While Indian Residential Schools and Training Schools for Mental Defectives primarily played detrimental roles in the lives of those interned in them, institutions for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing have played a more positive role in fostering individual development. This has been in part through the key role that such schools have played in stimulating and promoting Deaf culture and identity. Eugenicists resisted the social integration, and the ensuing community building, the education of deaf students would make possible; they feared that this would encourage marriage between deaf individuals and subsequently perpetuate a “defective” gene pool.
Deaf Education and Schools for the Deaf
The idea of the possibility of educating deaf people began to emerge in Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, England, and Switzerland only through the 15th and 17th centuries as systems of signs representing letters of the alphabet were utilized in teaching deaf children and adults to read and write. Efforts to educate deaf students and make education publicly available intensified by the 19th century, especially in England, France, and Germany. In 1809, for example, Jospeh Watson opened the first public school that accepted deaf children born to poor families. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the co-founder of the first institution for the education of the deaf in North America in 1817, travelled first to England and subsequently to France in order to learn the teaching methods for educating deaf pupils in both countries. While in France, he met Laurent Clerc who accompanied Gallaudet when he returned to the United States in order to co-found the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, now called the American School for the Deaf (Carbin 1996, 6-11).
Soon after the opening of the Connecticut Asylum, other states followed suit by funding their own institutions: the New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb opened in 1818, the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb opened in 1820, the Kentucky Asylum for the Tuition of the Deaf and Dumb opened in 1823, and the Ohio Asylum for the Education of the Death and Dumb opened in 1829. “By the turn of the century, there were 57 residential institutions, 40 public day schools, and 15 denominational and private schools in operation in the U.S.” (Carbin 1996, 16). Although the first Canadian school opened on June 15, 1831 in the Province of Lower Canada in Québec City, many Canadian students attended the well established American institutions (Carbin 1996).
With the settlement of Western Canada—which later became the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia—schools were established, but did not accommodate deaf children. Initially, some children were sent to provincial schools in the East while others did not receive any education at all. By 1931, however, all the Western provinces, with the exception of Alberta, had established their own residential schools. The Alberta School for the Deaf was opened only in 1955. In contrast, other provincial institutions, such as the Blue Quill’s Indian Residential School in Lac la Biche, or the Provincial Training School in Red Deer, were opened in 1931 and 1923 respectively.
Education, Deaf Community Building, and Rights
The legal status of deaf people, and hence their rights, are historically quite interdependent with education. For example, when the Byzantine emperor Justinian compiled the Justinian Code in the 6th century, deaf people who received an education and thus could communicate through writing were accorded full legal rights. This group included those who became deaf after birth, those born deaf, but able to speak, and individuals deafened in old age. People who did not receive an education could inherit property, but could not have direct control over it and were forbidden to make legal wills (Carbin 1996, 3); many deaf individuals unfortunately fell into that category. While the legal benefits of a formal education in the 15th through 17th centuries were exclusively an upper class privilege, when the establishment of institutions for the poor and mentally ill became of social interest in the 18th century, the advantages associated with acquiring an education began to spread to the common population.
Because most regular school teachers lacked the specialized training needed to educate children with severe to profound hearing losses and since “early childhood deafness calls for very special instructional techniques” (Moores 1992, 7), institutions like the Alberta School for the Deaf were the only places deaf children could get an education. Education, in turn, was key to social integration in virtue of the acquisition of employable skills. This more recent emergence of formalized educational services for the deaf further promoted a sense of community and identity within the deaf population, which only strengthened advocacy for disability rights.
Deaf community building, however, was feared by eugenicists. Alexander Graham Bell, for instance, argued against institutions, like the American School for the Deaf. Bell argued that such institutions would not only educate, but, more distressingly yet, bring together defective individuals who would be much more likely to start families and perpetuate their defective trait (see Bell 1884a, 1884b).
Bell raised alarm over what he considered the dangerous marriage patterns of deaf Americans...[he acknowledged] that deaf Americans were better educated and more successful than their European counterparts...Bell feared that the outcome of this would be the establishment of a new variety of the human race. Realizing the difficulty of enacting legislation to restrict marriages of deaf Americans, he proposed measures that would isolate deaf people from each other. (Moores 1992, 16)
While institutions such as Indian Residential Schools, which aimed at eradication of Native culture, and Provincial Training Schools, which quickly became places of segregation, served the eugenic agenda, educational institutions for the deaf strengthened the deaf community. Given such eugenicist worries and Alberta’s strong eugenicist past, it is perhaps not a coincidence that Alberta was the last province to offer education to the deaf, and only did so 32 years after establishing the Provincial Training School in Red Deer and 24 years after opening the Blue Quill’s Indian Residential School.
Community building and a sense of cultural and linguistic identity have played an important role in empowering Deaf communities to continue to fight for basic rights such as the recognition and use of sign language, respect for Deaf culture and identity, bilingual education in sign language, accessibility to all areas of social life, and sign language interpretation (see Hauland and Allen 2009, 3.2). Education and access to equal rights have been saliently interrelated for centuries.
Desegregation and the Value of Communities
Although public school programs for the deaf have been emerging, the social context inherent in traditional residential school settings or specialized classrooms within local public schools have been shown to have continued value to the educational outcomes of deaf students. Martha G. Gaustad writes:
[T]he instruction of deaf students has shifted from predominantly segregated residential schooling to the placement of a majority of deaf students in local public school programs...the movement toward desegregation has not been without its pitfalls...While most deaf students appear to be served by programs large enough to provide a range of services, a large number are not in situations that would permit the adequate provision of services or sufficient numbers of peers to allow for meaningful interaction...[especially since the deaf community is considered to be] a separate linguistic minority. (Gaustad 1992, 102-103)
Michael S. Stinson and Kathleen Whitmire argue that local public school programs, in order to be successful, have to be large enough to allow proper community building among children with hearing impairments. They conclude that “it is desirable to provide hearing impaired adolescents numerous opportunities to enjoy social relationships with each other...[since] [a]ll adolescents struggle to find appropriate social roles and identities, and it is helpful if they have choices in social relationships and opportunities to explore these options and experiences...Findings suggest that the appropriate social context for such exploration is one that includes many hearing impaired schoolmates” (Stinson and Whitmire 1992, 169-170).
Janet Cerney further buttresses this argument by explaining that although the teaching of factual content via direct instructional approaches has been shown to be effective, the social context is crucial to the development of higher-order cognitive skills. The observed difficulties in deaf children pertaining to learning and the development of social skills can be linked to the lack of proper social interaction in regular classrooms where deaf children are often an extremely underrepresented linguistic minority and thus cannot effectively engage with their peers. She writes: “[w]hile a hearing child is often exposed to a rich environment of multiple direct relationships within the classroom, the deaf child’s experiences are limited to the interpretations of one person—the interpreter” (Cerney 2007, 6).
Although institutions and institutionalization have had a sordid history throughout the world, the establishment of institutions for the education of Deaf students has not had similarly negative consequences for the deaf community. Research suggests that insofar as such institutions contributed to social integration and identity, they helped ensure typical age-specific cognitive development in students.
Schools for the deaf essentially segregated deaf students from the “normal” population based on what was considered a defective trait. However, the institutional context, by encouraging social interaction among individuals who would otherwise be isolated from one another—arguably an even more alienating form of segregation—has been instrumental in the development of a flourishing and ever stronger community and culture, transforming schools for the deaf into schools for the Deaf.
Bell, A. G. (1884a). Fallacies concerning the deaf. American Annals of the Deaf, 5(1). 32-35.
Bell, A. G. (1884b). Memoirs on the formation of a deaf variety of the human race. Washington, DC: National Academy of Science.
Carbin, C. F. (1996). Deaf heritage in Canada: a distinctive, diverse, and enduring culture. Dorothy L. Smith (Ed.). Whitby, ON: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited.
Cerney, J. (2007). Deaf education in America: voices of children from inclusion settings. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Gaustad, M. G. (1992). Understanding the context of local public education. Toward Effective Public School Programs for Deaf Students: Context, Process, & Outcomes. Thomas N. Kluwin, Donald F. Moores, and Martha G. Gaustad (Eds.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 100-104.
Hauland, H., Allen, C. (2009). Deaf people and human rights. World Federation of the Deaf and Swedish National Association of the Deaf. Retrieved from http://www.wfdeaf.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Deaf-People-and-Human-Rights-Report.pdf
Moores, D. F. (1992). An historical perspective on school placement. Toward Effective Public School Programs for Deaf Students: Context, Process, & Outcomes. Thomas N. Kluwin, Donald F. Moores, and Martha G. Gaustad (Eds.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 7-29.
Stinson, M., Whitmire, K. (1992). Students’ views of their social relationships. Toward Effective Public School Programs for Deaf Students: Context, Process, & Outcomes. Thomas N. Kluwin, Donald F. Moores, and Martha G. Gaustad (Eds.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 149-174.