The History of Sign Language and Deaf Communication

By hissign|January 20, 2022|Blogs|0 comments

For centuries, Deaf people faced harsh oppression and were denied fundamental rights. Some of the earliest discourse on Deaf individuals comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who claimed that Deaf people were incapable of learning and critical thinking. This false and ill-informed belief contributed to the view that the Deaf were “non-persons,” discrimination that prohibited them from buying property, marrying, or securing a job. Fortunately, the tide turned during the Renaissance when scholars began to educate the Deaf community and created a signed language.

Thanks to the impact and activism of some extraordinary groups and individuals, Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities today assert their equal right to participate in personal, public, and political arenas. Accessibility practices, including American sign language interpreter and translator services, are readily accessible from providers like HIS Sign Interpreting. Indeed, our onsite and virtual ASL Interpreting, TypeWell, and CART services are available across the region, giving Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals an equal footing to the Hearing population.

Below, we take a deeper look into the history of sign language and Deaf communication:

Early Deaf Education

Geronimo Cardano, a 16th-century Italian mathematician and physician, is considered the first scholar to affirm that learning did not require hearing. Cardano’s son was Deaf, and through him, the scholar discovered that Deaf people could learn as well as Hearing individuals. 

Following Cardano, a 17th-century Spanish priest named Juan Pablo de Bonet sought to teach Deaf people. He developed unique teaching methods, including a manual alphabet system (the first in Deaf history), reading, writing, and lip-reading. 

Despite these advancements, organized Deaf education was not introduced until around 1750. Abbe de L’Epee, a French Catholic Priest, founded the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes in 1771, a free public school for the Deaf. Deaf children came from all across France to attend, bringing along signs they learned at home. L’Epee noted and utilized these signs to teach his students French, which developed into a standard signed language known as Old French Sign Language and spread across Europe.

Oralism: A Bump in the Road

Some scholars, including L’Epee, believed sign language was the native communication and education method for Deaf people. However, supporters of Oralism claimed that the Deaf community should learn exclusively through speech and lip-reading so they could function fully in hearing society. 

Despite the popularity of sign languages, Oralism gained traction worldwide. Two of America’s largest Deaf schools started teaching oral methods only in 1867, and other Deaf schools across the U.S. followed suit.  

The debate between sign language and Oralism continued for decades, coming to a head at the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf in 1880 in Milan, Italy. The result? Supporters of Oralism won the vote, and the Congress declared that “the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in the education and instruction of deaf-mutes.” 

This outcome devastated the progress of signed language. Over the next 10 years, sign language use in Deaf education drastically dropped off, and almost all Deaf education programs used the oralism method by 1920.

American Sign Language

American Sign Language originated at the first American school for the Deaf, established in 1817 by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc. Similar to what occurred at Abbe de L’Epee’s school, students from all over the country brought signs they learned at home to the schools. These home signs combined with the French Sign Language taught at the school to form American Sign Language. 

By the 1900s, a nationwide network of schools taught ASL. With it, Deaf people had the opportunity to learn and communicate through a shared language and without any barriers. 

The Oralist movement interfered with this progress in the early 20th century when figures such as Alexander Graham Bell opposed sign language in Deaf education. Many Deaf adults who taught and modeled sign language were forced out of the profession or demoted to vocational classes. Nevertheless, ASL boomed among the Deaf community.

In 1960, William Stokoe—a professor at Gallaudet University—published a dissertation that revolutionized the understanding of sign language. At the time, ASL was viewed as a simplified version of spoken English or an elaborate pantomime. However, Stokoe’s linguistic work proved that ASL was a legitimate language with its syntax and grammar. Moving forward, ASL would be recognized as a language, as functional and powerful as any oral language in the world. 

Moreover, in 1964, the Babbidge Report issued by Congress called Oralism in Deaf education a “dismal failure.” In 1970, the educational method of Total Communication was formed, which supported Deaf individuals accessing information by any means rather than forcing the choice of sign language or speech and lipreading. This method became the leading philosophy for Deaf education and included learning via fingerspelling, sign language, speech,  lipreading, reading, writing, and using hearing aids or other assistive technology.

Two women using American Sign Language

HIS Sign Interpreting: Professional ASL Interpreting, Transcription and Captioning Services

HIS Sign is proud to improve communication access for Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals through American sign language interpreter services, as well as transcription and captioning. We provide onsite ASL interpreting, TypeWell, and CART services throughout the DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia areas and offer remote services nationwide. For more information about HIS Sign and our ASL, TypeWell, and CART services, or to schedule a service, call us at (877) 458-7408 or fill out our online form

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