Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Oral Method: Yesterday vs. Today

This is a follow up post to Decisions, Decisions for anyone who is curious about deafness or current hot topics in deaf education.

To give a brief history, sign language was first used for education a long time ago in France. After some time, nearly all the teachers were Deaf and the students developed scholastically as well or better than their hearing peers. Sometime in the 1800's, however, leaders held a conference in Mulan, Italy. No Deaf were invited to attend. In the conference, the upcoming new "oral" method was approved and sign language outlawed. The idea was that if teachers practiced enough drills with deaf children, teaching them to move their mouths in just the right way, and learn to lip read with enough excellence, that they could be fully integrated in a hearing world--as if their deafness didn't exist. Sign language was perceived as a "crutch" to developing oral skills because the children would lack motivation. As such, it was banned.

For centuries, the oral method prevailed and in many schools, sign language was all but lost. Carried on, of course, by those for whom it was the only free and natural way to communicate, ASL still exists today. But that doesn't change how many Deaf feel about oralism: it's ineffective, oppressive, and even wrong.

I can sympathize, certainly. Have you ever tried to communicate with someone that doesn't know your language? Often, so much energy is spent just on recalling a few words that you may know, or in concentrating on what the other person could have possibly said, that communication is laborious at best, frustrating at worst. Even for the super-successful oral "stars," communication was still a chore.

One particularly sad account I heard was of a woman who was extremely bright and loved to learn. She knew the answers in class and would raise her hand, only to be punished for not pronouncing it correctly. Another student, gifted in speech, would get the wrong answer but be praised for her stunning pronunciation.

For students in this approach, hours upon hours were spent working on speech--sometimes 3-4 hours a day, every day, until their teenage years. And it was all to no avail. One particular embittered Deaf woman, put through this grueling regiment of training without success, said, "What a waste. Think of all the other things I could have learned during the time we spent practicing speech. What a waste." (Audism Unveiled).

Now imagine, if you will, the first time these students saw successful Deaf (and mute) adults. These Deaf adults used sign language as their primary form of communication and were making it as doctors, lawyers, computer programmers, teachers, etc. Imagine when they first realized there was a whole culture out there--just for people like them--with whom they finally communicate freely and openly.

The only thing I think it might be like is a mid-life identity crisis for someone who was told, at age 21, that they were adopted. Don't get me wrong--adoption is a wonderful thing--but keeping it a secret from the child who thinks she's a blood relative could be potentially damaging to her self-image when she eventually finds out, right?

I can't count the number of Deaf people I've met or read about that are filled with rage toward the hearing world when they finally discover Deaf culture for the first time. They happily leave the oral world forever and don't look back. Even many successful, "high functioning" deaf adults take off their hearing aids, refuse to use their cochlear implants, and live exclusively among their Deaf friends.

I have never met a single person who was born deaf, excelled in the oral method, and later introduced to Deaf culture and ASL, who then stayed within the establishment of the hearing world. The handful that I've met who fit the above description, but who never learned ASL, will readily admit to having countless emotional struggles regarding their deafness, their relationships with others, and their ability to socialize.

Does anyone know a single deaf adult, who fits the above description, who is happy that they were raised orally and happy they are integrated into a hearing world?

I still have yet to meet one.

I don't mean to paint a bad picture for the oral educators of days gone by. I think they were, for the most part, good people with good intentions. But I have yet to see that their intentions resulted in good outcomes. The oral method, as far as I can tell, did far more damage--emotionally, mentally, socially, and linguistically--than good.

So, you can imagine how difficult it is for me to tell my Deaf friends that we've chosen the oral method for teaching Brynn the English language.

But here are the reasons why:

Yesterday, the oral method was about learning to speak
Today, the oral method is about learning to listen--using the access to sound that the cochlear implant technology provides

Yesterday, the oral method emphasized speech over knowledge and education
Today, the oral method is about getting deaf kids into mainstream schools (with some accommodations) where they can access all the same educational opportunities as their hearing peers.

Yesterday, the oral method stressed speech, often at the expense of reading, writing, and language skills.
Today, the oral method is a tool to access a world that reads, writes, and speaks in a sound-based language.

Yesterday, the oral method required speech training well into a child's high school years
Today, speech training is virtually complete for most students by the time they are 5 years old or younger.

Today the oral method is simply different than it used to be. And I've met (or interviewed) over 20 children, many in the socially-awkward years of Jr High, who feel completely part of the hearing world. No emotional battles, no struggle to communicate, no gigantic divide between them and their parents, and virtually no interference to their education or life goals.

Cochlear implant technology is too young for me to ask about the emotional health of these kids when they are older, but I suspect that if they were introduced to Deaf Culture, they would still be comfortable in their hearing world. In fact, many of those children mentioned above have been introduced to Deaf culture, and have made their own choice to use spoken language over ASL. They also do extremely well in school.

And so, we've decided to use the oral method for Brynn with the following stipulations:

1) She will also learn sign language--but instead of learning it from in our household, she'll learn it from Deaf people, who are really better able to teach her anyway. We'll attend Deaf play groups, Deaf day cares, etc. to immerse her in that language simultaneously. But at home--strictly oral.
2) She will be taught about and associated with Deaf culture--to avoid a mid-life identity crisis down the road.
3) If, at any time, oral seems to not work for her and if it becomes apparent that her education is taking a back seat to her speech, we'll change our plan and cater to her language needs.
4) As she gets older and more capable of making decisions, we will take her preferences into account as future decisions are made.

So that is our goal. We hope Brynn approves--but only time will tell.

I want to make one last thing very clear. I hold no resentment or criticism for parents of deaf children who did oral training in the past (or today). Nor do I think they are "bad" parents if they hoped their child could be integrated into the hearing majority. I, of all people, can certainly understand the desire for my child to be part of the world we love so much (and know so well). The promises of oralism, of hearing aid technology, of the miracles of CIs, all made by the medical personnel we trust, gave us no reason to suspect it wouldn't be the best for our kids. If I didn't know so many Deaf people myself, I'm sure I would have gone this route to the exclusion of sign language.

I have only chosen to teach her both languages because 1) I know too many Deaf people and can understand and sympathize with their struggles, 2) I live conveniently close to a large group of Deaf so it does not require uprooting my entire family, 3) I know several successful, respectable Deaf adults around whom I would not be nervous to send my child, and 4) Aside from teaching her about her Savior, Jesus Christ, I believe teaching her both languages will do more to secure Brynn's emotional health and family relationships (once she passes her teenage years) than any other effort we could make for her.


Olivia said...

I think Brynn is lucky to have the two of you as parents. A lot of parents just wouldn't care.

Thank you so much for sharing all this information. It is fascinating and wonderful to learn and understand more about the deaf world.

Alyson said...

So, you can imagine how difficult it is for me to tell my Deaf friends that we've chosen the oral method for teaching Brynn the English language.

But as you added later, and as we've all picked up reading your blog, not to the exclusion of sign. You're really trying to give her all the options.

I really respect all you've done to think, ponder, and pray this through. I think Brynn is getting an excellent start, and I'm excited to follow the journey and watch how it all progresses.