To Sign or Not to Sign
The Oralist/Manualist Debate in Deaf Education
By Johanna Myers
On December 27, 1974, my mother went into labor. In most cases, the onset of labor, while painful, is often accompanied by feelings of excitement and anticipation. But, for my mother, labor brought nothing but worries. She wasnt due for another two months, and she was worried that such an early birth would cause health problems for her child, or that the child might not live at all.
Things were complicated even more when the baby was delivered. Instead of the six-pound baby boy the doctors had predicted, there was also a two and a half-pound baby girl. My mother was having twins.
When the other baby, Ben, was born, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck two times, and he was black and blue. Despite this, both he and his sister recovered with no signs of brain damage from the birth. After several months, the twins came home healthy and appeared normal except for a few infections.
Four years later, my mother and Ben were taking a ride in the car. Ben was in the back seat, my mother in the front. She said something to Ben, to which he replied, "Mommy, I cant hear you. I cant see you."
These simple sentences confirmed suspicions my parents had about Bens hearing since he was a few months old. They had his hearing tested a number of times, but they were told Ben was just being stubborn, and that he might be retarded. When my parents finally found an audiologist who believed them, he found that Ben had a between a 70 and 75-decibel hearing loss, which is considered a severe hearing loss. The doctors suspected that Bens traumatic birth caused his hearing loss.
But my parents struggles with Bens hearing loss and the repercussions of that loss were just beginning. Ben was already oral, which means he could talk reasonably well and understand most things when he read lips. But Bens was not a typical situation. He taught himself how to read lips without any special trainingsomething it takes most hearing-impaired people a lifetime to master, even with rigorous training. Despite this, Bens speech was not normal for his age. When he started kindergarten he had the speech level of a two-year-old. Given this, my parents still had an important decision to makewhether to teach him how to sign and use speech as a supplemental form of communication or to discourage the use of gestures and focus entirely on oral communication.
For Ben, the answer was to continue with the skills that he had taught himselflip reading and speech. "In a way," says Bens mother, "Ben made the decision for himself. When we got him fitted for hearing aides and working with a speech therapist, he improved so much that it felt like the natural way to go."
But, for many parents, especially those with children who have profound hearing losses, the answers do not come so simply. Many parents who do not know a lot about the options available for their children usually follow the advice of their audiologist, who is likely to subscribe to one of two philosophies, oralist or manualist. The oralists believe that all hearing impaired children, including those who are profoundly deaf, can learn to use what hearing they have through the use or hearing aides, and learn to speak and read lips so that they can function "normally" within the hearing world. Gestures and sign language, they say, serve only as a hindrance to speech learning. Encouraging the use of gestures could ruin any chances the child has of speaking.
Manualists hold that signing is a natural way for people with hearing losses to communicate. Hearing-impaired children often create their own form of sign language in which a certain gesture has a very specific meaning without instruction. They should be encouraged and taught a standard sign language, preferably American Sign Language. Manualists believe that if students want to speak, it should be secondary to signing and at the students pace.
Despite Bens progress in speech and lip reading, school was a difficult experience for him. The law required that he be able to use certain resources that would make it easier for Ben to understand the teacher and his classmates. Hearing aides, while a valuable resource for the hearing impaired, amplify all sounds. This made it difficult for Ben to understand his teachers, who were perfectly willing to help Ben, as long as it wasnt too much of an inconvenience.
School was also difficult for Ben because of the other children. "They made fun of me, of course," says Ben. "Looking back, I realize its almost expected. But at the time it was really hard. I was very isolated, even though I could communicate with them with few, if any, problems."
"Seeing the other children tease Ben was hard," says Suzi, his twin. "To me, and to all of us, it was just Ben, my loving and sometimes annoying brother. But I think the kids didnt see the personthey just saw the hearing aides."
As Ben grew older, my parents decision to follow the path of oralism was in the foreground less and less. Ben no longer needed speech therapy and was doing well in high school. But he didnt have much, if any contact with other hearing-impaired people.
"I was never exposed to the deaf culture," says Ben, "so I never realized how different it is from what I grew up around."
Ben graduated from high school and decided to go to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), a division of the Rochester Institute of Technology. "When I went to NTID," Ben explains, "I was surrounded by mostly profoundly deaf people, and people whose hearing losses were more severe than mine. While most of the people I met could speak, their primary form of communication was signing. Mine was speaking."
This was Bens first experience with the adult deaf community. But, while some of the students accepted Ben and helped him learn how to sign, many of them shunned him. "They said I wasnt deaf enough," says Ben, "which, I think, means my speech was too good and my signing not good enough."
Most of the students Ben encountered were manualists: the ones who accepted and helped him were what you might call moderate manualists. Their parents usually combined signing and speech therapy, a form of manualism commonly referred to as total communication. Those who did not accept Ben were more extreme manualiststhose who were taught mostly using sign language with little emphasis on speech.
"It was the first time I encountered deaf pride," says Ben. It was also the first time I realized how much emotion was caught up in the debate between manualism and oralism."
It was also then that Ben read a book called Deaf Like Me. The book traces the life of Lynn, a profoundly deaf little girl whose parents try to teach her how to speak for the first seven years of her life. It describes the method they followed and the frustrations both Lynn and her parents felt. Despite their problems, Lynns parents thought they were doing what was best for their daughter. They were led to believe that all hearing-impaired people could learn to talk normally. After seven years, Lynn could say a few words and pronounce a few sounds. Frustrated, they started learning sign language and teaching it to Lynn as they learned.
"For me," says Ben, "it was like an awakening. I had not idea this debate was going on. Whether or not I should learn to speak was just never an issue."
As the battle wages on, Ben has found his place in both the hearing and deaf worlds. "The thing parents of hearing impaired children have to realize," says Ben, "is that no two hearing impaired children are alike. What path people choose to take in teaching their children must depend solely on the child, not on what the parents want."
Parents want their children to have a fulfilling life, Ben explains, and for some hearing impaired children, it is possible to become completely oral and not depend on sign language at all. However, the choice of whether to go the oralist or manualist route should be based on the severity of a childs hearing loss, not on the parents hopes for their child, no matter how good their intentions.