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Posted May 14, 2009
This is an excellent history for deaf education in the United States. It is a readable and insightful treasure of names, dates and institutions, developed against the broader canvas of world deaf education. The volume documents the development of social and political factors involved in the position of the deaf population within the broader general population in Europe and the United States.
These two scholars develop the story chronologically and thematically from the 1500s, paralleling the stages of social and industrial development in western society. They portray the attitudes and approaches to the deaf community and shine their specific spotlight on the growing consciousness of the deaf as a coherent community over the last 200 years.
The Deaf were seen often as disabled and less able to learn, or were made to learn speech to enhance their interaction with the hearing community and their usefulness to the dominant hearing culture. As educational movements they contrast the development of methods in Europe and the New World. Notably, two streams focus on methods using sign language or oral-only approaches meant to establish oral fluency and lip-reading among the deaf.
Sign language was initially developed in France and introduced in the American territories and modified for English. The authors detail the progress of sign language from France and its broader development in Britain by the Frenchman Clerc and its intentional crossing of the Atlantic in early institutions established in the US. This method was an early success and continued in the US.
A new approach gradually gained dominance in Europe, however, focused on bringing the deaf to competency in oral speech and "speech-reading" to participate in broader society. Though this approach did not exhibit notable practical results, it came to be advocated by hearing persons involved in deaf education, and became a great adversary of sign language as a medium of communication.
Advocates of the "oralism" approach wanted to enable deaf persons to "become normal" and fully participate in the broader society. In contrast, there was a strong early development and management of deaf association and services by deaf persons for themselves.
Gallaudet University, whose press published the book, has a laudable history of practical deaf education and deaf advocacy in the United States. As an institution of the District of Columbia it was directly administered by Congress.
The oralism movement was more popular in certain circles, notable in Nebraska, where for a period, sign language education was actually prohibited by law in any state educational institution. In Europe oralism prevailed until more recently. Gallaudet is named after a member of the venerable family who pioneered deaf education in the United States. This university is now a world leader in resources and education for the Deaf community.