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History of Deaf Education

Timeline: The Evolution of Schools for the Deaf


  • Early Efforts for Deaf Education: In the 18th century, the history of formal education for deaf individuals began. Educators such as Charles-Michel de l'Épée in France and Thomas Braidwood in Scotland pioneered teaching methods to communicate with and educate deaf children.


  • Establishment of the First Schools for the Deaf: The 19th century witnessed the establishment of the first schools exclusively dedicated to educating deaf students. The American School for the Deaf, founded in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut, was the first of its kind. It laid the foundation for the development of similar institutions around the world.

  • Significance of Deaf Culture and Community: As schools for the deaf emerged, the recognition and celebration of deaf culture and community grew. These schools became focal points for deaf individuals to come together, fostering a sense of belonging and providing a supportive environment.

  • Evolution of Deaf Education Methods: Throughout the 1800s, various educational approaches for deaf students emerged. The manual method, which involved the use of sign language, gained prominence. Notable educators such as Laurent Clerc in the United States and Alexander Graham Bell promoted different philosophies regarding the best approach to deaf education.

1880 The World of Deaf Education Changed - The Milan Conference

The Milan Conference for the Deaf, held in 1880, marked a significant turning point in the history of deaf education and the use of sign language. This international gathering of educators and experts (all hearing except for one delegate) had a profound impact on the lives of deaf individuals and shaped the course of deaf education for many years to come. Background: During the 19th century, there were two prominent approaches to deaf education: the manual method, which relied on sign language as the primary mode of communication, and the oral method, which emphasized speech and lip-reading skills. These two philosophies clashed, creating a divide within the educational community regarding the most effective approach.

The Conference: The Milan Conference, held in Milan, Italy from September 6 to 11, 1880, was convened to discuss and determine the future of deaf education. It attracted delegates from various countries, including educators, administrators, and professionals involved in deaf education.

Key Discussions and Outcomes:

  1. The Oralism Movement: The conference was heavily influenced by advocates of the oral method, who believed that deaf individuals should primarily focus on acquiring speech and lip-reading skills. This philosophy aimed to integrate deaf individuals into the hearing society, often at the expense of sign language.

  1. Ban on Sign Language: One of the most controversial and far-reaching decisions made during the conference was the resolution to ban the use of sign language in schools for the deaf. This decision was based on the belief that sign language hindered the development of speech and promoted isolation from the hearing community.

  1. Adoption of Oral-Only Instruction: The conference declared that oral education (learning how to speak as a hearing person and lip-read) should be the primary mode of instruction in schools for the deaf. The use of sign language was discouraged, and teachers were encouraged to focus on speech training and lip-reading skills to facilitate communication and integration.

The Milan Conference and its decisions were met with mixed reactions and sparked extensive debate within the deaf community and the field of deaf education. The ban on sign language was seen as a severe blow to deaf culture and the unique linguistic heritage of the deaf community. Many deaf individuals and their families felt that their natural mode of communication was disregarded and devalued. Critics argued that the exclusive emphasis on oralism marginalized deaf individuals, as it often failed to provide them with adequate communication skills. Additionally, some individuals with profound hearing loss or those who struggled with speech found it challenging to thrive in an exclusively oral environment.

The Milan Conference had a lasting impact on deaf education, with the oral method becoming dominant in many schools for the deaf worldwide. However, in the latter half of the 20th century, a shift occurred as educators and researchers began to reevaluate the effectiveness of the oral-only approach.


  • Bilingual-Bicultural Approach: In the 20th century, the bilingual-bicultural approach gained recognition. This method emphasized the importance of sign language and deaf culture, promoting a strong deaf identity alongside academic education.

  • Total Communication Approach: Another approach, known as the total communication approach, emerged in the mid-20th century. This approach recognized the diverse communication needs of deaf individuals and aimed to provide a flexible and inclusive environment where various communication modes, including sign language, speech, lip-reading, and written language, were used.

  • Auditory-Oral Approach: The auditory-oral approach gained popularity in the mid-1900s. This method focused on developing speech and listening skills, utilizing technology such as hearing aids and cochlear implants. It aimed to maximize the use of residual hearing for communication and integration into the hearing world.

  • Mainstreaming and Inclusion: Towards the latter half of the 20th century, the concept of mainstreaming and inclusion gained traction. This approach advocated for integrating deaf students into regular schools alongside their hearing peers. The implementation of support services and accommodations aimed to ensure equal educational opportunities for deaf students.


  • Individualized Education Plans (IEPs): In modern times, schools for the deaf prioritize individualized education plans (IEPs) for each student. These plans outline specific goals, accommodations, and support services tailored to meet the unique needs of deaf students, fostering their academic and personal development.

  • Support Systems: Schools for the deaf provide a range of specialized support services to empower deaf students. These services include speech therapy, counseling, assistive technologies, and access to professionals who understand the unique challenges faced by deaf individuals.

  • Celebrating Deaf Culture and Achievement: Contemporary schools for the deaf actively celebrate and promote deaf culture and achievements. They encourage deaf students to embrace their identity, language, and heritage while preparing them for success in a hearing-centric world, however there are only 22 remaining in the UK a decline from 80 in the 1980s. Many deaf children cannot attend due to a lack of schools and lack of teachers of the deaf in recent years.

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