The Lost Generation

Image is an old black and white photo of a teacher of the Deaf teaching a group is deaf children to listen and speak. He is speaking into an antique manual voice piece, the students are holding tubes from the voice piece to their ear

I watched the Barry Priori documentary last night. Barry is a legend in the Australian Deaf community, he passed away recently. He was an Auslan educator and staunch advocate for all things Deaf. The documentary touched on Barry’s life. It was supposed to have been 90 minutes but due to Barry’s untimely death it was shorter. There were many positive things to come from the documentary. Barry’s oral upbringing was not one of them.

I know it is 2022 and we should be well past this debate. But sadly, the treatment of Barry and a generation of Deaf people from his time must never be forgotten, EVER. The history of oralism is one of human abuse. The horrific tales of the treatment Deaf people received at the hands of oralist must be told over and over. Why? So that people are never treated in this way again.

Barry and his friends Deane, Don and Katrina were interviewed and told of their experience of oralism. They told of their fear of being caught signing. They told of being smacked if they were caught. They told stories of being made to sit on their hands. Of being forced to HEAR as hearing teachers cruelly covered their mouths as they spoke. They told of times at boarding school where they had to wait for lights out and teachers to leave before they could sign to each other in limited light. The treatment was incredibly cruel.

I was horrified to hear Katrina’s story. So hell bent were they on making her speak properly that if she did not pronounce a word or sound properly they would lock her in a cupboard. This might be a simple sound like CH or SH. They would lock her in the cupboard, whereupon she would have to keep trying the sound until she got it right. Once she got it right they would let her out. I cannot imagine the trauma that this treatment would have caused. Likely the scars would be permanent, causing trauma right up to this very day.

How far back do we go? Back to Milan in 1880? The obsession of hearing people to make deaf kids hearing clones has been around for hundreds of years. I can only speak from my own time and I can pin-point the 1960’s to 1980’s as being particularly awful times. Around these times oral educators seemed to have accepted that relying totally on hearing was damaging deaf kids and that their needed to be some sort of manual prompts to assist.

The motives of the hearing people were mostly pure. They likely recognised that deaf kids were growing up illiterate. Worse, the deaf kids were being damaged mentally, both conceptually and cognitively. It is not for nothing that Oliver Sacks described Deafness as a preventable cause of intellectual disability.

In the 60’s they tried cued speech. This was a system that used hand symbols near the mouth to indicate sounds. The idea was that deaf kids were being made illiterate because they had no access to phonological information. By providing manual access to phonological information it was thought that a deaf kid would learn speech and English better. There are many that will swear by cued speech but the reality is that it was an abject failure. It had some advantages for single word recognition but research will tell you that as a language acquisition tool it failed spectacularly.

Later in the late 70s and 80s Signed English was introduced. I remember this well. I lost my hearing when I was about 8 or 9. I struggled in mainstream schools for a number of years. At the age of 14, in 1978, I found myself at the Strathmont Centre for Hearing Impaired Students.

It was the first time that I had met another deaf kid. I was struck by how poor their English was. They couldn’t string the simplest of sentences together. I could not work this out. They were just deaf. With the naivety of youth I could not understand why this would make them “stupid”. Now, I know there will be people offended by this last remark, I am just quoting directly what I thought at that time – I assure you, I don’t think this way now.

They signed together in break time and seemed to communicate brilliantly. I know now that they actually did. Some of these kids were from Deaf families and were using Auslan, but I didn’t know this at the time. I saw their Auslan as mime, gesture and broken English. I watched them in class struggling to understand the signing of their teachers. I thought it was the kids problem because they were slow. What I know now is that the teachers couldn’t sign for shit. I wonder now how much the teachers actually understood of what the kids were signing to them.

Of course, the teachers were using Signed English. But very badly. The reality is that they would sign a few words and speak a few words. Or they would speak mostly and add a sign here or there. (This was called Total Communication.) The kids were supposed to learn from them in this way. It was just a jumble of information that often made no sense. The end result was a lot of illiterate deaf kids with language deprivation. Yes, I know that other issues including lack of family interaction and access to “overhearing” also impacted. However, you cannot underestimate the deep damage this terrible education system caused to many of these deaf kids.

And you know, many of these deaf kids were being introduced to Signed English in their teens. But unlike me, they were not born hearing and with developed language. They had been born deaf, struggled through an oral system and then in a last ditch attempt to “help” them they found themselves at Strathmont. Cast offs from a system that had failed them.

Many of these kids began to mix with native signers at the school and started to learn Auslan. They started to interact and make friends with deaf kids. Rarely did they interact with hearing kids at the school unless forced to. The access to Auslan through these other deaf kids improved their communication to a degree, but the reality is many of these kids were language deprived. They lacked conceptual development, they had poor literacy and their maturity and ability to deal with adult concepts was severely delayed. In short the system screwed them.

Even today the failed experiments of cued speech and Signed English from the 1960s to 1980s impacts on Deaf people. For example, at work Deaf people are expected to complete online compliance training for them to continue in their employment. The training is written in complex English language that they struggle to read and understand. In my current role I am assisting people in their 50s and 60s to make sense of this online training. I often have to assist these deaf people to fill in forms. The stress and trauma that these people experience at struggling with these basic English tasks is very real! The barriers experienced by Deaf these people throughout their lives have been severe. These are the people that were damaged by that awful period of Deaf education in the 1960s and 1980s.

Victor Hugo said – “

“What matters deafness of the ear, when the mind hears? The one true deafness, the incurable deafness, is that of the mind.”

And that is what oral deaf education caused over so many years, a deafness of the mind. Particularly so, in that awful period of the 1960’s to 1980’s. Will the hearing world ever say SORRY for the damage that they caused to this generation of Deaf people? I don’t think they ever will, but there is no doubt in my mind that they should! They are a lost generation!

Watch Barry’s story on ABC iView – For more information click the link –


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