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Wednesday 17th March BBC2 1pm

SH Line Producer | 15:31 UK time, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

On today's programme we visit the RoyalAcademy for Deaf Education in Exeter. The school has long been synonymous with deaf cultural heritage and now, with plans in the pipeline for cutting-edge new premises, it's all set for to become a model for deaf schools of the future too. See Hear takes a look at the academy - past, present and future.




And, as the way deaf children are taught in schools has changed over the years so has the way British Sign Language has evolved. In the second of a four-part series we pick up the BSL story from the early 18th century onwards.


Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, wrote a story with a deaf character: The History and the Life and Adventures of Mr Duncan Campbell and illustrated it with a 2 handed alphabet.  It was so modern that a person today could easily converse with a deaf person from the 1720s without any problem.


The mid 18th Century brought the Industrial Revolution and great change.  People flocked to towns from outlying rural areas to find work in the new large factories. This rapid expansion also brought deaf people from the rural areas, often for the first time, who started the first deaf communities. The dense urban population meant overcrowded conditions and disease epidemics, such as measles and mumps which can cause deafness, were rife.  This meant deaf communities in towns grew rapidly.  


As deaf communities grew there was a need for education. Thomas Braidwood founded the first school for the deaf in 1760 in Edinburgh.  The school's success became a model for many later schools across the UK.  These newer schools were established under Braidwood's influence as he trained his sons and nephews to spread his methods, and were kept a closely guarded family secret.  Braidwood used different communication methods to suit each individual child depending on their ability, either finger spelling, signing, lip reading or speech.


The use of sign language in schools spread, but during the Victorian era people started to criticise the flagging standards in deaf schools.  Teaching methods had remained the same for 100 years and now new teaching methods were wanted, amongst them oralism.  Oralism had been used since the 16th Century but the real push towards oralism began in 1858 in Manchester, when a Dutchman came over and gave a demonstration of lessons conducted entirely orally which impressed many and so the method spread.  Germany had developed an oral system, France a sign system and Britain was somewhere in the middle.  Pressure was growing until finally in 1880 sign language was put on trial in Milan at a Conference for teachers of the deaf and from then on everything changed.


The Milan Conference of 1880 was meant to be a discussion on many topics and all methods used to teach deaf children.  But oralists dominated - demonstrating the success of oralism with a group of deaf speaking children giving recitals and answering questions.  In those days travelling long distances was not easy so only a few people attended, with a few representatives from Germany, France, the UK and Italy.  Discussions at the conference concluded that oralism was the best teaching method because of the evidence provided e.g. Italian schools with deaf Italian children pronouncing Italian well.   For British and American children, English is harder to speak as so many words are difficult to pronounce, but the conference was impressed as the Italian children were fluent.  When it was voted upon at the end of the conference the hammer fell heavily - 10-1 in favour of oralism.  Oralism was in and sign was out. 


After the conference the media had a field day reporting that "deafness was abolished".  This was the Victorian era, a time of new ideas and advancements, a time of strict decorum and it was felt that sign language just didn't fit in.  Signing was banned from the classroom.


Next time we continue our journey following the History of Sign Language and its struggle for survival as it went underground



Also, this coming weekend (17th - 19th March 2010), is Sport Relief Weekend when people all over the UK will be taking part in a wide variety of sporting events to raise cash to help transform the lives of people both here and across the world. We visit the Deaf Connections project in Glasgow to see how it has benefitted from Sport Relief funding in the past. 




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