During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, schools for deaf children were opened in France, Britain, the USA and other countries. Sign language was used in many of these. In Britain, as elsewhere, many of the Deaf students grew up to become teachers.
However, there was an opposing school of thought, which said that deaf children were best educated by the ‘pure oral method’.
In 1880, the Second Congress of Educators of Deaf-Mutes in Milan passed a resolution saying that the pure oral method was the one that should be preferred in the education of deaf children. Although there were only two Deaf delegates, out of more than 150, and the resolution had no legal status, it became the biggest influence in the education of deaf children for the next hundred years.
Within a generation, there were almost no Deaf teachers in Deaf schools, and sign language was banished, not only from the classroom, but usually from the playground as well. The American historian Harlan Lane wrote,” (This) is the single most important cause - more important than hearing loss - of the limited educational achievement of the modern deaf man and woman.”
Many Deaf people testify that the frustration of growing up in an environment where they were not allowed to sign is one of the biggest factors in the incidence of mental health problems among Deaf people.
Sign Language is not a universal language. Every country has its own Sign Language. The language of the Deaf community in the UK is British Sign Language (BSL), which was recognised by the Government as a language in its own right in 2003.
BSL is not a variation on spoken English. Still less is it a degraded version of English. Each Sign Language is a fully formed language in its own right. Deaf people have created poetry, drama, comedy and other forms of cultural expression in Sign Language.
For many, English - including written English - is at best a second language. Research has shown that, because of problems in education, the average Deaf school leaver has a reading age of less than nine. So attempting to deal with complex mental health issues with Deaf people through writing is rarely the answer.
It is important that Deaf people are able to discuss mental health issues and any problems in sign language, if that is what they wish. Not only does this mean the use of BSL/English interpreters where required, but also that there should be staff who can communicate directly in sign language and, preferably, that appropriately qualified Deaf BSL users should be involved wherever they are needed.
You can find more information about Deaf history, culture and Sign Language on the following websites:
¤ Signstation - www.signstation.org (go to Questions and Answers)
¤ The British Deaf History Society - www.deaf-history.org.uk
The following book makes useful reading:
A Beginner's Introduction to Deaf History, Edited by Raymond Lee
A4 Size - 260 illustrations - 258 pages ISBN 1-902427-18-1; £20.00 per copy. Available from:
52 Hillhouse Road
London, SW16 2AQ