The goals change

Education for people with sensory disabilities is developed – goals for education change

Malm’s teaching methods, which were aimed at achieving bilingual abilities, prevailed in Finland until the 1890s, and teachers included several talented deaf people. Teaching students to speak was discussed already during Malm’s time, but tuition in speaking was only given to those students who showed aptitude for it.

The use of sign language in deaf education came under criticism in Europe in the 19th century. Advocates of oralism thought that spoken language was the basis of thinking and therefore using sign language slowed down the development of not only speech but also thinking. They believed that spoken language should be used in tuition and also outside lessons.

The triumph of oralism over sign language was partly due to industrialisation, nationalism and evolutionism. In evolutionism, sign language was seen as a primitive and under-developed language. Nationalism emphasised a shared, spoken language as the central feature of a nation. For a society undergoing industrialisation, efficiency was pivotal and education was harnessed to serve the demand for labour. It was thought that deaf people would benefit more from spoken language than sign language in the working world.

In Finland, Kuopio’s school for the deaf was the first to adopt oralism as a teaching method. The school’s teacher, G. K. Hendell, had become familiar with the method on his study trips. When Hendell took over as the school’s headmaster in 1874, he began to test the impact of oralism on his students. He felt that all the subjects taught at the school should promote the learning of spoken language.

In the 1870s, teachers from schools for children with sensory disabilities in Finland and other Nordic countries held meetings to discuss the implementation of oralism. While oralism was in favour, the value of sign language was also recognised. Oralism only gained an official status in Finland when a committee was established to give recommendations on education for people with sensory disabilities. On the basis of the committee’s recommendation on the use of oral language in tuition, a decree was passed in 1892, providing guidelines on teaching methods in schools for the deaf.

The oral method became the primary teaching method and only the students who did not succeed with it were taught with a combination of lipreading and writing in Mikkeli. Pietarsaari had the only school for the Deaf where using sign language was permitted in the tuition of ‘over-aged’ students. The transition to oralism in the Finnish schools for the deaf was made gradually and at different times in different schools.

The decree also set the qualifications required from the headmasters and teachers. Headmasters needed to have an academic qualification and teachers had to be qualified primary school teachers. In addition, they needed to have completed a practical training period at a school. After 1892, Deaf people were no longer hired as teachers, even though some deaf teachers continued in the posts for a few years.