British Sign Language History

Deaf General Secretary of BDDA: Leslie Edwards (1935-1951) – you can watch old video, click here

Back in 1880, the Second International Congress of Education of the Deaf was held in Milan, where educators came from all over the world to discuss three main topics. These were: ‘School Buildings’, ‘Teaching’ and ‘Methods’. The conference, which was organised by those who favoured oral education, quickly focused on the last topic ‘Methods’, which saw a lot of pro-oral presentations which were heavily in favour of the oral method.

One example was a demonstration at a local Milan deaf school, where the pupils were paraded as a success of the Oral Method, as they could receive and answer questions orally. However, these questions were asked by the teachers at the schools, and any attempts from sceptical delegates to ask oral questions were rejected. There was evidence of these children being drilled to produce striking results. These children were also born hearing at birth, and had learned the basics of speech before being deafened. The school had also hidden the children that used sign language away from the delegates.

The conference passed eight resolutions, two of which were that the Oral Method be used in the instruction of the Deaf, and to discourage sign language in the education of the deaf. The resolution was passed in favour with 160 voting for, and only four against, meaning sign language in the education of the Deaf was to be discouraged/suppressed and the Oral Method used instead.

These resolutions ensured that Deaf people who worked in educating Deaf children lost their jobs, and that sign language was no longer used as a teaching method.

Over nearly 140 years, the Oral Method was the only way of educating the Deaf, and still plays a major role in Deaf Education, yet the achievements of Deaf people has gone into reverse. A few examples of the consequences of Milan 1880 are listed below:

  • Over 70% of UK Deaf children left school with a reading age of 7 and with few qualifications and social skills.
  • Hearing parents were told not to use signs and to only use speech/lipreading with their deaf children.
  • Paternalism and poor attitudes towards deaf children grew.
  • The British Deaf and Dumb Association (BDDA) was formed in 1890 by Francis Maginn to fight the Oral Method and to protect the rights of the Deaf people. In 1971, the “Dumb” was dropped to create the British Deaf Association that we know today.
  • The impact of Milan 1880 on the Deaf was severe, yet there is still hope. In the 1960s, American Sign Language (ASL) was recognised by linguists, as a language in its own right with its own grammar, vocabulary, structure and syntax.

Following in the same vein, British Sign Language also received the same recognition on 18 March 2003. Deaf and hearing people together are still campaigning for a legal status of BSL and ISL, and also full bi-lingualism – fluent BSL and written/read English – to be used in education.