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  • Quality Education and Sustainable Learning Trajectories for Deaf Learners
  • Donald F. Moores (bio)

Two hundred and fifty years ago, L'Epée and Heinicke were engaged in a disagreement over the role of signs in the education of deaf students, with L'Epée supporting both natural and methodical signs and Heinicke advocating for an oral method without a manual component (Garnett, 1968; Moores, 2001). This was the beginning of the oral/manual controversy. L'Epée was not opposed to speech or the teaching of articulation, but because he was responsible for teaching larger numbers of children, he did not believe he could devote significant time to the slow process of teaching speech, which would be detrimental to the development of intellectual capabilities. Heinicke, on the other hand, wrote that the Parisian (sign) method of tuition was an absolute detriment to advancement (Garnett, 1968).

This controversy set a precedent for the ensuing centuries, throughout which supporters of manual communication, with few exceptions, acknowledged the importance of speech. Those supporting what might be considered a pure oral method typically argued that children, their parents, and their teachers should never resort to manual communication because of the perceived dangers to speech and socialization in the hearing world. Because of discrimination against deaf teachers and other deaf professionals, especially after the midnineteenth century, most decision makers have been hearing and the dominant philosophy has been oral.

Most hearing parents, who comprise approximately 95% of the parents of deaf individuals, have little or no exposure to deaf individuals before the birth of their deaf child. Parents want their child to be a more perfect copy of themselves; in this case, they want their child to be hearing. For parents, the concentration may be more on speech, an outward manifestation, than on hearing itself, and there may be resistance to the use of signs, which might label the child as different. It is at this point that many well-meaning professionals provide the disservice of assuring the parents that the child will be all right; that is, he or she will speak if he or she does not sign. It is my belief that if there is any question about the effectiveness of oral/aural communication, signs should be introduced immediately.

1880 Conference of Milan

After generations of conflict over teaching methods, the 1880 Milan Conference passed two resolutions (Moores & Moore, 2011):

  • • The use of signs should not be allowed in the education of deaf individuals. [End Page 463]

  • • The use of signs with speech should not be allowed in the education of deaf individuals.

Deaf professionals played no role in the Congress, and none were allowed to vote. The resolutions of the Milan Conference, now identified as the Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf, were viewed as the final victory of oralism (speech) over manualism (signs) (Moores, 2001). Shortly after these resolutions were made, only oral instruction was being used in schools throughout the world, and deaf teachers disappeared from schools in most countries. In France, for example, after 1884 deaf teachers were excluded from teaching in all schools (Quartararo, 2008). In a few countries, signs were allowed in some schools after age 12, and deaf teachers were employed in manual departments in those schools. There were no deaf administrators.

Fast-Forward 130 Years

In 2010, 130 years after the Milan Conference, in Vancouver, Canada, the 21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf rejected the resolutions of the 1880 Conference and affirmed the benefits of sign.

One may applaud the change. On the other hand, it is fair to ask why it took so many years and why there has been such strong opposition to the use of signs by so many hearing educators.

Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race

Shortly after the 1880 Congress, Alexander Graham Bell (1883) published his influential Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race. Bell was a genius with many interests and accomplishments, most notably the invention of the telephone. He also considered himself a teacher of the deaf and...


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pp. 463-470
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