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Oralism is the education of deaf students through oral language by using lip reading, speech, and mimicking the mouth shapes and breathing patterns of speech instead of using sign language within the classroom. Oralism came into popular use in the United States around the late 1860s, with the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts being the first school to start teaching in this manner, in 1867.
Since the beginning of formal deaf education in the 18th century in the United States, manualism and oralism have been on opposing sides of a heated debate that continues to this day. Oralism as the systematic education of deaf people began in Spain in the mid-1500s and was the byproduct of socioeconomic motives. The church barred deaf people from holy communion because they could not confess aloud. Deaf people were also prohibited from inheriting their family's wealth; therefore, to preserve the small wealthy nobility in Spain, deaf heirs were sent to Pedro Ponce de Leon after hearing that he taught a deaf man to talk in San Salvador Monastery in Oña. Oralism provided members of the privileged classes a way to channel their children's education and an opportunity to keep them away from the deaf community. Speaking has been equated with the higher classes and higher intellect, signing with the lower.
For more than a century, doctors and educators had typically advised parents not to allow their deaf children to learn sign language and not to learn it themselves because it would impede their children's progress toward mastering English. According to experts, as long as parents didn't fall prey, their children would become fluent in English and reap the rewards of the hearing world.
Until the end of the nineteenth century, many teachers of deaf America were deaf themselves. However, oralists like Alexander Graham Bell began to wield increasing influence. Bell and others believed in deaf assimilation with the mainstream hearing world. He opposed the education of sign language and deaf intermarriage and reproduction. Others like Alexander Graham Bell were victorious at the Milan Congress in 1880 where the oral method was implemented. This time in deaf history is known by the deaf community as "the dark ages for deaf education in America." Hearing teachers who could not sign replaced deaf teachers and, by mid-century eighty percent of American secondary schools for the deaf used the oral method exclusively. Classes were conducted in an "unnatural" mixture of spoken and signed English with the teacher signing along, in English word order as they delivered their lecture. For example, "is" "was" and "the", which are not used in sign, were spelled out by the teachers using the manual alphabet which is difficult to produce and comprehend. Students were taught using the articulation method, which taught them how to speak and lip read. Oralists believed that signs were no more than gross holistic gestures, which stood for English words in a one to one correspondence. Sentences in sign were thought to have no grammar. The facial expressions, such as exaggerated movements of the mouth, tongue, eyes, and lips, suggesting grimmacing or excessive emotional display, triggered horror in hearing people. Students were asked to stop moving their faces when they signed, which is equivilant to asking hearing people to speak in declarative sentences uttered in monotone.
Leaders of the manualist movement, including Edward M. Gallaudet, argued against the teaching of oralism because it restricted the ability of deaf students to communicate in what was considered their native language. Moreover, "attempts to eliminate sign language were tantamount to stripping them of their identity, their community, and their culture".
Even though students were not allowed to use manual signs within the classroom, many of the deaf students preferred manual signs and used them frequently in their dorm rooms. These early attempts at oralism were commonly criticized because of their starkness. Some deaf children were considered "oral failures" because they could not pick up oral language. Others thought that the techniques of oralism actually limited them on what they were taught because they always had to concentrate on the way the words were formed, not what they meant.
The use of oralism declined markedly in the 1970s and 1980s with the work of researchers such as William Stokoe. In 1864 schools such as Lexington, the oldest oral school for the deaf in the United States, offered a new option for deaf people. ASL emerged as the leading method to educate deaf students. However,studies have helped validate the assertion that children benefit developmentally, educationally and socially from modern oralist teaching methodologies like the Auditory-Oral method. Geers and Moog (1989) found that of a test sample of 100 profoundly hearing-impaired 16- and 17-year olds enrolled in oral and mainstream programs, 88% were proficient and highly intelligible with their oral language, and could read at a much higher grade levels than the national average for deaf children.
Today, about two million Americans are classified as hearing impaired with only around two hundred thousand of those being culturally deaf. Deafness is classified as a low-incidence disability. However, deaf people, unlike members of other disabled groups, have their own language, social clubs, athletic leagues, their own theater companies, television programs, universities, periodicals, and even their own international Olympics.