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The Next Step
in the Education of the Deaf

September 1893 — Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


In past ages the deaf were the victims of deliberate as well as ignorant cruelty. In the present age they are no longer deliberately drowned, as in ancient Rome, nor exposed to die, as under the laws of Lycurgus, but they are still largely sufferers from a modified form of the ignorance which formerly ranked them with imbeciles, and now fails to realize that they are able to learn, be or do anything and everything the hearing can, if they are given precisely the same advantages and opportunities.

When a hearing baby is learning to talk the mother does not use motions to it, because it has not yet commenced to understand the language; but she repeats over and over again to it the pet names she calls it, tells it again and again to say “papa” and “mamma,” etc., until it learns to understand and then copy her words. She is keen to discover, encourage and correct its first attempts at articulation.

It has been proved by experience that if the attention of the deaf child be directed to the mouth with the same persistency, and it be talked to just the same by every one who is with it, that it will learn the speech and language through the eye which the hearing child learns through the ear. Like the hearing child, it has an hereditary tendency to talk, and only needs the same opportunity to learn. No more motions should be used with it than with a hearing child; its attention should always be guided to the mouth of the speaker and concentrated there. Little by little it will begin to attach meaning to the words and sentences it “sees,” just as the hearing child, little by little, begins to attach meaning to the words and sentences that it hears. People almost universally, when they wish to take an infant from its mother, hold out their arms and say “come,” watching the little one for an indication in its face that it desires to be taken, or to see if it will hold out its arms to come. Thus the little child learns the meaning of the word “come,” but as it grows older the parents or others simply call it to come, without holding out the arms, dropping the motion as soon as the child understands the meaning of the word. No more motions should be used with a deaf child than this, which amounts simply to employing the action representing the word. The words should be indefinitely repeated, that the child may become familiar with the looks of the mouth, while the representation of a word by action or motion should be dropped as soon as possible, and should never be used without at the same time showing the child the word represented. The names of objects may be taught with the objects, which is really the way hearing children learn them in their homes. We  must always remember that when a hearing child is learning to talk, its hearing gives it the advantage of every word spoken in its presence, while the deaf child has only the advantage of seeing the mouth of the person it happens to be looking at, or who is talking with it, and this difference must be made up to the deaf child by a greater amount of repetition of the words we are teaching it.

Everyone with whom a deaf child comes in contact should talk to it and encourage it and aid it to articulate. A deaf baby begins to say “ma, ma, ma,” just as hearing babies do, but as a rule it is not encouraged; if it were, and the child perfectly guided to further articulation, it would talk. The ordinary practice, however, when an infant is discovered to be deaf, is to make no further effort to teach it to talk or read the lips, but to immediately begin to use motions with it. Just here begins the cruel system of training the deaf differently from the hearing, and thus making them feel from the very outset of life that they are peculiarly unlike those around them. The truth is, that it is this faulty system of training that makes them different by depriving them of the free and constant communication with other minds which the hearing have. No wonder they have come to have the reputation of being naturally jealous, suspicious and unhappy — an unjust reputation.

There is also a popular delusion that the vocal chords of deaf children are defective; the fact is, that such cases are the exception, and that the vocal chords of deaf children generally are normal. The articulation of certain consonant sounds depends on certain positions of the lips, tongue and teeth and palate. The quality of vowel sounds depends on certain positions of the tongue. Any deaf child who can cry and scream, and who has tongue, teeth, lips and palate, has the necessary vocal organs.

I know of three mothers who were fortunate enough to realize what they could accomplish for their deaf infants, and who, following the stated plan, have taught them to read the lips so well, and also to talk, that now that these children are grown up, no one would take them to be deaf. They are all women; two of them have married hearing men, and the third is a bright, happy girl of twenty-one, who is studying art in Chicago, on exactly the same footing with the hearing, having previously graduated at the High School in Chicago.

Although the deaf have been taught to talk in the schools of Germany for more than a century, and in the schools of Italy, Holland and Switzerland for more than a generation, and England, France and America are slowly adopting the oral method in the schools, the pupil can never make up the loss of the years before the school age, any more than hearing children could if they were deprived of all knowledge of speech and language until they are sent to school.

The next step in the education of the deaf, then, is to give every deaf child the same opportunities for learning speech and language at the natural age as the successful mothers already referred to gave their children. Not only the mothers, but the public, have a share in this work; as every one who has anything to do with the children should adopt the same policy with all the deaf. Until society learns that, by thus doing its whole duty to the deaf, they will become like normal people, we shall need efficiently and intelligently conducted “homes” for the training in speech of deaf children. At present there are only two or three private homes and home schools where the work is being done, and Pennsylvania leads the world in a government appropriation to this end. From June 1, 1893, it gives state aid to the “Home for Training in Speech of Deaf Children before School Age,” established at Belmont and Monument Avenues, Philadelphia, by my sister, Miss Emma Garrett, on February 1, 1892, and maintained from that time to June 1, 1893, by funds raised privately by ourselves.

Children are admitted between the ages of two and eight, and are given a six-years’ course from time of entrance, uninterrupted by vacations, although parents are allowed to visit them when they please. The reason for giving them no vacation is that when hearing children are learning to talk there is no interruption to the process, and there should be none in the cases of deaf children. During the courses they are taught the speech and language which will fit them in most cases to attend schools for the hearing, and in all cases bring them into communication with others more freely than is possible in any other way. The home is on the cottage plan, and the children live a perfectly natural home life in every respect. It is amazing to notice how soon they realize that they are being made like other people, and their faces grow happier and brighter all the while as they advance. Similar homes should be established everywhere where there are deaf children who need them.


N. B. — I have quoted in above address somewhat from my paper, “Directions to Parents of Deaf Children for their Treatment from Infancy, in Order that They may Learn Speech and Lip-Reading,” read before the Medical Society of France in 1886, and published in the Medical and Surgical Reporter of June 12, 1886.



Source: The Congress of Women Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Chicago: Monarch book Company) 1894, pp. 443-445.


Also “Directions to Parents of Deaf Children for their Treatment from Infancy, in Order that They may Learn Speech and Lip-Reading,” Mary S. Garrett, read before the Medical Society of France in 1886, published in the “Medical and Surgical Reporter,” June 12, 1886.