The History Of Teaching Hearing Impaired Americans Research Paper
The history of education for deaf people in the United States started in the early 1800s when the Cobb School was established in 1815 in New England (Crouch and Greenwald). Until that time, wealthy colonists sent their hearing impaired children to England for education. Although the Cobb School closed after less than two years, the American School for the Deaf was founded in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut; it was started by a man who had trained at the school for the deaf in England and an assistant teacher who came back with him who was deaf himself.
American Sign Language
Sign language was first noted in 1541 when Spanish explorers saw Plains Indians use hand signals in order to communicate with tribes speaking different languages (Lucas). During the 19th century, the presence of a recessive gene in a limited gene pool in New England settler for deafness created a 4 percent rate of hearing impaired people in the general population to the extent that a form of sign language was used by everyone whenever a deaf person was present; this language, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), was a precursor to American Sign Language (Bahan). American Sign Language (ASL) is believed to have been developed at the American School for the Deaf which was founded in 1817. Most of the students at the school for several decades brought MVSL with them when they came to the residential school and some students brought signs that had been developed at home. In addition, the assistant instructor who accompanied the founder of the school taught using a form of French sign language. A combination of the three styles culminated in the ASL.
As additional schools for deaf students began to open, ASL became for widespread until it became the universal language for the deaf. It was recognized as a true language in 1955 when linguist William Stoke declared that manualism should be used for deaf education as opposed to oralism (Stoke).
In the United States today, there are estimated to be approximately 500,000 to one million people using sign language to communicate (Smith and Hamrick). It is difficult to determine a closer number because the National Census Bureau counts the number of profoundly hearing impaired individuals rather than all users of sign language. For instance, adults who become deaf late in life usually fail to learn signing. Another instance impacting the numbers of individuals using sign language is that family members frequently become fluent in signing when there is a relative in the household who is deaf and uses sign. Add into the numbers the teachers of deaf children and adults who are hearing but must communicate effectively with hearing impaired individuals in school or the legal system.
There are variations of sign language just as there are dialects of spoken languages. Interestingly, due to segregation of blacks during including black deaf students, a form of Black American Sign Language came into being (Solomon). As in the spoken English language, there are differences in vocabulary, phonology, and some grammar. As in the Plains Indians in the 1500s, sign language is used as a bridge language in a number of different countries when individuals don’t speak the same oral language. However, in some countries such as Malaysia, the ASL has deviated so dramatically that Malaysian Sign Language is considered to be completely separate from American Sign Language.
There are instances when words are spelled out using single letters when there is not a phrase or word available in the conversation. For instance, many times a person’s name will be spelled letter by letter. People using sign language tend to feel slowed down by this process and most prefer not to have to stop to spell out a word.
Tactile American Sign Language (TASL) was made famous by the movie about the story of Helen Keller’s life when her instructor achieved a breakthrough with Helen by spelling out nouns into her hand. Tactile sign language is necessary when a deaf person is also sight impaired or completely blind. This form of ASL is used by placing the signing fingers into the palm of the deaf person. It structure of TASL is predominantly the same as ASL with only some small grammar differences (Lucas).
Global Use of Sign Language
While American Sign Language is the type predominantly used in America, there are other forms of sign language used around the world. The European nations use a number of different styles (Padden). Variations are named for the country in which they are used, such as Bolivian Sign Language. However, ASL is reportedly used as a first language in a large number of West African, Asian, and other nations (Ethnologue).
Sign Language as a Cultural Identity
In contemporary America, there are two general cultures associated with deaf people and their families. Much of the differentiation comes from whether all the members of the family are deaf or only some of them. While sign language has been an immense help for the hearing impaired to communicate with the hearing population, they are still isolated unless in the company of a hearing person who can sign. For that reason, most deaf people are encouraged to learn to read lips and use signing with each other.
There are some individuals who became deaf after they learned how to speak that can communicate fairly well by talking although they cannot hear themselves do so; there are rarely people who learn to speak without ever having heard a sound. This ability is based largely on the degree of deafness and the function of structures of the interior ear. They are taught to speak by feeling the mouth, jaw, and neck of another person speaking and tries to imitate the movements in themselves. The deaf person who speaks does so usually in a monotone, nasal capacity. Many of the speaking deaf will also sign at the same time to attempt to make themselves understood.
However, there is a movement from some families of all deaf members who feel this forces them into a mold that denies their individuality (Jones). They insist only on signing as a way of communicating. Within the pro-Deaf community, there is even a distinction between the “pure” deaf person and one who could hear at one time. In the author’s experience, at one time there was talk of establishing a community of completely deaf families with accommodations for functioning outside a hearing society.
Reasons for deafness in children were different in the colonial times in America than they are in present days. Many times, they were a result of genetics with families having several children without hearing and several with hearing. However, medical practices were primitive and many cases of deafness were caused by untreated ear infections, measles, ear injuries, mumps, meningitis, syphilis, rubella, and other diseases recognized today (Mayoclinic.org). In addition, with the development of cochlear implants and technological advances in the quality of hearing aids, there are far fewer hearing impaired people in the United States today. For that reason, children are able to mainstream into the public school system and the institutional schools for the deaf are steadily closing (National Association for the Deaf). Sign language remains and will remain an important way for the deaf to communicate with the hearing world until such time as medical science completely cures the condition.
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