American Sign Language Essay

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In the early twentieth century, most schools for the deaf across the nation used the “natural” sign language, now called American Sign Language (ASL). Most of the administrators and teachers who ran these schools were deaf. Not until 1880, after an international conference in Milan, Italy, did educators decide that the oral approach was the best way to teach deaf children. The rationale was that to assimilate the deaf children into the society of hearing people, the children must learn to speak and understand the language of their hearing community and to read and write it well.

From the perspective of many deaf communities, this reflects a dark period of deaf education. One by one, schools for the deaf all over the nation abolished ASL, forced deaf educators out of their jobs, and radically changed the classroom atmosphere forever. Deaf students in the classrooms were forced to speak and write in English only. Oralism continued well into the twentieth century; ultimately, however, the effort to teach deaf students to speak, read lips, and be literate was a dismal failure. Today strictly oral schools are rare; however, oral methods are still used to teach students to become bilingual and bicultural.

In the 1960s William Stokoe, a scholar of ASL, was instrumental in shifting perceptions of ASL from a substandard form of English to a thriving, complex natural language of the deaf with a rich syntax and grammar. For the first time, ASL was deemed an important and viable mode of communication for deaf students. While it was recognized that manual communication was essential in educating deaf students, hearing professionals created sign systems that mirrored oral English rather than using ASL. Many believe this occurred because manually coded (oral) English is easier for the hearing individual to use than to learn a new language for educating deaf students. The next thirty years promoted educating the deaf through total communication—the use of sign systems and oral methods. As a result, ASL became influenced by these other sign systems and many deaf individuals experienced language confusion as they graduated from school and became socialized into the deaf community.

In 1988, the deaf community organized a rally, Deaf President Now (DPN), to protest the newly appointed hearing president of Gallaudet University, the world’s only deaf university. The protest quickly became a national platform for the deaf community to raise public awareness about the rights and abilities of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. In the years following the protest, many bills and laws were passed that advanced the rights of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to include the recognition of ASL as the natural language of the deaf.

Today, many colleges and universities accept ASL as part of the foreign language requirement, and interpreting programs have been established. According to recent reports, ASL is the fourth most-used language in the United States and thirty-five states officially recognize ASL as a language. As well, the push to accept ASL as a viable mode for teaching deaf students has been advanced through the bilingual-bicultural (bi-bi) movement, whereby deaf students are taught first in their native language and learn oral English as a second language. The goal of this approach is to create fully literate deaf students who are proficient in ASL and written English.


  1. Lane, H., Hoffmeister, R., & Bahan, B. (1996). A journey in the deaf-world. San Diego, CA: Dawnsign Press.
  2. Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. (2006). Deaf President Now for teachers and students. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University. Retrieved September 12, 2006, from

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