It is 1880 in Milan. The date is is September 6th. Delegates from around the world have gathered to discuss deaf education. For five days they meet and deliberate and at the end of the conference they declare sign language is bunk and that oral methods must prevail. It is said that the Milan conference was supposed to focus on a variety of issues relating to deaf education including sign language. Instead the conference was hijacked by the oralist and pro-sign instruction delegates were more or less silenced. At the end of five days eight resolutions were passed that declared that oralism was the only way and that sign language was the enemy of deaf people. Sign language said the oralists, prevented deaf people from assimilating with society.
The consequences of this conference were severe. Not the least that it created a class of deaf people that were largely languageless and illiterate. For many years after the conference deaf kids were forced to speak at whatever cost. Those deaf students with more profound hearing losses struggled greatly. These young deaf people were largely hidden from view. Those with less profound hearing losses, who had usable hearing, were held up as shining examples of the success of oralism. Meanwhile, oralism was creating a class of young deaf people who were illiterate, languageless and who were to struggle to fit into society for the rest of their lives.
It is a period of time that decimated the Deaf community. It is a period of time that caused great anger among the Deaf community. This anger remains to this very day. It is said that if it was not for the likes of Gallaudet and Veditz, both who steadfastly refused to follow the resolutions of the Milan conference, that sign language would now be obsolete. But deaf people are resolute beings. It is a testament to their determination that not only did sign language not die out, that it actually prospered, as did the Deaf community. But make no mistake, the Milan Conference caused immense damage.
Much has been documented by Deaf people about the horrors that ensued as the consequence of the Milan conference. Click on the screen shot below to watch the revealing documentary -History of Deaf Education made by BSL Zone.
In the days before technology became what it is today, hearing aids were very rudimentary devices. Learning to speak was hard work indeed. It is well documented that so much time was spent on teaching children to speak that their language development was severely impacted. Spending hours a day to learn how to pronounce one letter or one word will do that to you.
Many deaf people of this time became functionally illiterate. The documentary shows many of the cruel practices that were used to teach deaf children to speak. I was horrified to learn that many kids had their tongue manipulated to the roof of their mouth to get them to pronounce the letter L properly.
The documentary implores educators and policy makers of the day to learn from the mistakes of the past. In the screen shot the caption reads, “Education should be about using your brain to think.” The man in question was arguing passionately that the hours spent on speech impacted on the deaf persons learning, language and ultimately their ability to use their brains to THINK!
Imagine this mans horror if he were to see a recent poster that has been distributed at www.AuditoryVerbalTherapy.net
On viewing this poster he would have been instantly transported back to the days where he was subject to the cruel practices of oralism. He would have remembered the endless hours of speech lessons that occurred at the expense of his education. It is not being overly dramatic to suggest that the poster is likely to cause the man, and many other deaf people that had a similar experience, immense trauma and anger. The poster is insensitive to the extreme.
Apart from that, the poster is profoundly misleading. The poster gives the impression that only through speech and sound recognition can the brain be developed. It uses emotive language and suggests that only speech is the “ticket to the wider world.” The poster is a blatant lie.
I thought in 2015 that we had long since left the old SPEECH IS EVERYTHING argument behind. Speech is not everything, language is. Whether it be by spoken means or through signs. Speech and sign are not language themselves, they are merely tools to convey language.
As we know, no language follows the same rules. Italian is a language that has different rules to English. Likewise sign languages have different rules to spoken languages and so on. What languages do is is allow us to make sense of the world, express ourselves and interact with our fellow human beings. Even if we have a different language to another person, the very fact that we have a language allows us to communicate with these people. Indeed, knowing a language is our key to learning other languages too.
All that speech or signs do is allow us to articulate language and be understood. It is language that is the key to our brains development – Not speech and indeed not even signs – Just language.
This is why this poster is so profoundly misleading and offensive. It is misleading because it implies that only through speech can our brains develop and this is wrong. It is offensive because it implies that parents that have chosen sign language for their children are in some way impeding their child’s brain development. I know today’s technology has meant that many deaf kids are learning to speak a lot better than in the past. I know that today’s technology has meant that deaf kids are developing spoken language to much better level than ever before. BUT ….
Even with today’s technology language can still be delayed or impacted. This poster implies that speech and listening is the ONLY WAY. Many parents who know nothing about deafness will buy into this message. The consequence of this is that many deaf kids are going to have their options limited. The research is clear – sign language supports speech development. Babies that sign exhibit less frustration and are able to bond more quickly with parents simply because they are able to communicate earlier and this lessens communication frustrations. This communication assists in the learning of concepts that are an integral part of language. In turn this understanding of language boosts speech development. SIGN DEVELOPMENT DOES NOT IMPACT ON SPEECH DEVELOPMENT – rather the two complement each other.
Let’s be clear, speech and listening alone do not support brain development – Communication and language development do. Lets be clear, even with today’s technology the deaf child has limits on what he or she can hear. Some achieve more than others and the variables are many. No one should ever place limits on the acquisition of language for the deaf child by suggesting that speech and listening is the only way. This is what this poster is doing and for that reason it is profoundly offensive and I dare say BRAINLESS.
3 thoughts on “Brainless”
Great article Gary. It serves to eliminate the brainwashing of parents with newly diagnosed babies with a hearing loss by those that have the incapacity to learn another language! I for one have strive to ensure I am equipped with skills in both communication tools (auditory/verbal and sign). Many of my colleagues do not share the same sort of commitment.
Well said. I hate the hearing aid industry for many reasons. This nasty series of ads is one of them. Profits above people. Profits above open source. Hearing aid companies controlling the audiology industry. Disgusting.
Thanks for the interesting and passionate blog.
I agree that the ads are offensive, and restrictive. Highly misleading for anyone trying to navigate appropriate options for a newly diagnosed child.
You are spot on about the importance to language development of signing, and that it actually supports and encourages communication – eventually fostering speech development if that is possible. I can say this very confidently as I used it with my three children as babies after reading a book “Baby Signs: How to Talk to Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk” (though the signing we used was very much home-grown). The author of the book explains exactly what you’ve said about how signing reduces frustration and increases capacity for communication for ANY child.
How much more important is it to use every available method to help where the child has a hearing disability? It’s a no-brainer to me – so I have to vote with you. The ads, and attitudes against signing, are ill-informed and brainless.