Deaf people rarely refer to deafness as a disability or something to be fixed, but rather as a human experience. Sign language has given them a powerful means of communication, overcoming the sound barrier that speech represents. Yet the history of “signing” is fraught with controversy – that continues to this day.
It is difficult for hearing people to imagine living in a world without sound – almost impossible. Hundreds of thousands of people live in such a world, yet their disability remains unseen. Deafness is often called “the invisible disability”: you can easily detect a blind person but it is impossible to tell if a person is deaf, until you try to communicate with him or her.
For the deaf, communication happens via other means. When the auditory system does not work the brain is able to re-organize itself to allow language to develop using the other senses. Often referred to poetically as “eye-music”*, sign language operates using the hands, eyes, space and facial expression as core elements. It is not only a visual language: signers are limited to a physical space known as the “signing space,” which includes the signer’s head and chest and extends about twelve inches to the left and right. This signing space allows the “listener” to see the signs and facial expressions without having to concentrate on an entirely different area of the body. The position of the hands within this theoretical “volume” of air is vital to indicate grammar and meaning: for example the future is indicated in the front of the “signing space” and the past towards the shoulder. The signs which refer to thinking, dreaming and learning are articulated near to the head, while emotions are articulated close to the heart.
When I decided to learn Italian Sign Language, I went the Institute for the Deaf in Rome to get some information and spoke to the secretary there. While she was explaining to me about the classes, timetables and rules, at the same time she was signing. Everything she said and everything I said. In that small room I could hear and see the answers to my questions. All the other deaf people present were able to follow our conversation through their eyes. I was staring at her hands moving meaninglessly in space, like the most beautiful dance. At that moment I truly understood the value of language, its real power and the possibilities we have of communicating in other ways which allow deaf and hearing people to share the same information at the same time, without losing a single word.
Where does sign language come from?
The use of gestures to communicate between deaf people was mentioned as early as the 5th century BC. In Plato’s Catylus which discusses the origins of language, Socrates says: “If we had neither voice nor tongue, and yet wished to manifest things to one another, should we not, like those which are at present mute, endeavour to signify our meaning by the hands, head, and other parts of the body?”
However the first to grasp sign language’s potential use in education was a Parisian abbot, Abbé Charles Michel De l’Epée (1712-1789). He developed his teaching method by observing and learning from a rudimentary system of signs already being used by the deaf people of Paris. His method incorporated these rudimentary signs into a more formalized sign system – he associated signs with pictures and taught children to read. Once he had developed his system, he used to take groups of deaf children to “perform” their acquired skills in the salons of the Parisian bourgeoisie, in an attempt to convince his compatriots of the effectiveness of his method. In 1754 he set up the first public school for the deaf in France, the “Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets de Paris”. The formal sign system enabled deaf people in France to communicate words and concepts for the first time ever. The system spread all over Europe and to the United States, providing a basis for the development of all the other national sign languages.
The oralist vs “signing” controversy
At the time, teachers, educators and deaf people relied heavily on Sign Language to teach and pray, but only in private – they avoided showing their hand movements in public. Why?
For the majority of educators, sign language was associated with prejudices of inferiority, of not being equal to spoken languages, of lacking abstract vocabulary, and of possessing no grammar.
In opposition to the teachings of De l’Epée, the “oralist” movement took control of the education of the deaf everywhere. This movement advocated the oral method of teaching using speech therapy and lip-reading.
Their dogma derived from the biblical “In the beginning was the word”. Oralists used this phrase for a long time to prevent deaf people from learning and using sign language. Instead they forced them to learn to speak in order to communicate. In 1880, during the International Congress on Education of the Deaf (the first world conference for deaf educators held in Milan, Italy) it was decided by a majority vote that oral education was superior to manual/sign education and the use of sign language in schools was banned. The opinion of a group of deaf people and deaf educators was not even heard.
Despite the ban, deaf people continued using sign language secretly among themselves and within their families. While oralism proved to be a failure, sign languages survived.
In 1960 William Stokoe published the ground-breaking Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf. It provided scientific proof that sign languages are fully-fledged with their own grammatical structure. There are now more than 200 Sign Languages all over the world (American Sign Language, French Sign Language, Italian Sign Language and so forth); Sign Language is used within the deaf community, within deaf families, inside the institutes for the deaf and in schools. It is the language used by deaf people but also by many hearing people (communication assistants, speech therapists, interpreters, tourism guides). Nowadays deaf people have access to a university education using sign language interpreters and children are starting to be taught through a bi-lingual method which implies the simultaneous use of signing and oral language using a team-teaching approach.
The curious case of Martha’s Vineyard
Off the coast of Massachusetts, lies the island of Martha’s Vineyard. At the beginning of the 17th Century a substantial minority of the population was deaf and almost everybody – hearing and deaf – spoke sign language. Nora Ellen Groce’s book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language, testifies that deaf people were no longer seen as “deaf” and were fully integrated. Everyone used sign language as their primary language and it was common among the older islanders to mumble by moving their hands and even to dream aloud in sign language. In 1952 the last deaf islander died, but hearing people have tended to preserve sign language not only on special occasions, but even during everyday conversations.
Deaf people rarely refer to deafness as a disability or something to be fixed, but rather as a human experience. The term “Deaf culture” covers the social beliefs, behaviours, art, literary traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of deaf people who use a sign language.
The Deaf community boundaries are very flexible. The community not only includes signing deaf people, but also hearing children of deaf adults who sign fluently and often hearing people who work inside the community, like communication assistants/interpreters. It is clear today that it is not only hearing loss that defines a member of the community but the individual’s sense of identity together with the acceptance of that person by the community members. Although up to fifty percent of deafness has genetic causes, less than five percent of deaf people have a deaf parent, so most members do not acquire their cultural identities from parents.
Deaf culture is usually acquired within schools for the deaf and within deaf social clubs, but it really depends on life’s circumstances. Apart from using sign languages, Deaf culture has typical beliefs, values, and arts that help define it.
The first time you approach the community you will be given a sign name. It is the sign that identifies you inside the community – it may refer to the first letter of your name, to a particular feature of your body or face, to your job, or you can inherit it from a deaf member of your family. As the time passes and you become fluent in Sign Language, you will learn some simple rules of deaf etiquette like ways for getting attention, walking between two or more people who are signing, leave-taking. It usually takes a long time before a deaf person is able to leave a party or meeting – they are used to providing detailed information when leaving early or arriving late in order to keep the community informed about their life. Conversations and social meeting are extremely important. This is where they can acquire news from the world, about friends and other events.
Many countries have taken, or are now taking steps to recognize National Sign Languages as the official minority language of the Deaf Community.
Whether the recognition comes or not, “So long as there are two deaf people upon face of the earth and they get together, so long will signs be in use” (J. Schuyler Long, Head teacher of the Iowa School for the Deaf, 1910).
*The title of the American Sign Language poem Eye Music by Ella Mae Lentz alludes to a line from Wordsworth’s poem Airey-Force Valley written in 1842.
A soft eye-music of slow-waving boughs,
Powerful almost as vocal harmony
Maddalena Gentili has a Masters in Translation Studies and has worked as a research assistant into sign language at the Mason Perkins Deafness Fund. She is studying to become a sign language interpreter.