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ASL: The Fight To Be Heard

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The year was 1880. The ongoing feud between Alexander Graham Bell and the Gallaudet family continued. The topic of deaf education was to be decided among 164 individuals – only one of which was deaf. Ultimately, it was this decision that would dictate the future of the Deaf culture and those within the community. Almost unanimously, the vote for Oralism marked a defining moment in Deaf history.

In 1817, after his discovery of French Sign Language, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet returned to Connecticut in pursuit of establishing the first American School for the Deaf. With the assistance of French deaf graduate, Laurent Clerc, it was then that American Sign Language (ASL) evolved and the American Deaf culture emerged. It is within this culture that Deaf individuals began and continue to perceive deafness as a language minority and not that of a disability. A preferred lifestyle, Deaf communities spread throughout the Northeastern region and later across the United States. However much like prejudices against other disabilities, criticism of that way of life began to interfere.

Some felt the necessity for deaf individuals to adapt and assimilate to the hearing world. Among them, Alexander Graham Bell followed his father’s footsteps introducing the system of Visible Speech. In the 1870’s, he advocated the strict use of spoken language and lip reading contradicting Gallaudet’s methods of manual communication. Although one method is not superior to the other, it was thought that Bell led more of an extremist point of view following that of the eugenic movement. In fact, many Deaf individuals are opposed to the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing as it is considered to minimize the importance of ASL.

Now with the growing statistic of over 90% of deaf infants born to hearing parents, more and more children undergo cochlear implant surgery as early as 12 months of age. The continued progress and success with cochlear implants once again challenges the use of sign. As history repeats itself, a language with several dialects is unfortunately too often mistaken as the absence of hearing and not a language at all.