Deaf studies

Oralism: the superior attitude of modality

Oralism emerged as a predominant oppression in the 1880s after the infamous "Milan Congress of 1880" at the "Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf" in Milan, Italy, where the delegates (oral proponents) met and declared that oral education or oralism was superior to to manual education and voted to pass a resolution that banned the use of sign language in schools around the world.

Shortly after this infamous conference, many Deaf teachers were fired and sign language was banned in schools around the world. From there till the 1960s (the "Dark Age"), many Deaf professionals from writers to teachers declined. Many Deaf people experienced traumas with oralism in their upbringings.

Many Deaf people associate those terms "oralism", "LSL", "AVT", and so on with an experience of pain, coercion, oppression, and other abuses of their natural language acquisition through eye, and the exclusion from their natural human language as well as a damage of healthy identity, and being Deaf.


The oral proponents, such as AGBell (Alexander G. Bell organization), changed this term to other variants: 'listening and spoken language' (LSL), 'auditory verbal therapy' (AVT), and so on, usually capitalized acronomyms such as 'LSL' and 'AVT'.

If you google 'oral' as a single query, the first and the majority of the results on the first page is a dirty word. Pun aside, Amy C. Efron wrote through social media on April 21 that reflects Deaf people's perception, "Oralism is a dirty word. Auditory Verbal Therapy is a dirty word."

The term "listening and spoken language" (LSL) -- in other word English Speech Language -- is seen as a twist and crush over the natural human language, American Sign Language (ASL). It means nothing more than speech as a modality. It is not a language but a superior modality.

"Listening and Spoken Language is used to confuse people and putting this higher esteem over American Sign Language. It is a language appropriation." -Amy Cohen Efron

Efron emphasizes that LSL is actually a therapeutic approach; thus, she points out that it should be called 'listening and speaking therapy'. Back to the old term, 'speech therapy' which is what we traditionally have been familiar with.

Trauma and abuse

There are uncountable, common stories about Deaf people's experience in oral education and oralism back in the old days where sign language was forbidden in Deaf schools around the world.

Photo from Master ASL! Level 1.

Punishing deaf children for using sign language was a very common experience. Teachers slapped deaf children's tiny hands with a ruler. No matter what, Deaf children secretly signed in dormitories at nightimes, in the bathrooms, in classrooms behind teachers' back, in the playgrounds, etc.

The speech therapist used a strip of kleenex with a deaf child to practice speaking a phoneme "P" or "B" while other hearing children speak thousands of words. A speech therapist or teacher slapped a deaf child's cheek for not pronouncing properly.

Uncountable stories.

headphones on the desks - oralism
Photo (1970s) courtesy of Jolanta Lapiak

Imagine putting a burden on a tiny child with the world when a parent can simply handle to learn a signed language. Too hard for a mature adult?

It's not about the hearing world. It's about the world of diversity.

Effects of the oppression

The practice and attitude of oralism reflects phonocentrism which is prevalent in this society -- the superiority of aural-vocal modality over visual-spatial modality.

Scenario: Jack Levesque wrote in his letter as well as told the story in the documentary video Audism Unveiled. Here is the shortened version: "At the age of 80, my mother asked me, 'Did we do the right thing by sending you to the oral school? Was an oral education right for you?' At 81, she said, 'I should have learned sign language. But we were told it was not the right thing to do by the staff at school. I can now see the difference in communication, and I see that it was a mistake not to learn sign language.'" A few hours prior to her death, "we tried to say all the things we had in our hearts. I talked and lipread her. Toward the end, she wanted to tell me something. I didn't understand and asked her to repeat it. Twice more I asked her to repeat, then finally I gave her a piece of paper. She was only able to write the letter O, or maybe C, before her eyes closed and the deep sleep of coma overtook her." ... "My mother made sure I had the finest oral education around. She was proud of my speaking ability, and impressed by my less-than-perfect lipreading. But we never had a real conversation. Oh, I knew she loved me. I knew she was proud of me. But I'll never know her last words to me."

"I can't change anything. I can't go back and make her hands fly easily. But I can make a plea to other parents of deaf children: LEARN SIGN LANGUAGE." -- Jack's Levesque, 1992. Also told in ASL in Unveiled Audism video.

"In my nearly 40 years of life, I've yet to meet a single deaf person who was traumatized by sign language. Yet, I can't count how many were traumatized by mainstreamed and oral education." -- Jeanine Gingras Wiesblatt, on FB, April 12, 2013.

"The rationale for this educational approach, called 'oralism' was essentially a cliche... 'This is a hearing world, and Deaf people must learn to cope with it.' ... That the average Deaf student, upon leaving school, had an academic achievement level equivalent to a hearing student in the third grade was ascribed to his or her failure to learn, not the school's failure to teach. The fact that schools for the Deaf, before signing was banished, had turned out numberous well-eduated graduates was suppressed to the point that very few, even in the Deaf community, were aware of it.'" -- Journey into the Deaf World, pp 266-267.

The myth "signing would inhibit the learning of speech" is another belief that it is not true. Deaf people with the highest education are bilingual.


With the emerging movement of bilingualism (ASL along with written English) in the late 20th century, many Deaf people rise in professions and higher education.

Neuroscience and linguistics studies show abundance evidence that sign language and speech language are equal from the brain's standpoint.

"The human brain does not discriminate between the hands and the tongue. People discriminate, but not our biological human brain." -- Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, neuroscientist.


Efron, Amy C. "Stop recognizing LSL. It is really LST." Retrieved, April 21, 2016.

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