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Oralism is the education of deaf students through oral language by using lip reading, speech, and mimicking the mouth shapes and breathing patterns of speech. Oralism came into popular use in the United States around the late 1860s. In 1867, the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts was the first school to start teaching in this manner. Oralism and its contrast, manualism, manifest differently in deaf education and are the source of controversy for involved communities. Oralism should not be confused with Listening and Spoken Language, a technique for teaching deaf children that emphasizes the child's perception of auditory signals from hearing aids and/or cochlear implants.
Early 16th century
Since the beginning of formal deaf education in the eighteenth century in the United States, manualism and oralism have been on opposing sides of a heated debate that continues to this day. Oralism as the systematic education of deaf people began in Spain in the mid-1500s and was the byproduct of socioeconomic motives. The church barred deaf people from Holy Communion because they could not confess aloud. Deaf people were also prohibited from inheriting their family's wealth; therefore, to preserve the family wealth, deaf heirs in Spain were sent to Pedro Ponce de Leon after hearing that he taught a deaf man to talk in San Salvador Monastery in Oña. Oralism provided members of the privileged classes with deaf children a way to channel their children's education and an opportunity to keep them away from the deaf community. Speaking has been equated with the higher classes and higher intellect, signing with the lower.
Late 19th century
Before the Clarke School for the Deaf (now the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech) made its mark in deaf American education in the 1860s, there was a popular support of manualism. Manual language soon became a less popular choice for deaf education due to the new Darwinist perspective. Clarke School for the Deaf in 1867 became a "mainstream service" for deaf students through creating a "learn to listen" mentality. This was done through the proper training of educators in auditory/oral education. Since its start, Clarke School has expanded and provided support for oral communication within deaf education and policy.
In relation to the early 16th century Oralism in Spain, 19th century oralists viewed oral language as a superior form of communication. Gardiner Green Hubbard, Horace Mann, Samuel Gridley Howe and Alexander Graham Bell were popular supporters of oralism and its impact on deaf education and services. Until the end of the 19th century, many educators of deaf America were deaf themselves.[irrelevant citation] However, oralists like Alexander Graham Bell began to wield increasing influence. Bell and others believed in deaf assimilation with the mainstream hearing world. Bell also believed that sign language was an instrument of imprisonment and that its use prevented the “gesturer” from being a “true American”[unreliable source?]. Bell had no opinion regarding whether or whom deaf people should marry. By contrast, negative eugenicists sought to stop the spread of “bad genes” through invasive measures such as mandatory placement in institution sor sterilization. Bell believed oralism was “an attractive option to sterilization”[unreliable source?]. To Bell, implementation of oralism meant the possibility of a mainstream and “normal” life for deaf individuals.
In 1878, International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) met in Paris to discuss the use of sign language and other issues within deaf education. During the congregation, no Deaf members were allowed to testify. In 1880, the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) met again in Milan with 164 educators attending with one of them being deaf. This meeting created the solely oralist classroom preventing any form of sign language from being used. After the Milan conference, the Deaf community referred to this time in history as "the dark ages for deaf education in America".
Hearing educators who could not sign replaced deaf teachers and, by the mid-20th century, eighty percent of American secondary schools for the deaf used the oral method exclusively. Some strategies, such as Total Communication or SimCom, saw classes conducted in a mixture of spoken and signed English with the teacher signing along, in English word order as they delivered their lecture. For example, "is" "was" and "the", which are not used in sign, were spelled out by the teachers using the manual alphabet. Students were taught using the articulation method, which taught them how to speak and lip read. Oralists believed that signs were no more than gross holistic gestures, which stood for English words in a one-to-one correspondence. Sentences in sign were thought to have no grammar. The facial expressions, such as exaggerated movements of the mouth, tongue, eyes, and lips, suggesting grimacing or excessive emotional display, triggered horror in hearing people. Students were asked to stop moving their faces when they signed, which is equivalent to asking hearing people to speak in declarative sentences uttered in monotone.
Movement towards manualism
Even though students were not allowed to use manual signs within the classroom, many deaf students preferred manual signs and used them frequently in their dorm rooms at residential schools for the deaf. Some deaf children were considered "oral failures" because they could not pick up oral language. Others thought that the techniques of oralism actually limited them on what they were taught because they always had to concentrate on the way the words were formed, not what they meant.
Leaders of the manualist movement, including Edward M. Gallaudet, argued against the teaching of oralism because it restricted the ability of deaf students to communicate in what was considered their native language. Moreover, "attempts to eliminate sign language were tantamount to stripping them of their identity, their community, and their culture."
The retraction of laws forbidding the use of sign language in the classroom occurred in 2010 with the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) in Vancouver. Deaf grassroots activists and the planning committee of ICED created a solution to provide proper education to the deaf globally.
Oralism is no longer used to teach language or communication in the United States. Parental use of the oral approach typically stems from parental desire for their child to use a spoken language to communicate with the majority hearing population. They also feel the use of a spoken language will further their child's literacy and written language skills in the classroom. While some researches believed that success of the oral approach in a classroom setting had not been fully evaluated, recent research has demonstrated that oral education using Listening and Spoken Language can provide most deaf children with spoken language skills that are equivalent to those of their hearing peers.
Oral schools and their mission
A strong supporter of oral schools in the United States is the Oberkotter Foundation, whose mission is "Empowering children who are deaf or hard of hearing to reach their full potential by providing leadership and funding in listening and spoken language."  The organization provides financial support to institutions that demonstrate a focus on developing skills in listening and using oral language for deaf individuals. This is not limited to oral schools themselves, but also extends to universities, social support programs, and medical centers that are deemed supportive of spoken language development in deaf children. The Foundation believes that developing spoken language proficiency allows deaf individuals to reach their full potential.
Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech: Focus on helping deaf and hard of hearing children develop spoken English and listening skills. The school's goal is to prepare students for the mainstream setting.
Cleary School: Focus on ASL and Spoken English in its Elementary, Middle, and High School classrooms. Their Pre-K focuses on spoken English.
Memphis Oral School for the Deaf: Teaching children to develop their spoken and written English skills by teaching children in spoken English.
There have been few quantitative evaluations regarding the long-term outcomes of oral programs for deaf individuals, but those that do exist tend to study this in relation to children with cochlear implants. One study compared the English development of deaf children with a cochlear implant versus what the English development might have been without the implant. English development was greater and more successful for the implanted deaf child than that of the non-implanted child based on the implementation of a predictive model. The predictive model employs age, residual hearing, and communication mode used by the child to predict the language development. Although deaf implanted children are already at a disadvantage for English development when compared to their hearing counterparts, the implant, on average, reduced what could have been an even larger deficit had the child not been implanted (based on the predictive model). The authors recommend implanting the child as early as possible.
The studies did not consider how a non-implanted child exposed to a signed language and a bilingual/bicultural education could develop English skills in relation to a hearing child’s English development. Multiple studies find that by ensuring a deaf child has access to American Sign Language, their overall academic performance is better than those who are not.
Communication in oral-deaf students without cochlear implants is typically less frequent and less complex than hearing peers of the same age. These expressed communications are less clear than that of their hearing peers. Linguistically, these communications are typical of the language skills seen much earlier in their hearing counterparts. Despite efforts to encourage the sole reliance on speech and spoken language in oral schools, some oral-deaf individuals developed sign systems among themselves in non-supervised settings. Additionally, oral-deaf children often used manual gestures/signs simultaneously or in addition to vocalizations during expressive communications at home.
Some studies have called into question the role of developing spoken language skills in relation to developing reading skills. One study in particular demonstrated that while individuals who became deaf before developing spoken language did show a decreased ability to differentiate between the phonological properties of a language, they showed equal capability of recognizing and understanding the orthographic properties of what they were reading. In fact, compared to their hearing counterparts, the deaf individuals showed an increased rate of written word processing skills as they increased in age. Altogether, this research provided evidence contrary to the belief that spoken skills are critical to the development of reading skills, and further proposes that educational approaches should include a stronger focus on building awareness of written language forms separate from the related aural aspects.
There is little existing research on the social, professional, and mental health of deaf individuals using oral methods in comparison to those using other methods of education and communication. However, some studies suggest that social-emotional outcomes for deaf children who use cochlear implants and spoken language are statistically significantly higher than those of their signing deaf counterparts.
There also was no accurate predictor of oralism's success in the classroom.
Deaf children growing up in an oral setting are likely to experience cognitive and developmental delays as a result of a deprivation of natural signed-language. The decision to place a child in an oral setting, however, likely stems from pressure parents feel to do so from a doctor or medical practitioner. Pressure is then said to be placed on deaf children, as they are reported to feel embarrassed if they do not master both lip-reading and spoken English. These delays are also not only academic, but also social. Deaf children in an oral setting may feel depressed, anxious and experience aloneness and embarrassment as a result of such language deprivation.
- Baby sign language
- Deaf culture
- History of deaf education in the United States
- Language deprivation in deaf and hard of hearing children
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