Oral vs. Sign Debate

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The controversy between Oral education camp (which generally aims at educating deaf children in such a way that they'll integrate with the majority culture of their country) and Manual (Sign Language based) education camp (which generally aims at introducing deaf children into the Deaf Culture) is THE big controversy of deaf education.

In the Internet discussion list DEAF-L (mirrored as bit.listserv.deaf-l in the Usenet) there is an ongoing discussion about this topic under various titles and in various threads. The discussion sometimes (often) gets heated.

This document tries to summarize the various arguments brought up in the discussion. The purpose is to let new participants learn what was already covered, so that they'll not post rehash of previous arguments, but make a real contribution to the discussion.

I am afraid that at present, the document is biased in favor of the Manual camp. In the DEAF-L list there were several emotional testimonials about the hardships which deaf children endured needlessly under the Oral method of education. From the other side (children who suffered under the Manual method of education but flourished under the Oral method) I do not recall seeing any such testimony posted to DEAF-L.

If you have such a story, please E-mail it to me with permission to include in a future version of this document.

Why is the Oral vs. Sign Debate so Emotionally Loaded?

To see why this topic can grow so heated ...

Imagine you have a deaf child -- the decisions you make in the first year or two will handicap your child forever -- and you have to decide which sacrifices to make. That's a pretty heavy burden.

Imagine that you're a teacher, trying desperately to help the kid catch up from behind.

Imagine that you're deaf yourself, and the new results could imply that the way your parents raised you was a mistake, and has crippled you for life.

... Feelings are ripe to be hurt, and people are therefore even quicker to take offense than they otherwise would be.

(Contributed by Jim Jewett at 8 Dec 1993.)

The Milan Resolution

(Thanks to Joseph P. Riolo for the information, posted to DEAF-L at 16 Feb 1995.)

Here are the first and second sections of the resolution, which was made in the 1880 Milan Congress (there are 8 sections in it):

  1. The Convention, considering the incontestable superiority of articulation over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society and giving him a fuller knowledge of language, declares that the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in the education and instruction of deaf-mutes.
  2. The Convention, considering that the simultaneous use of articulation and signs has the disadvantage of injuring articulation and lip-reading and the precision of ideas, declares that the pure oral method should be preferred.

Twice, the resolution said that the oral method "should be preferred". Moreover, the resolution said nothing about forbidding signs nor did it say about oral method as the "method of choice".

Of course, the resolution did not necessarily imply that the people who agreed to it adhered to the letters - and possibly spirit - of the resolution faithfully.

Appeal to parents of deaf children

Omer Zak posted the following to DEAF-L:


It is just impossible to get decent education if one is forced to rely on the unreliable method of lipreading (and even hearing in group situations in the case of hard-of-hearing).

There are some social skills which can be learned only if you have no technical obstacles to fluent communication with other human beings. It is for those social skills that hearing impaired children should have access to sign language. Once they have those social skills, they should find it easier to cope with other situations (if they choose not shut themselves off in the small world of the Deaf).

The above posting, of course, has drawn several flames.

In response to those flames, Joseph P. Riolo contributed the following:

Omer really concerns how much information can be passed to and from the child. It is his view that writing minimize the loss of information very much better than oral method. From my experience, oral people and people who support oral method did not really say or publicize how much information can be lost if one use oral method only. Henry Kisor gave to his autobiography the title "What's That Pig Outdoors?" Though the title sounds humorous to many people, it really reflects the dark side of the oral method.

Mom is proud of her child's 15 word vocabulary

(Contributed by Jean Boutcher at 30 Sep 1994.)


Tim says:

In reference to the "critical period" of learining language, well, look at it this way....

There is that short period, from about 6-8 months to about 6 years, to aquire a working language system. If SPOKEN LANGUAGE is the concentration...how much language do you think they will aquire (syntax, vocabulary, etc... ? ). So much of the time is spent on voicing and articulation, that vocabulary and syntax are ignored. Lets face it, in this situation, it is a case of quality over quantity where quantity is more important!

Now, if they learn ASL...what are the numbers? Don't get me wrong....if the child has enough residual hearing to make constructive use of oral methods using amplification....of course I am for it! On the other hand...who learns a second language better......someone well educated in their first language....or an illiterate???

Dramatic illustration

Jean says:

Bravo! Bravo! Bravo, Tim! I am for quantity! An educator attended a convention in the mid-west at 1990's. During one of the workshops, a hearing mother said proudly that her oral son aged five had seven words in his vocabulary: "He can pronounce seven words perfectly." Another hearing mother said proudly that her oral son had 15 words in his vocabulary and could pronounce the 15 words fairly well. Several deaf mothers gasped: "Seven words?" "15 words?" The two hearing mothers nodded with the glowing joy. The several deaf mothers then said, "Why? My deaf children have over 500 words in ASL."

Signing/Writing may sometimes be better than Speech

(Contributed by Mark 'Deffman' Drolsbaugh at 9 Jun 1995.)

I happen to be postlingually deaf and speak quite well. When I have to, I use my voice in situations like ordering food in a restaurant.

My mother, on the other hand, is prelingually deaf and never has been able to speak despite years of speech therapy as a child. She always signs or writes on paper.

Technically speaking, in terms of ability, I should be considered the least sheltered member of my family because I can use the mode of communication used by hearing people.

However, it doesnt work out that way; what usually happens is that the minute I use my voice, hearing people inadvertantly assume I can hear better than my mother and they begin to talk faster. In no time, Im lost. I have to say "whoa, waitaminute, back up a bit here..." and the hearing person has to repeat the whole thing. And they usually have to repeat often.

My mother, on the other hand, writes down her question on a piece of paper and establishes from the get-go that she's completely deaf. With that understood, the hearing person is usually more accomodating and writes back on the notepad. In no time, my mother has the information she wants, while I'm still going "eh, what did you say?" with my superior (but worthless in this situation) speaking skills.

Last update date: 
2006 Jan 1