Deaf Education: Oral vs Manual

Inside of an old school house with a chalkboard and old desks.
Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell was a teacher at a deaf school in Boston? He was fluent in American Sign Language. His philosophy for the Deaf was advocating oralism.

Bell took part in many historic events that nearly caused American Sign Language (ASL) to become extinct. Edward Miner Gallaudet earned his fame as a hero by preserving the language on his campus.

So how did Bell and Gallaudet get connected?

First, you’ll need to know their backgrounds that led to their first meeting and years of rivalry.

Who is Deaf Educator Alexander Graham Bell?

Before he became a teacher, he learned vocal elocution and speech techniques from his father and grandfather. Since his mother was deaf, he knew the British Manual Alphabet and home signs to communicate with his mother. His fluency in sign language improved greatly during his teaching career and he continued to use it after his career.

After quitting teaching, Bell established a private practice of teaching speech to the Deaf with the speech training skills he learned from his father and grandfather. He wanted to help them fully integrate into the hearing world.

His first students were:

  • George Sanders, a student from a wealthy family who later supported Bell’s telephone invention.
  • Mabel Hubbard, who became deaf at age five, and had already acquired speech. She later became his wife. She knew some signs, but she refused to use them in public. Yet, in the later years, as a sponsor of some deaf-related organizations, she used sign language to communicate with deaf members.

Bell’s goal was to teach speech to as many deaf people as possible. He tested his theory by giving public demonstrations using his successful students. This gave birth to the Oralism Movement and changed the Deaf world by deeply affecting Deaf education.

Who is Deaf Educator Edward Miner Gallaudet?

Gallaudet College was started when the former US Postmaster General Amos Kendall was gifted land. Mr. Kendall was the guardian of the 5 Deaf children. With his connections, Mr. Kendall convinced Congress to pass a bill for the world’s one and only college for the Deaf.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the charter in 1864. Upon opening, Edward Miner Gallaudet was the first president at only 20 years old.

When he was hired as a principal of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind the board of trustees were concerned by his age. They agreed to have his Deaf mother, Sophia Fowler Gallaudet go with him as the first Matron (of the men’s dormitory).

Gallaudet was fluent in sign language from birth. His mother was Deaf and one of the first students at the first Deaf school. His father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, was an educator of the Deaf and an interpreter.

Not only he was the youngest college president in history, but he was also the longest-serving president, tenured for 53 years. Gallaudet was the only president who was fluent in ASL.

It took more than 124 years before the next successor was fluent in ASL, a late-Deafened man named I. King Jordan. It has since been established that all presidents after I. King Jordan must be Deaf and fluent in ASL.

The Beginning of a Rivalry

Nobody knows for sure exactly when or how Gallaudet and Bell first met. Gallaudet was the president of the college for less than ten years when Bell became famous for his telephone invention. Bell had already been advocating for oralism for years. Although, both men were CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults) with cultural experience, and skill in sign language, they grew up in completely different worlds.

Both men were educators and fierce advocates for the Deaf. While they strived for the betterment of the lives of the Deaf, their philosophies on what that meant were very different. They had been debating against one another for more than 40 years. They even corresponded with one another, trying to convince one another that their method was superior.

Oralism vs. Sign Language

In 1880, President Gallaudet attended the Milan Conference and tried to convince the members to support educating Deaf children with sign language. But Bell also attended to advocate for educating Deaf children through oralism. He demonstrated his best students. It blew everyone’s minds and the vote was to ban sign language in all schools for the deaf to favor oralism.

Upon returning to America, Edward was determined to save the sign language from extinction. As a staunch supporter, Gallaudet encouraged the language to flourish on campus. The students were able to communicate without barriers, learn, and facilitate all aspects of student life in American Sign Language. At the same time, ASL continued to survive in the underground clubs. Over the next decades, while the Oralism Movement was growing, ASL was declining everywhere in America.

Foes or Friends?

Alexander G. Bell and Edward M. Gallaudet were actually closer to frenemies. Over the years, Bell and Gallaudet had opportunities to reconcile their philosophies and methods. In reluctance, they respected each other’s view, but neither wanted to budge on their individual opinions. Hence, the Great Debate (manual vs oralism) continued for much longer. The reprecussions of this are still seen to this day.

Hope you enjoyed reading this.

‘Til next time, ta ta! 😀🤟🏻


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