April 15, the last day of Deaf History Month, celebrates the anniversary of the establishment of the first school for the Deaf in the United States. Strides to make education more accessible for the DHH community have been made throughout history and for this section of High School Insider’s Deaf History Month Series, we are reckoning with history and celebrating Deaf education milestones.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was inspired by young and intelligent young Alice Cogswell who was Deaf and wished to find ways to teach her and other members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community. After visiting England to learn and observe their methods of teaching and education, Gallaudet created the American School for the Deaf in Hartford Connecticut on April 15 in 1817.
In 1857, Edward Miner Gallaudet, the youngest child of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet established Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. in honor of his father. The university later established a collegiate division and was and continues to be the world’s only university for Deaf and hard of hearing students.
Despite these milestones in Deaf education, Gallaudet University explains the cause for continued unrest stating on their website, “although the United States believed enough in Deaf peoples’ abilities to establish Gallaudet University in 1864, prejudices and discrimination against deaf and hard of hearing people persisted. In addition, there were major disagreements among the educators of Deaf people.”
Debates continued to boil surrounding whether educators for Deaf and hard of hearing students should teach through manual education (now commonly known as sign language) or oral education (lip reading). Thomas and Edward Gallaudet themselves were strong supporters of the manual method yet, despite their efforts along with many others to continue to implement manualism in Deaf education, the Milan conference caused a devastating turn of events.
In 1880, educators of Deaf children convened at the Milan Conference of Deaf Educators to ban the use of sign language, leading to the expulsion of Deaf teachers in classrooms across the globe as they were believed to lack the ability to administer or teach in schools for Deaf children. Even educational methods to combine manual and oral methods were banned. By 1919, many schools established for Deaf children had abandoned manualism and solely embraced the oral method.
This suppression of Deaf educators and representation in the classroom left students and especially young children with little to no Deaf role models and perpetuated the harmful notion that people who are Deaf or hard of hearing and people with disabilities are obliged to conform for the comfort of hearing and able-bodied people. Many schools for the Deaf in Britain opposed this declaration and along with Edward Gallaudet at Gallaudet University continued to implement both oral and manual methods of teaching.
By the 1950s, the view that manualism stifled education began to change, and William C. Stokoe, an educator at Gallaudet University, along with two Deaf colleagues Carl Cronenberg and Dorothy Casterline, created the “Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles.”
Stokoe observed that students were using American Sign Language to communicate despite social and legislative trends, realizing the potential and necessity for ASL to be established and recognized as an official language.
The National Science Foundation recognizes this success explaining, “Educators now know that children who use signing from a young age develop a full range of cognitive skills … ASL is even an independent research discipline, with graduate courses and doctoral studies in universities in the United States and abroad.” The creation of the first ASL Dictionary disproved critics of manualism and today ASL is a fully developed language that uses its own structure, syntax, and rules for word creation or morphology.
Efforts to improve education for the DHH community faced many trials and triumphs throughout the decades and discrimination was experienced even within extraordinary institutions such as Gallaudet University. On March 6, 1988, Gallaudet University’s Board of Trustees appointed Elisabeth A. Zinser, a hearing person, to be Gallaudet’s seventh president despite the continued push and years of advocating for a Deaf person to be named president.
At the time the university had many Deaf people who held administrative positions, more than 100 Deaf people with doctorates, and out of the three finalists for the president position, two of the candidates were Deaf. Students, alumni, staff, and faculty members at Gallaudet University gathered and shut down the campus in protest of the new appointee for president. This rising movement was known as Deaf President Now and garnered the attention of the entire nation. The group stormed the Board of Trustees and presented four non-negotiable demands:
- Elisabeth Zinser must resign and a Deaf person must be selected for president
- Jane Spilman must step down as chairperson of the Board of Trustees
- 51% or the majority of the Board of Trustees must be made up of Deaf people
- No reprisals will be made against employees or students involved in the protest
Through the power of student voices and advocacy, the demands of the Deaf President Now Movement were all met by the end of the week.
More recently, in 2016, Harvard began providing and offering credit for American Sign Language courses again for the first time in more than 20 years. Classes were first stopped in 1998 due to a lack of funding but reinstated under the instruction of Andrew Bottoms.
A lack of funding and the budget crisis for public or state-supported education is the cause of many potential challenges for education for the DHH community. Sandra Jowers- Barber in a New York Times opinion post addresses the topic saying, “supporters of educational choice should indeed be on their guard against a 21st century Milan declaration, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of reduced state budgets.”
Many milestones have been achieved and reached in the continued effort to provide accessible and equitable education for the DHH community. With this year’s Deaf History Month, let us celebrate such milestones in Deaf education but also acknowledge that the push to improve educational institutions never ends.