaf would be able to understand speech and respond to it just as a hearing person would.
Naturally most adult deaf were opposed to these measures. But proponents of the oralist approach found traction among hearing parents of deaf children, who were more easily convinced of their claims. Nor did the oralists lack for powerful patrons, including Andrew Carnegie and AG Bell. In conjunction with surging national xenophobia in response to the arrival of many European immigrants, popular theories of eugenics encouraged the possibility of ridding America entirely of the deaf. Such an outcome was thought to accord with Charles Darwin’s contemporary theory of evolution.
Yet the oralists struck at a time when the deaf throughout America had become keenly aware of their cultural status and common language. Because many deaf men chose the prestigious career of printers, they were able to establish numerous newspapers, periodicals, and other media by which to unite their far-flung populations. As a result of this growing community, the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) was formed in 1880. Among its objectives was the preservation of sign language.
The situation for what had yet to be recognized as American Sign Language was perceived to be so dire that in 1910, George Veditz, then president of the NAD, arranged for a series of 16 short films to be made showcasing its beauty and power, lest they be lost. Despite the primitive technology used to record these films, they are today evidence for the continuity of American Sign Language from that embattled time.
Here’s a clip of one of these films posted by the NAD vlog:
American Sign Language’s Breakthrough
It wasn’t until the 1960s that America would reexamine the nature of sign language and reevaluate its value in society. Prior to the work of the linguist William Stokoe in 1965, sign languages in general hadn’t been considered the equal of spoken languages. His Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles signaled a change in that attitude and also marked the first time American Sign Language was so named.
Right on the heels of this academic revolution was a national broadcast in 1967 on NBC of the National Theatre of the Deaf performing scenes from a number of plays including Macbeth. It aired despite intense opposition from oralists and brought Deaf culture and American Sign Language to wide national attention.
From that time, acceptance of American Sign Language grew, as did the number of skilled sign language interpreters. While residential schools have declined in prominence due to the practice of mainstreaming deaf students, the community and language fostered within them are adapting to new technology and are poised to meet the challenges of the third century of deaf education in the United States.
Kevin is a TypeWell transcriber at Strada Communication. He studied linguistics at Western Washington University.