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Manualism is a method of education of deaf students using sign language within the classroom.[1] Manualism arose in the late 18th century with the advent of free public schools for the deaf in Europe. These teaching methods were brought over to the United States where the first school for the deaf was established in 1817. Today manualism methods are used in conjunction with oralism methods in the majority of American deaf schools.


Abbe de l’Épée, creator of the first manual schools

Origins of manual education[edit]

The first manual schools were in Paris, France. Abbe de l’Épée, a Catholic priest, encountered two teenage deaf girls while visiting a family in the poor part of the city. He decided to take it upon himself to educate them. He invented a technique called "methodical signing" from the signs the girls already used, with the combination of methods influenced by the writings of Johann Konrad Ammann and Juan Pablo Bonet. He created a one-hand manual alphabet to be able to fingerspell French words.[2] L’Épée opened a free national school for the deaf in his home, on 14 Moulins Street (now called Thérèse Street). After his death in 1789, Abbé Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard took over as head of the school;[3] it was renamed Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris. The school received monetary support from individuals and grants from King Louis XVI.[4]

Early deaf education in America[edit]

Laurent Clerc, a graduate from the school and pupil of l’Épée and Sicard, returned to the school as a teacher. He was teaching there in 1816 when Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet visited. Gallaudet met nine-year-old Alice Cogswell who knew no form of communication system. He learned of Sicard's theories and started tutoring Alice. Gallaudet traveled to Europe in May 1815 and attended demonstrations in France led by Sicard, Clerc, and Massieu. He returned in March 1816 and persuaded Clerc to return with him to the United States.

Back in the US, they searched for funds and public support. Together they established the first deaf school in the United States on April 15, 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut; it was named the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons. The school taught in French Sign Language and a version of de l’Épée’s methodical sign taught by Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.[4] The students attending the school had some knowledge of an indigenous sign language used in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Out of the blend of Martha's Vineyard Sign Language and French Sign Language, emerged American Sign Language.[2]

The fall of manual education[edit]

Manual education remained the primary method to educate deaf people until the 1860s. People then begin to subscribe to more oralist methods of education: lip reading and speech training. In 1867, the first private oral school opened in New York City.[5] The oral movement took off in full swing at the Milan Conference of 1880 where Alexander Graham Bell declared oral methods superior to manual methods. After this conference, schools all around Europe and the United States switched to using speech and lipreading, banning all sign language from the classroom. The deaf community was left in what some call the "dark ages".[2]

Revival of manual education[edit]

While working at Gallaudet University in the 1970s, William Stokoe felt that American Sign Language was a language in its own right, with its own independent syntax and grammar. Stokoe classified the language into five parts which included: handshapes, orientation, location, movement, and facial expression, in which much of the meaning of the sign is clarified as well as the grammar of the sentence expressed.[6] Some sign languages, such as American Sign Language, have been promoted as the traditional way of communication for deaf people.[7] Manualism is combined with oralism as the contemporary technique for the education of deaf students.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Douglas C. Baynton (1996). Forbidden signs: American culture and the campaign against sign language. University of Chicago Press, 1996. p. 4. ISBN 9780226039640. Retrieved 2011-03-18.
  2. ^ a b c Wolkomir, Richard; Johnson, Lynn (July 1992). "American Sign Language: 'It's not mouth stuff--it's brain stuff.'". 23 (4). Smithsonian: 30. Retrieved December 1, 2015.
  3. ^ "The national institute for the Deaf". Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris. Retrieved December 1, 2015.
  4. ^ a b Nomeland, Melvia M.; Nomeland, Ronald E. (2011). The Deaf Community in America: History in the Making. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., Publishers. ISBN 9780786488544. Retrieved December 1, 2015.
  5. ^ "Signs and Wonders: Religious Rhetoric and the Preservation of Sign Language". Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. Retrieved December 1, 2015.
  6. ^ Bauman, H-Dirksen, ed. Open Your Eyes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 15.
  7. ^ H-Dirksen L. Bauman, Jennifer L. Nelso (2006). Signing the body poetic: essays on American Sign Language literature. University of California Press, 2006. p. 242. ISBN 9780520229754. Retrieved December 1, 2015.
  8. ^ J. Madhubala (2010). Adjustment Problems of Hearing Impaired. Discovery Publishing House, 2004. p. 11. ISBN 9788171418312. Retrieved December 1, 2015.