Deaf Culture, part II
As with any other culture, the Deaf community is based on a language that is comprised of its own history, perspective of the world and form of humour. Although there are several similarities between the Deaf culture and other cultures, some aspects stand out as being different. After all, it is a community based on what most consider to be a handicap – one that gives Deaf people a lifestyle that is quite different than our own. Therefore, to understand the basis of a culture, the language is the first thing to learn about.
During a long walk home, Charles-Michel de l’Epée, aka. L’abbé de l’Epée, requested shelter for a short while in the house where twin daughters, both Deaf, had learnt to communicate between themselves and with their family using an intricate and imaginative form of ‘home signs’. This was not a language per se, since they were they only ones using it, and as anyone knows, to create a language one needs far more than just a few basic words mixed with gestures. However, on this day in 1760, Abbé de l’Epée was inspired; he decided that if he were to learn this set of words, he could surely offer these girls a basic education and perhaps make them a useful part of society. This is the first official and written recording of sign language in the world – this young priest’s journal entry about his encounter with Deaf twins.
Although before this day there was surely another family, perhaps even a community large enough of Deaf people who use sign language, there was never any written record of it ever discovered. We know that the use of sign is ancient, perhaps as far back as cavemen, who are known to have used basic signs – an intricate form of gestures – to speak to one another during hunting or dangerous situations where making noise could compromise things for them. But, de l’Epée found this interesting, and he had a plan. After teaching the twin girls, he went on to higher and better things, changing the world for Deaf people forever.
Some believe him to have been quite oppressive; others say that he was the one who ‘saved’ Deaf people from their lives of misery. Although opinions of him differ, one thing is for sure: after he was done with the twins, he built the world’s first ever school for the Deaf in France, in 1770, to create a system of signs that copy the syntax of the French language. His attempt is noble to say the least; even though he failed miserably, his heart was in it. What was the reason for his lack of success? He omitted the most important and most basic element necessary for teaching anything to anyone: taking the students’ culture into account. Deaf people are impressively visual, and although their sign language was perhaps still primitive to say the least, de l’Epée’s system of methodical signs was artificially made and went against every natural grain in the Deaf people’s culture. But, even if his attempts were futile, his work did not go unfruitful. Quite the contrary; this abbey had started a new wave, the one of actually teaching Deaf people. Even though the ones at his school went on without the slightest understanding of the French language, they had at the very least learnt other topics. Teaching Deaf people using sign language was now accepted as a learning method for them.
He is not the first person to ever try to teach Deaf people. The others who worked before and at the same time as de l’Epée had their own method, which was to attempt to make them speak and understand others by reading the movement of their lips, now called ‘lip-reading’. Their services came with quite a hefty bill, though, and this was therefore limited mostly to families whose offspring needed to be married and would not find a suitable mate without it (or so they believed), or at times to find a manual job that didn’t require talking. This form never became popular, surely largely due to the price. This was never considered, in any way, a 'proper education' for Deaf people.
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