ASL: Oralists and Manualists Meet in Milan - dummies

By Adan R. Penilla, Angela Lee Taylor

In the early 1800s, many Deaf schools were established throughout the United States that still exist to this day. It was during this time that manual communication was prospering.

In 1880, a Conference for educators of the Deaf took place in Milan, Italy. This was a turning point for American Sign Language (ASL). At this meeting, about seven countries of educators for the Deaf were present, including the United States, Italy, Britain, and France, to name a few. This gathering is known as the Milan Conference or the Second International Congress. There were two schools of thought that dominated the Conference: Oralism and Manualism. Both of these philosophies had their own methods of teaching Deaf children, and each had their own supporters.

  • Oralists believed that lip reading, mouth movement/speech, and sound/auditory training were all needed to give Deaf people a complete education based on learning to speak first. This would impact how Deaf people communicate long after their primary education was complete. This method also dismissed Deaf culture, which is embedded in sign language. Oralists felt that manual communication, sign language, was a hindrance to language development. Alexander Graham Bell was one of the supporters of Oralist education.
  • Manualists believed that sign language, which has its own rules of grammar and structure and its own linguistic evolution, could fulfill all language requirements to teach Deaf children as it is a natural means to communicate.

A resolution at the Conference was passed that banned sign language from being used in schools to teach Deaf people. Many Deaf schools suffered from this decision and were closed. Deaf teachers were released, and non-signers were hired in their place.

France and Italy supported an Oralist method of teaching while Britain and the United States supported the Manualist method of teaching. Even though the Oralist won the battle of the day, the Manualist grew more resolute in their cause and solidarity.

American Sign Language has been preserved to this day in many schools for the Deaf in the United States and around the world.