Deaf Awareness Week: The History & Cultural Significance of Sign Language

For Deaf Awareness week, we’re paying homage to Sign Language.  Throughout history, sign language has been a powerful mode of communication for millions of people around the world. Its roots can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where people used visual gestures to express themselves and connect with others.

Today, sign language is recognized as an essential tool for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community, allowing individuals to communicate and participate fully in society. Despite its distinct value, sign language has been overlooked by many mainstream systems and sectors, including education.

Deaf awareness campaigns and social initiatives aim to shed light on the rich history and cultural significance of sign language, exploring how it has evolved over time and the impact it has had on the lives of countless individuals. From its earliest origins to modern day, sign language continues to be a symbol of human connection, resilience, and community.

The Milan Conference of 1880: The Oppression of Sign Language

The Milan Conference of the late 19th century had an enormous impact on the lives of Deaf individuals and for Deaf education. The large multi-country conference attended by Deaf educators declared that sign language would be replaced with oralism, or the use of spoken language.

With sign language banned as a distinct and legitimate language system, the Deaf community witnessed what almost led to the demise of their language, which today defines Deaf culture and identity.

Image of an old newspaper with a headline that reads Milan Conference Alexander Graham Bell argues for a complete ban on sign language.

Image Source: Deaf History

Sign Language & a Fight Against the Odds

The repercussions of the Milan conference had a profound and devastating impact on the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. Deaf teachers lost their jobs, there was a decline in Deaf professions, and the quality of life and education for Deaf students was significantly altered.

While delegates of the U.S. and Britain opposed the ban, their objection was neglected. Advocates and supporters rallied behind organizations such as the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), and stepped up to fight for the right to continue using sign language.

Although oralism was forced upon Deaf education into the twentieth century, some of the most influential advocates for sign language, namely Edward Gallaudet and William Stokoe, were determined to alter the course of history.

Image of man and boy practicing oralism. Each is holding the other's throat.

Image Source: Deaf Friendly

The Ban’s Dangerous Ramifications

Milan 1880’s infamous historical mark was an unpleasant setback in Deaf education. The first two of eight resolutions passed by the convention stated:

  • Considering the incontestable superiority of articulation over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society and giving him a fuller knowledge of language, declares that the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in the education and instruction of deaf-mutes.
  • Considering that the simultaneous use of articulation and signs has the disadvantage of injuring articulation and lip-reading and the precision of ideas, declares that the pure oral method should be preferred.

The other resolutions addressed included:

  • Providing education to underprivileged Deaf students
  • Developing techniques for oral education of Deaf students
  • Creating educational materials for Deaf teachers who rely on oral communication

From the start of the Milan Conference, the outcome to obliterate sign language was an obvious end result. More than half of the committee known as ‘The Pereire Society’ were supporting oralists and were in favor of the oppression.

One of the most significant consequences of the Milan Conference was the loss of sign language as a cultural and linguistic heritage for Deaf individuals. The denial of an effective mode of communication not only affected thousands of Deaf individuals, but also put a damper on what was once a vibrant Deaf community. Ultimately, Milan's influence impacted the Deaf communities for over 80 years.

Video Source: YouTube

The Revival of Sign Language

Once viewed as a substandard practice, sign language slowly began to gain traction. And, Edward Gallaudet and William Stokoe deserve much of the credit.

Black and white image of William Stokoe.

Image Source: Wikipedia

In pursuit of supporting Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals with an education in their own language, Gallaudet set out to found the renowned Gallaudet College, now called Gallaudet University. Recognizing that each student deserves to learn through communication methods that suit their needs, Gallaudet aimed to design the University with specialized programs tailored to Deaf individuals. At Gallaudet, the rich tradition of sign language lives on until this day, empowering many Deaf individuals with a bright and promising future.

While Gallaudet was finding ways to create an accessible educational system for the Deaf, Stokoe was leading efforts to reintroduce sign language into mainstream school systems too. Stokoe firmly believed that ASL was a true language worthy of academic pursuit, not mimicry. Eventually, he became a long-term linguistics professor at Gallaudet College.

Image of the facade of Gallaudet University. The building is stone Gothic Revival style architecture.

Image Source: Start ASL

In 1960, Stokoe created the first-ever sign language dictionary. His work was widely celebrated in the linguistic community and eventually gained acceptance in the Deaf education community as well. Stokoe's efforts served as a catalyst for significant improvements in Deaf classrooms, as educators embraced sign language and acknowledged ASL as an official language.

The publication of Stokoe’s ASL dictionary served as a turning point in the linguistic recognition of ASL. Thirty years later, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, marking another essential milestone in the recognition of ASL, granting Deaf individuals legal rights and protections, including the right to access ASL interpreters.

Gallaudet & Stokoe vs. Graham

While Stokoe and Gallaudet fought the oppression, Alex Graham Bell—the same Bell who invented the telephone—believed ASL had no place in America. He believed it was a foreign language, and that Deaf students should be taught using the oralist approach, focusing only on lipreading, speech, and mimicking mouth shapes and breathing patterns. Graham was so devoted to oralism, that he went as far as founding the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf to train teachers. Educators in favor of this method even punished students who attempted to use sign language to communicate.

Image of a sign plastered on a wall that reads Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Image Source: Google

A Dismal Failure

Finally, in 1965, Congress released the Babbidge Report, which stated that oralism is a “dismal failure”. The report also addressed the resolutions made at the Milan Conference and recognized that an oralism-only education was inadequate. With this official acknowledgment, American Sign Language became an acceptable method for educating Deaf children. And in 2010, the ban was formally lifted.

American Sign Language

Despite a century-long period of intolerance for sign language, the Deaf community continued to find different ways to adapt. And thanks to Edward Gallaudet, many American students were granted access to an education in their own language.

Since the founding of Gallaudet University, sign language has continued to evolve into a rich and unique form of communication. Its expansion can be attributed to the establishment of more schools, such as The New York School for the Deaf (1818), followed by the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (1820). As the Deaf population began to expand, so did the linguistic diversity of ASL, leading to the emergence of different regional dialects and variations. Today, ASL is one of the most widely used sign languages in the world.

Image of a multicolored background with hands spellings letters A, S, L.

Image Source: Daily Orange

The Many Forms of Sign Language

Throughout the course of history, different forms of sign language have evolved, often incorporating elements of others. In fact, 300 variations exist across the globe.

American Sign Language campaigns such as National ASL Day, celebrated each year on April 15th, along with National Deaf History Month and Deaf Awareness Week raises awareness of Deafness and the importance of sign language. Sign languages that have the largest numbers of native users, include:

  1. Indo-Pakistani Sign Language: 6,300,000 users
  2. Indonesian Sign Language: 900,000 users
  3. Russian Sign Language: 715,000 users
  4. Brazilian Sign Language: 600,000 users
  5. Spanish Sign Language: 523,000 users
  6. Egyptian Sign Language: 474,000 users
  7. American Sign Language: 459,850 users
  8. Persian Sign Language: 325,000 users

Video Source: YouTube

Sign Language Today

Today, the impact of the Milan Conference can still be felt in the field of Deaf education, as many schools and programs continue to rely heavily on oralism. However, there has also been a resurgence in the use and promotion of sign language in recent years, as Deaf individuals and their allies work to reclaim the language as a vital part of Deaf culture and heritage.

In 2010, the United Nations declared September 23 as International Day of Sign Languages, recognizing the importance of sign language as a means of communication and cultural expression. International Day of Sign Languages is celebrated around the world with events and activities promoting the use and preservation of sign languages.

Image with blue background that reads International Day Of Sign Languages and Ava logo.

In addition, the rise of technology has also had a significant impact on Deaf education. The development of video relay services, captioning, and other forms of assistive technology have made communication and education more accessible to Deaf communities.

However, despite these advancements, many Deaf individuals continue to face barriers to education and employment, and the use of sign language in educational institutions is still not widely accepted.

The Future of Sign Language

In order to truly promote inclusivity and equity for Deaf individuals, it is essential to understand the value of sign language — not only as a means of communication, but as part of the fabric of linguistic identity and cultural diversity. By promoting the use and preservation of sign languages, and by working to develop inclusive educational programs that meet the unique needs of each individual, we can create a more equitable and accessible world for everyone.

Ava works to revolutionize educational settings, and improve access in every industry. Ava’s captioning app promotes autonomy when it comes to education, employment and social interaction for Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals around the world. Learn more here.