Education and the Deaf Community

Ephphatha Sunday School

The life trajectories of deaf men and women, particularly at the beginning of the twentieth century were, in large part, shaped by institutional and pedagogical choices made at the beginning of their lives. Given the low statistical incidence of deafness in the population, most deaf people were born or became deaf in environments without other deaf people. For many, residential schools were the first opportunity to interact with others of the same experiences and visual orientation. Students were removed from isolation, acquired language and generated the social networks that would serve them for the rest of their lives. The mode and means by which deaf people received education would come to shape the language of their communication, their employment opportunities and their access to social networks.1

Furthermore, American Sign Language (ASL) came to be codified as a result of bringing large numbers of deaf children into residential schools. Over time a mixture of home signs, gesture, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, and French Sign Language coalesced into a language. As deaf residential schools spread across the United States, teachers were selected among the graduates of existing schools and as such, ASL was carried across the United States. 2

"With the creation of the first residential school… individuals who shared a sensory world that differed from that of the majority began to coalesce into a community that shared a language and a culture." 3

However, by the turn of the century most residential deaf schools underwent a pedagogical shift away from manualism, classroom instruction using American Sign Language, to oralism, a pedagogical method that emphasized training students in the production of spoken language and encouraged them to rely on their hearing abilities and reading the content of others’ speech on their lips – known as lipreading. A more comprehensive definition, however, places oralism as a systemic approach to physical difference that seeks to ameliorate the performance of deafness by encouraging the use of spoken language and lipreading over signed or written language.4

The shift to oralist pedagogy at deaf schools had a dramatic impact on the shape of deaf education. Classrooms that utilized the oral method of instruction featured much smaller class sizes as teachers were required to work with students individually and in close contact on their speech production. Further, the acquisition of speech was given primacy over other educational features as hearing and speaking teachers presented information in spoken English and a great deal of class time was utilized in articulation training.5 Oral pedagogical classrooms often forbade the use of sign language. Across the United States, oral pedagogies had replaced manual or signed education at the turn of the century.

As a result of these pedagogical shifts significant changes occurred. Members of the signing American deaf community responded to pressures to normalize their behaviors and diminish the use of signed language through participation in social organizations and active resistance to the oralist movement. However, it should be noted that one's access to these networks and clubs would be shaped the social networks created and sustained at residential deaf schools and the barriers to education faced by the majority of black people, particularly in the South, were further complicated by deafness.

It is within this larger context that the experiences of the congregants of both churches would define their position and participation in the broader American deaf community. For these men and women, two residential deaf schools would play a role: the Maryland School for Colored Deaf in Baltimore, Maryland, which served African American students, and the Maryland School for the Deaf, in Frederick, Maryland, which served white students.


Photo, Individuals gathered for a Ephphatha Sunday School picnic at the Columbia Institution primary school, 1890. "Picnic-- Ephphatha Sunday School (1890)" Gallaudet University Historical Photograph Collection.

1. Douglas C Baynton, Jack R Gannon, and Jean Lindquist Bergey, Through Deaf Eyes: A Photographic History of an American Community (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2007); Burch, Susan. Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to World War II (New York: NYU Press, 2004).; Van Cleve, John V., and Barry A. Crouch. A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America.(Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1989).

2. Melvia M. Nomeland, Ronald E. Nomeland, and Trudy Suggs, The Deaf Community in America: History in the Making (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2011), 105.

3. Douglas C. Baynton, Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 3.

4. Ibid.; H-Dirksen L Bauman, “Audism: Exploring the Metaphysics of Oppression,” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 9, no. 2 (April 1, 2004): 239–246.

5. Burch Signs of Resistance 36.