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Deaf History - Milan 1880

Event with Powerful Repurcussions

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Updated May 20, 2014

Milan 1880. No other event in the history of deaf education had a greater impact on the lives and education of deaf people. This single event almost destroyed sign language.

What Happened in 1880?

In 1880, there was an international conference of deaf educators, the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf. At this conference, held September 6-11, 1880, a declaration was made that oral education was better than manual (sign) education. A resolution was passed banning sign language. The only countries opposed to the ban were the United States (represented by Edward Miner Gallaudet, Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, Issac Peet, James Denison, and Charles Stoddard) and Britain. The sign supporters tried, but failed, to get their voices heard. Here are the first of 8 resolutions passed by the convention:

1. The Convention, considering the incontestable superiority of articulation over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society and giving him a fuller knowledge of language, declares that the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in the education and instruction of deaf-mutes.

2. The Convention, considering that the simultaneous use of articulation and signs has the disadvantage of injuring articulation and lip-reading and the precision of ideas, declares that the pure oral method should be preferred

The other resolutions dealt with instruction of impoverished deaf students, how to instruct deaf students orally, the need for instructional books for deaf oral teachers, the long-term benefits of oral instruction, the optimal ages for oral instruction and length of instruction, and phasing out of manually instructed students. A photocopy of the Milan resolutions is in the book Deaf Heritage.

How Could This Happen?

It was a foregone conclusion. The outcome was basically "fixed" because the conference was planned and organized by a committee that was against sign language. This committee selected the attending representatives — more than half were known oralists from France and Italy. Although other topics were supposed to be discussed, the conference focused on the methods of instruction, and representatives talked about the method of instruction used in their schools - either speech or combined speech and sign. Immediately after these presentations, the resolutions were made.

What Was the Immediate Effect?

The repurcussions to Milan were immediate:

  • Deaf teachers lost their jobs
  • The fledgling National Association of the Deaf attracted more supporters as deaf people fought to save their language and culture
  • The president of Gallaudet College (now University) decided to retain sign language on the Gallaudet campus. This monumental decision may have been largely responsible for sign language's survival.

What Was the Long-Term Impact?

Milan 1880 is of such significance in deaf history that it has been commemorated in artworks, such as the artwork of artist Mary Thornley, who has done a painting showing hearing "hunters" seeking to shoot down ASL.

In October 1993, Gallaudet University held a conference, "Post Milan ASL and English literacy." The conference proceedings included an esay, "Reflections upon Milan with an eye to the future," by Katherine Jankowski.

In retrospect, one could say that in the years since, sign language and oralism have learned to co-exist peacefully. There will never be another Milan 1880.

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