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Sign Language and Oral Interpreters


Until the 1960s, sign language was considered by many educators to be inferior to spoken and written language. Oralism, the tradition of teaching deaf children to speak and lip-read, was practiced exclusively in deaf schools, and sign language was forbidden.

A child born deaf can learn sign language as naturally as a hearing child learns English, but English does not come naturally to deaf children. Hearing children pick up many of their English words and language skills from listening to all the noise that surrounds them—a radio or TV on in the room; a phone conversation down the hall; older siblings playing in the front yard. Deaf children can only carefully and painstakingly study the English language. They are limited to watching the movement of a person's mouth and to touching a person's neck and throat to learn sounds. Lip-reading is difficult at best, as many words require the same shaping of the lips. Even the best lip-readers can become lost quickly during a normal conversation.

Various forms of sign language were widely used in the 19th century. Laurent Clerc, a deaf Frenchman, and Thomas Gallaudet, a hearing minister, introduced French Sign Language to America in 1816. This system, integrated with the signs Americans were already using, served as the foundation for American Sign Language (ASL, although the language did not come to be called ASL until the 1960s). It also led to the establishment of the first school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Many schools for the deaf followed and, by 1867, all of them used sign language in their lessons, resulting in the spread of ASL. But even educators who supported the use of sign language criticized ASL, favoring instead sign systems that followed English sentence structure and word order. (American Sign Language is considered a "natural sign language," a language completely separate from English.)

By the mid-1800s, some educators came to believe that by letting deaf children sign, they were preventing the children from developing speech and English language skills. This led to a conference on deaf education in Milan, Italy, in 1880. There, a resolution was passed to ban all sign language from deaf education. This ban was widely accepted in America, and all schools for the deaf had eliminated ASL from their lessons by 1907. In some classrooms, teachers even tied down the student's hands to prevent them from signing. However, American Sign Language survived. The language was passed secretly from deaf parents to deaf children, from deaf teachers to deaf students. The resilience of the language, through nearly 100 years of oralism, was finally acknowledged with a series of linguistic studies in the 1960s. In the 1970s, ASL was reintroduced to deaf education and is now considered important in the teaching of English to deaf students.

American Sign Language has enabled members of the deaf community to accurately express their cultural values, beliefs, and ideas, and interpreters help to communicate these ideas to the English-speaking majority. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), established in 1964, introduced certification standards in 1972. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 led the way for better opportunities for deaf people; by mandating interpreters, the legislation gave deaf people access to employment, education, health, and social services. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were both passed in 1990 and guarantee, in some instances, interpreters for deaf students and even deaf workers.

The field is expanding as a result of the introduction of Video Relay Service and Video Remote Interpreting technologies, which allow the deaf community access to real-time video communication with the hearing community.