Manualism and oralism are two opposing philosophies regarding the education of the deaf. Manualism is the education of deaf students using sign language and oralism being the education of deaf students using spoken language. Since the beginning of formal deaf education in the 18th century, these two philosophies have been on opposing sides of a heated debate that continues to this day, although many modern deaf educational facilities attempt to integrate both approaches.
Manualism is the education of deaf students using sign language within the classroom. The type of manual language used in the United States is American Sign Language (ASL). The manual language, ASL, was considered a real language in the 1960s by William C. Stokoe. Stokoe invented five parts of the manual language which includes: handshapes, orientation, location, movement, and facial expression, in which all the meanings of the signs are portrayed through facial expressions. To the Deaf community, manualism is viewed as the most natural way of communication for deaf people and is viewed to be easily learned. Manualism is the traditional way of communication which makes sign language be considered as more natural and more expressive. Manualism is the technique and education for the deaf students that is mostly in use today.
Oralism is the education of deaf students that came into popular use in the United States around the late 1860s with Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts being the first school in 1867 to start teaching in this manner. Oralism is the education of deaf students that uses spoken language consisting of lip reading, speech, the process of watching mouth movements, and mastering breathing techniques , with the restriction of sign language within the classroom. The time of oralism is considered by some to be the "dark ages for the deaf people in America". The Deaf community views oralism as a failure and believes it stunts the deaf people’s mental growth and achievements.
Since the beginning of formal deaf education in the 18th century in the United States, manualism and oralism have been on opposing sides of a heated debate that continues to this day. The debate of whether or how deaf children should be taught started before even Socrates, Aristotle, and St. Augustine, but it was not until later when the issue was debated in the United States.
The forms of manualism and oralism education for deaf people could be considered to be due to the cultural constructs that were taking place during American history that changed the views on how the hearing community viewed deafness which in turn constituted how deaf individuals were to be educated.
Before the 1860s and before the Civil War, manual language was very popular in the Deaf community and also supported by the hearing community. The hearing community viewed deafness as “[isolating] the individual from the Christian community”. At the time, the American people were very religious (notably Christian), and the hearing-advantaged believed that sign language opened deaf individuals’ minds and souls to God. Through this, the hearing community believed that manualism brought deaf people closer to God and opened deaf people to the gospel, which brought manualism general acceptance. Prior to the 1860s, the American hearing community viewed manualism, sign language, as an art, and naturally beautiful. They also thought of deaf people who signed as being like the Romans because of the pantomimes that are a part of the language. An important manualist was Laurent Clerc who brought his signs to the American Deaf community and was the “first deaf person to teach deaf students in the United States”. Other defining individuals for the manualist side included Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and his son Edward Miner Gallaudet. Edward Miner Gallaudet strongly believed in the use of sign language and had a number of arguments with Alexander Graham Bell, an oralist. The first school for the Deaf community, opened by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet with the help of Laurent Clerc, was built in 1817 Named the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, at Hartford, Connecticut, it was a manualist school taught by mostly male teachers. The teaching of manualism continued to be used in schools for the deaf until the late 1860s.
By the end of the Civil War, in the late 1860s, the argument for “Survival of the Fittest” was applied to the issue of education for the deaf as a result of a Darwinist perspective of Evolution. This movement brought manualists argue their view that signs were closer to nature because the first thing babies learn to do is gesture, which is sign To the Deaf community, manualism was at the time considered a gift from God. During this particular time in America, oralism was coming about which gave some a negative view of manualism because it was argued that it was not a real language.
Support for oralism gained momentum in the late 1860s and the use of manualism started to decrease. Many in the hearing community were now in favor of the evolutionary perspective, which made deaf people who used manual language like “lower animals”. Some hearing people viewed speech as what separated humans from animals which in turn caused manual language be viewed as un-humanlike. At that time the teaching of manual language was restricted because the American hearing society saw deaf people who used it as different, as foreigners, or as a group with a separate language that was a threat to the hearing society. Members of the hearing community who were in favor of oralism took offense to deaf people having their own group identity and refusing to integrate within the greater community. Oralists believed that the manual language made deaf people different, which in turn led them to believe that deaf people were abnormal and they believed that the teaching of oralism allowed deaf children to be more normal. Oralists strongly believed that deaf children should put as much effort as possible into learning how to live in spite of their disabilities, which is why oralists promote the teaching of lip reading, mouth movements, and use of hearing technology. Oralists also argued that if deaf people continued the use of manual language as their form of communication, they would never integrate with the rest of society.
A model figure for oralism and against the usage of sign language was Alexander Graham Bell. Two other American men who encouraged the start up of oralism schools in the United States were Horance Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe who went to Germany to see how their oral schools were set up and wished to model it. The first schools for oralism opened in the 1860s were called, The New York Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf Mutes, and The Clarke Institution for Deaf-Mutes. The job of deaf educators in the oralist schools, who were mostly women, was to prepare the deaf children for life in the hearing world; this required them to learn English, speech, and lipreading. These oralist schools restricted the deaf students’ use of American Sign Language (ASL) in class and in public. If teachers or citizens of the community saw a deaf child use manual signs, the student was punished. One type of punishment used on deaf students was to force them to wear white gloves that were tied together to prevent them from using signs.
Many members of the deaf population in the United States opposed the oralist belief that deaf people should learn English, speech, and lip-reading. 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 their natural language. Oralists wanted to ban the use of sign language all together because they believed it prevented deaf people from integrating with the hearing community. Deaf people were opposed to this because, “attempts to eliminate sign language were tantamount to stripping them of their identity, their community, and their culture”.
Even though the deaf students were not allowed to use manual signs within the classroom, many of the deaf students preferred manual signs and used them frequently in their dorm rooms. Deaf people during this time had to hide signing behind closed doors even though it was the most efficient way of communicating. Eventually, oralism failed. The deaf children were considered as “oral failures” because they could not pick up the language. Many deaf individuals 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. Many deaf students viewed oralism as frustrating, time consuming, a total waste of their education time, and worst of all discouraging. A mother of a deaf child commented on an oralist school, “All they did was work on speech. No history, social studies, or even math. Talking isn’t that important to me”. With oralist education, the only truly successful students, who were known as “semi-mutes”, were those individuals who became deaf later in life and had a background knowledge of English and spoken language. This unfavorable teaching technique for deaf people lasted until the 1970s. Oralism began to decline because “research found that oralism was a complete failure” . The teaching of manualism is more popular today, but now with English coding.
The manualists claim that the oralists neglect the psychosocial development of deaf children. In their training in articulation, which requires long tedious practice, oralism leaves students with less time and energy to advance academically and socially. The oralist techniques can consist of the deaf student touching the teacher’s face, throat, and chest to feel the vibrations of sounds and to watch the teacher’s lips move during each sound. On many occasions, with this teaching method, students could often mix up the letters being taught to them by the teacher. This shows how difficult strict oralist education was to the deaf students. The result is inadequate skills and often poor speaking ability despite the great effort invested. Manualists feel what is most important is giving deaf children a visual-motor language they can truly master so as to enable their intellect to develop normally.
Oralists claim that manualists neglect the residual hearing in deaf children and that their emphasis on sign language isolates them from wider culture and hearing family members, thus serving to restrict them to limited subculture that leaves them unable to succeed in the general population. While this used to be true the general change in attitude toward Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, the advent of various alternative communication devices, as well as Federal and State laws protecting their rights have given rise to greater accessibility has meant greater inclusion in many areas of American life. They also point out that only a tiny percentage of the general population can use sign language, although some studies have shown that ASL (American Sign Language) is the third most used language after English and Spanish. However it is a great achievement that many deaf children may not accomplish due to the great degree of time and effort involved. This may change with the use of new computer speech instruction methods with visual feedback capabilities that can assist the Deaf speaker's articulations and improve their sound production with much less time and effort involved. Similarly, Speech Reading (aka lip reading) can also be done with computer programs at greater efficiency. Either method, old and new, still requires a great desire on the part of the Deaf person to achieve a working ability.
There has been research performed to evaluate deaf children’s learning abilities in relation to whether their parents were able to hear or deaf. Deaf children of deaf parents tend to use the manual language and deaf children of hearing parents more than likely use techniques from the oral method. The research had the deaf children tested on their “intellectual functioning”, “communicative functioning”, and “social functioning”. The results concluded from the research that deaf children of deaf parents, who use manual language, tended to perform better in “speech reading ability”, “speech aptitude”, and “appropriate behavior” than deaf children of hearing parents. The researchers also included that manual communication does not prevent the learning of speech and lipreading in children but in fact could aid in the development of the two. The researcher further implies that the combination of oralism and manualism is an efficient way for the teaching of deaf children and should be considered as an educational technique.
The tension between oralism and manualism is a central plot point of the 1995 film Mr. Holland's Opus. Aspiring composer Glenn Holland's espousal of oralist views brings him into conflict with his wife Iris and deaf son Cole, who prefer a manualist approach to Cole's education.