27. Oralism (LSL)
Oralism is the philosophy and practice of having deaf people communicate primarily or solely through speech, speechreading, speech therapy, and to cultivate their residual hearing through audiological means—hearing aids and cochlear implants. From the start, it has been a hearing-centric approach—devised, controlled, and promoted by hearing people, although there are a tiny minority of successful oral-deaf people who figure prominently in its campaign. While oralism has been around for centuries, it has not proved notably successful as a language-learning approach, or as a means towards literacy. It has produced a few successes and a multitude of failures. In the U.S., 150 years of Oralism have given us 150 years of failure.
Although some early oralist teachers incorporated fingerspelling or signing, Pure-Oralism, the dogmatic brand of oralism that emerged during the nineteenth century (aggressively promoted at the 1880 Congress of Milan), strictly banned signing and fingerspelling in the classroom. This didn’t mean that signing stopped. Instead, it continued outside of class. It went underground. Depending on the school, it might be freely used outside the classroom, or punished with varying degrees of severity, but this policy failed to end signing; the students merely became more careful about being caught. They signed in secret.
As their influence and power took over the schools for the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell and other prominent oralists were convinced that signing would be obsolete in a few years. A proliferation of oral day schools offered small classes and careful supervision, drastically lessening any opportunity to engage in the forbidden activity. And the schools for the deaf, even those founded by deaf teachers and advocates, fell under the influence of this trend. This led to a dark chapter in our history; we call it the Dark Age of Deaf Education.
Modern-day Oralism brought in electronic amplification, improved hearing aids, cochlear implants, the Auditory-Oral Approach, and Auditory-Verbal Therapy, originally called the Unisensory Approach, and later rebranded Listening and Spoken Language (LSL), although this name is misleading, as it doesn’t offer most deaf children complete access to language (as ASL does visually and kinetically). There are some slight ideological differences between AO and AVT/LSL, but to us they are much the same.
Cued Speech, a system of handshapes made in several positions on or near the mouth, is sometimes used in conjunction with these approaches to enable the deaf student to recognize spoken phonemes.
Oralism has not completely receded from schools for the deaf. It can still be difficult for students to get access to real ASL in class. Instead, they’re given a form of Manually Coded English such as Signing Exact English or Sign-Supported Speech. These have not produced notably outstanding results, as alumni of these programs still have literacy and language difficulties.
The value of an approach can be judged by its results. An approach that has catastrophically failed the majority of its students but is promoted by its advocates as the best and most effective one, while ASL is denigrated and deemed “unnecessary,” is seriously flawed and should be avoided as a primary mode. We do not doubt that there are a few oral-deaf persons who have thrived with oralism and have had successful careers, but their experiences are no more valid than those who consider themselves victimized and shortchanged by the oral upbringings they have had. The oral movement is not interested in listening to them. We are.