Oralism and the deaf community

The period of oralism has probably shaped the deaf community more profoundly than anything else in its history. Particularly the claim that sign languages are primitive has had a huge impact on the deaf community. For a long time, teachers were held in high esteem within the community and deaf people began to see sign language as an inferior way of communicating. Because research on sign language began as late as the 1960s, deaf people were not in a position to question this attitude earlier.

Since oralism taught deaf people to feel ashamed about their language, they were limited to using it in the deaf associations, which became the heart of the community’s social and cultural life. As a result, the community formed a separate group within society. Because oralism was also an external threat, it strengthened the community’s internal structures. On the other hand, regional associations and the Association for the Deaf had leaders who had good speaking skills, which gave rise to more positive attitudes towards oralism.

Oralism also affected the working lives of deaf people. Because teaching in schools focused heavily on articulation, pupils often had poor knowledge and skills in other areas. Consequently, many deaf people struggled to get accepted into further education which curtailed their professional careers. Low educational levels also made it more difficult for deaf people to stand up for their own interests. Oralism also had an impact on sign languages. If a language is not used as a teaching language, developing a widely used general language is more difficult. Even though the goal of oralism was to make deaf people more like their hearing peers, sign languages did not disappear but were passed on from one generation to the next.

The period of oralism was followed by an era of sign language, giving rise to generations with differing attitudes. Those who were born and attended school during the era of oralism placed a high value on speech and hearing. Deaf people who grew up at a time when sign language was more widely used, appreciate written language and sign language and emphasise equality with the hearing population. They have grown up to view deaf culture and sign language in a positive light. Between these two generations, there is a generation of in-betweeners, an age group that missed out on the opportunity to attend school in sign language as the switch to it took place after their school years.

The emphasis on speech affected deaf people in two ways. On one hand, they believed in the authorities that emphasised the importance of speech, but on the other hand they could not see how using sign language could be detrimental as it was the only language in which they could communicate easily and it was also the language of thinking for them.