Speech-language pathologists may find themselves providing services in educational and medical settings to Deaf or Hard of Hearing clients who are native signed language users, despite having varying levels of sign language proficiency and knowledge of Deaf culture themselves. Understanding the historical role of SLPs in the Deaf community and the current best practices in Deaf education as they relate to speech and language development will help prepare clinicians to provide effective and culturally-responsive services for this population.

The Past: A Brief History of American Deaf Education

American Sign Language (ASL) has its roots in the early 1800s, when Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc founded the first school for the Deaf in Hartford, CT. Clerc was a Frenchmen, and he brought the French tradition of “manual education,” or sign language instruction, with him to America; as a result, ASL more closely resembles the syntactic structure of French than English, and some cognates still exist between ASL and LSF (langue des signes française). The first and only American university for the Deaf, now called Gallaudet University, was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1854, and the inextricable relationship between education, language, and culture became the pervading essence of Deaf-American history.

Manual education was the prevailing instructional philosophy in America’s schools for the Deaf until the 1860s, when the rise of social Darwinism swayed public and academic opinion toward oralism, an education method that prioritizes mastery of spoken language and speech intelligibility, and views sign language as a lesser, subhuman, invalid form of communication. Prominent social Darwinist Alexander Graham Bell believed that Deafness was a plague of the human race and used his public platform to advocate for eugenics practice and legislation against the Deaf, such as the denial of marriage certificates to Deaf or Deaf-and-hearing couples. He and other influential education figures of the time convened at the now infamous Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf in 1880, commonly known as the Milan Conference, and the results were devastating — the Congress passed resolutions banning all sign language use in Deaf schools the world over, bringing the era of manual education to an abrupt end.

This began the long, painful history of audism, or Deaf oppression, at the hands of the powerful American speech-language pathology, audiology, and education community. For 100 years, oral education effectively suppressed the cognitive-linguistic potential of generation after generation of Deaf people by depriving them of their native language and putting more focus on teaching oral speech and language than promoting academic achievement. Sign language was kept alive in secret behind the backs of educators and SLPs in the hallways and dormitories of Deaf residential schools across the country, and these tales of cultural-linguistic perseverance became the stuff of legends in the strong tradition of Deaf storytelling. Still, this inferior educational experience meant that Deaf people were largely excluded from the prosperity offered to their highly-educated hearing peers during the Second Industrial Revolution, creating a gap in generational wealth and social capital that persists to this day.

Change for the better came in the 1950s and 60s with William Stokoe, a linguist and professor at Gallaudet University who dedicated his life to proving to the linguistic community that ASL was a true language with distinct phonology, morphology, and syntax independent of American English or French. He published the landmark text Sign Language Structure in 1960 and the first ASL dictionary in 1965, and spent his career promoting the validity and necessity of ASL as the primary language of instruction in Deaf classrooms. In 1980 — exactly 100 years after the Milan Conference — the 15th International Congress on the Education of the Deaf in Hamburg renounced the Milan resolutions, and sign language began its slow but steady return to the education world.

The Present: Deaf Education Philosophies Today

The sting from a century of wounds inflicted by speech-language pathologists, audiologists, and educators by enforcing harmful, prejudiced, and even eugenic practices in Deaf classrooms is still viscerally felt by Deaf baby boomers, Gen Xers, and even some millennials today. This well-earned distrust can only be assuaged through continuing education, cultural competence, and supporting institutions that align themselves philosophically with culturally-responsive practices and policies.

The three major philosophies in Deaf education today are:

  1. Auditory-verbal approach — essentially the oralism method of the past; places academic achievement second to mastery of spoken language and speech intelligibility; instruction is entirely oral, usually in residential schools and/or self-contained classrooms; sign language is either strongly discouraged or entirely forbidden
  2. Mainstreaming and inclusion — usually involves placing Deaf students in general or special education with hearing peers; intensive pull-out speech therapy sessions, and interpreted classes; sign language is allowed, but communication is entirely through an interpreter or extra-linguistic means such as writing, gesturing, etc
  3. Bimodal-bicultural education — prevalent at Deaf residential or commuter schools; ASL is the primary language of instruction, and English is taught as a second language; usually a mix of Deaf and hearing educators, but all faculty are required to be proficient in sign language; pull-out speech therapy sessions are given at the parent/guardian’s request and discretion, and spoken English is viewed as a helpful skill rather than a requisite for academic achievement

Of these frameworks, it is apparent that the bimodal-bicultural method is the most culturally-responsive and conducive to learning and social development — students are immersed in a rich social, cultural, and linguistic environment, and their native language and identity are validated. English language skills are certainly helpful if a student’s family is hearing or if they wish to attend a hearing university, but their success should be  measured by academic performance rather than their spoken language intelligibility. Mainstreaming may seem like a good idea at first glance, but mainstreamed students are at a higher risk not just for social isolation as their interpreters are not present for social situations like lunchtime and extracurricular activities, but also for academic underachievement due to the variable skill levels of educational interpreters in public schools. And as far as oralism is concerned, it is simply out of the question if we, as a profession, are as dedicated to progress in diversity and inclusion as we claim.

The Future: The Power in Our Hands

While the progress in the past 40 years towards providing high-quality, culturally-responsive education to American Deaf children is encouraging, other issues make this a frightening time in history for the community at large. Advancements in hearing aid and cochlear implant technologies and the relative lobbying strength of the audiology community has opened up controversial and alarming discussions in Deaf academic circles about the eventual eradication of deafness as a condition and the consequent Deaf cultural genocide.

These are the kinds of worries and underlying anxieties that the Deaf parents of our Deaf clients may have when they interface with clinicians, so the importance of opening up discussion about the parents’ wishes, the clinician’s intentions, and the larger narrative at play in the therapeutic relationship can not be understated. By staying current on best practices for culturally-responsive intervention and understanding how our historic role in the Deaf community can affect service delivery, we can provide high-quality care to our clients, promote healing and relationship-building between the hearing and Deaf world, keep the rich and vibrant culture of Deafness alive for generations to come.

References and Further Reading

Cramér-Wolrath Emelie. (2013). Sequential bimodal bilingual acquisition: mediation using a cochlear implant as a tool. Deafness and Education International, 15(4), 201–221.

Gale, E. (2011). Exploring perspectives on cochlear implants and language acquisition within the deaf community. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 16(1), 121–139.

Hintermair, M. (2011). Health-related quality of life and classroom participation of deaf and hard-of-hearing students in general schools. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 16(2), 254–271.

Mitchiner, J. C. (2015). Deaf parents of cochlear-implanted children: beliefs on bimodal bilingualism. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 20(1), 51–66.

Musselman, C., Mootilal, A., & MacKay, S. (1996). The social adjustment of deaf adolescents in segregated, partially integrated, and mainstreamed settings. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 1(1), 52–63.

Swanwick, R. (2016). Deaf children’s bimodal bilingualism and education. Language Teaching, 49(1), 1–34.

Salter, J. M., Swanwick, R. A., & Pearson, S. E. (2017). Collaborative working practices in inclusive mainstream deaf education settings: teaching assistant perspectives. Deafness & Education International, 19(1), 40–49.

van Gurp, S. (2001). Self-concept of deaf secondary school students in different educational settings. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 6(1), 54–69.

About the Author

Joseph Nicol is a Speech-Language Pathology Master’s candidate and a member of the Cultural-Linguistic Diversity Emphasis Program (CLD-EP) in the department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland. His clinical interests include vocal pathology, trans- and gender-nonconforming voice therapy, fluency disorders, and culturally-responsive services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community.