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Bullied for 100 years, the deaf seek justice

The use of sign language was banned in European schools for a century Keystone

The Swiss federation for the deaf has called for an official apology from institutions which banned sign language in schools from the end of the 19th century.

Over the course of a century, the decree against using sign language ensured the deaf were excluded from higher education, according to the federation.

“Throughout all these years, schools for the deaf in Switzerland went as far as imposing severe punishments on those who defied the ban on sign language,” Daniel Hadorn, head of the deaf federation’s legal department, told

Hadorn said the deaf were often mistreated, including during recreation time, with punishments that included having their hands bound behind their backs, being confined in  rooms, being forced to repeat sounds for hours and being hit on the hands with rulers.

“Sign language forms a base which supports the acquisition of spoken and written language, vocabulary and grammar, and also for expressing emotions. Without the ability to express oneself in writing, to read and understand medium to difficult texts, it is impossible to go on to higher education,” said Hadorn.

Eyes on the world

Sign language was ostracised to such an extent that many parents were unaware of its very existence.

One deaf former student told the federation that during the 1960s her parents enrolled her in the local school without asking questions.

“I wasted my time repeating words that I didn’t understand. So everything I was saying passed me by. By the time I discovered sign language it was too late and I have never managed to catch up. It’s impossible to help my children do their homework.”

French ethnologist Yves Delaporte wrote in his book “The deaf, it’s like this” that deafness and hearing are two different cognitive conditions.

“Being deaf is to understand the world by sight,” wrote Delaporte.

An invisible handicap, deafness is socially one of the most painful. Isolated and often dismissed as being simple of mind, including by doctors, the “deaf mutes” developed a body language to communicate. 

Language and culture

Sign language was developed in the late 18th century when a French priest, Charles Michel de l’Épée, created a method by which the students at his institution for deaf children, needing to communicate amongst themselves, were encouraged to use a series of hand signs.

Convinced that sign language was an integral part of deaf identity which contributed to the sense of belonging to a specific culture, de l’Épée travelled and taught the language to the deaf in several countries.

But even those teachers perfectly bilingual in sign language found the particular cognitive differences of the deaf difficult to understand and, believing that speaking was essential to integrating in society, continued to push oral communication.

Many also believed, and some still do, that the problem could be overcome through technological advances.

And so it was that almost unanimously educators and medical practitioners (there was just one deaf person amongst them) who attended a meeting of the International Congress on Education for the Deaf (ICED) in Milan in 1880, decreed that the use of sign language in schools should be abandoned.

Reasons for the decision included statements such as “apes do not talk about God” and sign language “restricts good breathing and promotes tuberculosis”.

“The deaf continued to use sign language, but in secret,” deaf federation spokeswoman Hamma-Bouveret told “Schools used only the speaking method and many children left school with a very basic education which left them a limited choice of work as manual labourers.”

The American exception

Although instances of deaf people attending university were rare in Europe, such was not the case in the United Sates, which did not apply the 1880 decree.

The National Association of the Deaf writes on its website: “The NAD was shaped by deaf leaders who believed in the right of the American deaf community to use sign language, to congregate on issues important to them, to have its interests represented at the national level”. 

To this day, the Gallaudet University, established in Washington in 1864, remains the only bilingual institution in the world which educates the deaf from kindergarten through to bachelor’s courses.

“Even today we can still clearly see an enormous difference in the socio-cultural levels between deaf Americans and Europeans,” said Hammar-Bouveret.

It was not until the beginning of the 1980s that Europeans began implementing bilingual education, including in Switzerland.

New threats

There is still a long way to go, according to Hammar-Bouveret, who says sign language is again threatened by the current trend to integrate children into “normal” schools.

“The people who have real decision-making power in relation to the education of deaf children are all people who can hear,” she added.

The deaf federation is also critical of the increasing use of cochlear implants for deaf children and accuses the medical community of unilaterally pushing the implants on parents without providing them with information related to “deaf identity”.

“People with implants are far from being able to hear like a hearing person,” said Hammar-Bouveret.

Politically, things really began moving last summer when the ICED officially apologised for having imposed the ban on sign language.

The Swiss deaf federation decided last month to seek justice for past wrongs.

“We want an apology from the institutions responsible for imposing the ban,” said Hadorn, adding that compensation was not the federation’s aim.

“But also from the politicians, the doctors, who did not correctly inform parents and denied deaf children the possibility of social and intellectual development.”

1760: French priest Charles Michel de l’Épée discovers the body language method of communication of the “deaf-mute”. He brings together a group of deaf students to instruct them in French sign language. He copies the method in Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and the United States.

1880: Meeting in Milan, the International Congress on Education for the Deaf (ICED) declares a ban on sign language in schools. It says the deaf must and can learn to speak.

1971: In Paris, the ICED allows the reintegration of sign language in schools. Bilingual  education has been in place there ever since.

2010: In Vancouver, the ICED issues an official apology to the deaf for its policy of banning sign language in schools.

2011: The Swiss federation for the deaf calls for an official apology from the institutions responsible.

(Translated from French by Sophie Douez)

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