Deafness - American EducationFor young children, a hearing impairment that prevents normal speech development and interferes with normal daily functioning. Deafness may be congenital or adventitious (caused by accidents or illnesses). Children with partial deafness who are classified as hard-of-hearing may, with proper care, develop normal speech and learn to function normally in every other way.
About 2.2 million of the 17.5 million Americans with hearing impairments are severely deaf, and their education has been the subject of controversy within and without the deaf community for more than two centuries. Until the mid-1500s, the deaf were considered ineducable, and the first schools for deaf children were not established until the 1700s—by Abbé Charles Michel de l’Epée (1712–89) in France and by Samuel Heinicke (1727–90) in Germany. Since then, educators have debated whether deaf children should be educated by l’Epée’s manual method, using hand and finger signs, or by Heinecke’s oral method, in which they learn lipreading to understand others and learn to speak vocally. The oralists maintain that deafness is a disability that every deaf person should strive to overcome by every means available: surgery, hearing aids, lipreading and learning to speak by sounding out words—regardless of the psychological costs. Supporters of this view, in effect, want to make the deaf hear. The l’Epée “manualists,” on the other hand, maintain that deafness is a culture (Deaf culture), which like any culture, has its own language, and that education should center on mastery of that language. Called American Sign Language, the language of the deaf in the United States is not a word-for-word translation of the English language, but an independent language with unique syntactical and other grammatical features. If, for example, the signed version of the English language sentence “People mislabel me as disabled” were translated literally into English, it would read: “Disabled, people label me, wrong.” There is, of course, a third school of thought that holds with both points of view and sees no conflict in helping the deaf communicate equally well with both the hearing and deaf worlds. Advocates of this broader approach point out that 90% of severely deaf Americans were born to hearing parents who delayed their children’s intellectual development unnecessarily because they lacked skills in raising deaf infants. Educators now urge parents of the deaf to combine all forms of manual and oral methods in communicating with their infants and to enroll their children in specialized all-day parent-child preschools by age three at the latest—preferably earlier. Educators themselves now depend on total communication to teach hearing impaired primary and secondary school students. The first school for the deaf was established in the United States by Thomas H. Gallaudet, and the college founded in Washington, D.C., in 1856 by his son remains the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the Western world. The National Technical Institute for the Deaf was founded in Rochester, New York, in 1968, to offer technical education. (See also Alexander Graham Bell.)