Researching the archives has caused me to consider more deeply the issues and problems that have faced deaf children over the centuries, and I hope we can learn lessons from the past to avoid repeating mistakes and create a better future for deaf children growing up today.
My interest in deaf education arises from my own experiences of hearing loss. I was born with no hearing in my right ear, but it was not until I lost hearing in my left, the year after graduation from university, that things really affected me and I lost the ability to communicate with ease. In the years since losing my hearing I have struggled to access education and I have recently begun to learn BSL. I feel it is important to make a distinction between my experience of deafness, which happened after the development of language and those for whom BSL is their first language and who are culturally deaf. Studying BSL and learning about deaf culture, I was intrigued to learn more about the Royal School for the Deaf in Margate and the history of deaf education in Britain.
The history of the oral method
When I started reading about the Royal School for the Deaf, Margate, I was particularly interested in understanding the history of the Oral Method within deaf education and the suppression of BSL. In the late 1800s the Royal School for the Deaf began to experiment with both the Oral Method and forms of technology such as the audiphones, (an American invention that was designed to make deaf people hear through vibrations in their teeth).
Rather than supporting manual methods of communication, such as BSL, these technologies had the effect of supressing the language and culture that deaf people had developed over many years.
Rather than supporting manual methods of communication, such as BSL, these technologies had the effect of supressing the language and culture that deaf people had developed over many years. But while the audiphone failed to be effective, the desire to find technology to allow deaf people to hear has continued. (For example, to learn more about the controversy surrounding the medicalisation of cultural deafness one can look towards the debates that arise within discussions of cochlear implants.)
The Milan Conference and the suppression of sign language
The Milan Conference of 1880 was an important event in the history of deaf education, and it led to what is widely understood to be the most serious oppression of deaf people in history. It was decided at the conference that the Oral Method of teaching was superior to sign language. This decision was made by hearing people who failed to consult deaf students.
Wanted, two male and two female teachers for deaf and dumb Asylum. Required to teach orally, must not have previously engaged in teaching signing. No deaf experience necessary.
The minute book of the Margate Branch of London Asylum (later known as the Royal School for the Deaf, Margate) notes an advert placed in the National Society Paper in 1880:
‘Wanted, two male and two female teachers for deaf and dumb Asylum. Required to teach orally, must not have previously engaged in teaching signing. No deaf experience necessary.’ Later the minute book shows that three teachers left the school: ‘Phillips 3 months notice 1 year salary’, ‘Smith 3 month notice 6 month salary’ and ‘Clarke 1 month notice’.
The significant amount paid to some when they left suggests that they were released to allow the preferred oral teachers to be introduced. The photographs I found from this period show the teachers and students who would have attended the school after the introduction of the oral approach. It’s interesting to look at these and wonder how happy the students were with the change and how difficult communication must have been. The difference would have been felt by both teachers and students. I would be interested to know if any of the teachers who were forced to leave were deaf; if so, their loss of employment would have been significant.
The Oral Method encouraged hearing parents not to use BSL but only speak to their deaf children. Imagine for a moment how isolating that could have been for the child, unable to hear and understand what is going on at school and at home. I learnt lipreading, but I was told it is only possible to lipread a small amount of speech (about 30%), it’s also significantly easier if you have experience of what the words sound like. My experience of lipreading is that it is incredibly tiring work and I am exhausted if I have to spend the day lipreading or straining to hear. By comparison, although I know relatively little BSL, I am already experiencing the benefits of using it to support my understanding; it’s significantly less exhausting to follow BSL, which is a separate language and a legitimate method of communication. It is not surprising, therefore, that deaf students left school with few qualifications if they were struggling to fully understand what was going on. I often find after a period of sustained concentration lipreading that I can’t even think; I am so exhausted I give up.
The BDDA published a report in 1970 that expressed concerns that the Oral Method failed to acknowledge the low attainment of deaf students, and that forcing them to use the oral approach, rather than BSL, had been damaging.
Deaf students taught via the Oral Method were often mimicking what was being taught, repeating it back without necessarily understanding concepts and ideas, whereas, had they been taught in BSL, they may have fully understood. The BDDA (British Deaf and Dumb Association, which became the British Deaf Association) published a report in 1970 that expressed concerns that the Oral Method failed to acknowledge the low attainment of deaf students, and that forcing them to use the oral approach, rather than BSL, had been damaging. The BDDA also felt the Oral Method presumed that deaf pupils would easily be able to communicate with their hearing peers once they left school, which was not the reality. The BDDA report raised one crucial point that had been overlooked: deaf people themselves hadn’t been consulted.
It’s important to note that deafness is not a learning disability. Yet, the treatment of deafness as a defect and the medicalisation of cultural deafness has led to many deaf students underachieving. It has also risked eliminating deaf culture, language and community completely. A bilingual approach to education would have allowed deaf students to communicate in their preferred language, whether that was BSL or English. The denial of the deaf community’s cultural, social and linguistic history can have devastating consequences for deaf children’s sense of identity. As Harlan Lane explains: ‘education conducted in a way that negates the child’s identity, fails to use his language, and isolates him from peers is disabling.’ Lane refers to the oppression and suppression of deaf culture and deaf people by hearing people in terms of the ‘colonizer’ and the ‘colonized’. To begin to understand it in these terms makes what happened at Margate and other deaf schools in the late 1800s and onwards worrying.
Bringing the issue of the loss of deaf culture and education up to date: the closure of many deaf schools including The Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate, demonstrates how deaf students are still being let down. According to a Guardian article published last year ‘the number of schools for the deaf has fallen from 75 in 1982 to 21 [today]’ and ‘almost 78% of deaf children are in mainstream education where there is no specialist provision, with [only] 7% in mainstream schools with specialist provision’. The Oral Method may have failed deaf students in the past but today the cuts to deaf education amount to a comparable form of suppression and oppression.
BSL was not valued or respected as a language and legitimate form of communication in the late 1800s and still today its importance is not fully recognised.
BSL was not valued or respected as a language and legitimate form of communication in the late 1800s and still today its importance is not fully recognised. Indeed, depriving deaf people of their identity and language is disabling and can have devastating consequences. There is a high rate of mental illness among deaf people (according to Signhealth.org.uk deaf people are twice as likely to experience mental health issues than their hearing peers) and this may be understood by examining experiences of what it is to be deaf in a hearing world. The isolation that may be felt by a loss of deaf culture and the significant communication barriers to access even basic services is important. Researching the archives for this blog post has caused me to consider more deeply the issues and problems that have faced deaf children over the centuries, and I hope we can learn lessons from the past to avoid repeating mistakes and create a better future for deaf children growing up today. Deaf students should be given the same opportunities to achieve and learn as their hearing peers.
Harlan Lane, The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community. Vintage, 1992, p.84.
Sally Weale, ‘UK’s oldest deaf school closes amid concerns children are being let down’, The Guardian, 4 January 2016.