The Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf, better known as the Milan Conference, virtually destroyed the education of Deaf children around the world with one fell stroke.

The conference was held in Milan, Italy, September 6th through the 11th of 1880. Prior to this conference, Deaf education was largely controlled by Deaf people and Deaf culture was enjoying a golden age. For example, there were the Paris Banquets, which according to educator David Eberwein were attended by influential members of the hearing community as well as the Deaf, and featured "Deaf speeches aimed to illustrate the highest levels of Deaf philosophies." The speeches were valued so highly that most of them were translated into French and printed for wider distribution. Deaf people all over the world were establishing and administering schools, editing hearing newspapers, were celebrated artists and publishers, and were literate in many languages.

The key to this flowering of Deaf culture and Deaf success was education in sign language. When Deaf children were taught in the language of their community, they were able to take part in that community. When their language was valued, more hearing people around them were willing to learn it and their access to the hearing community - and to relationships with their hearing family members - grew by leaps and bounds. When their method of communication was considered to be valid, there were fewer barriers to them in the hearing workplace; they were more likely to be perceived as normal people communicating in a way that was normal for them, rather than expected to leave their own language and culture behind to fit into an inflexible mainstream.

But this did not mean that there were not opponents to sign language. Oralists like Alexander Graham Bell thought that educators should focus on teaching Deaf children to speak orally, and that toward that goal, sign language should be restricted to the kind of cued speech that assists with lip-reading. And in 1880, the oralists took over Deaf education.

The committee which planned the Milan Conference was the Pereire Society of France, an oralist organization which had also organized the previous conference: the more inflammatorily named "International Congress for the Improvement of the Condition of Deaf-Mutes". The Pereire Society was, oddly enough, composed of railroad magnates: brothers Isaac and Eugene Pereire. They were the grandsons of Jacob Pereire, a man with a grudge.

Jacob Pereire considered himself to be a rival of the famous Abbe Charles Michel de L'Epee. In the mid-seventeen-hundreds, at a time when Deaf people in Western Europe were rarely taught to communicate and often forbidden from marriage, a few very rich families were able to find a few teachers who could, through seemingly miraculous and very closely guarded methods, sometimes teach their children to speak. Jacob Pereire was one such teacher. He gained some fame, even presenting one of his students to the King of France. Abbe de L'Epee, however, was becoming even more famous for learning the sign language used among the Deaf community in France and integrating it into a system of education. He said,

"Every deaf-mute sent to us already has a language. He is thoroughly in the habit of using it, and understands others who do. With it he expresses his needs, desires, doubts, pains, and so on, and makes no mistakes when others express themselves likewise. We want to instruct him and therefore to teach him French. What is the shortest and easiest method? Isn't it to express ourselves in his language? By adopting his language and making it conform to clear rules, will we not be able to conduct his instruction as we wish?"
He began his own school, and taught many others to use his wildly successful methods for educating Deaf people. He is still lauded today. Pereire, his rival, was jealous.

Jacob Pereire tried to dismiss L'Epee's methods publicly, and clearly passed his grudge on to the rest of his family. A hundred years later, his grandsons met a hearing educator of the Deaf, Marius Magnat. Magnat had been exiled from teaching in France and now ran a small oralist school in Geneva. He was given to wildly inaccurate statements like "Sign cannot convey number, gender, person, time, nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives." Although, like all the very highly paid and "miraculous" oralist educators of the time, Pereire had supposedly taken his secret methods to the grave, his grandsons had the papers where he had written them down. They showed these papers to Magnat, who was inspired.

Magnat was not the only ousted educator of the Deaf involved. The threesome soon became five: Leon Vaïsse, who was fired from his position as director of the Paris Institution for the Deaf when he began to espouse oralism, and Adolphe Franck, an oralist who had written reports on oralism for the French government. The Pereire Society was formed, and the planning began.

The International Congress for the Improvement of the Condition of Deaf-Mutes was hastily thrown together, but failed to swing the educational world toward oralism. (At the time, the two most favored educational methods were the "Combined Method," much like what is now called "Total Communication", in which students may learn in both ASL and English, FSL and French, or whatever their local languages are - but in varying amounts depending on their teacher's preference.) The Pereire Society began to plan more carefully for their next attempt. They created an organizing committee for the Milan Conference, collecting the most prominent oralist advocates they could find. They helped to orchestrate the agenda, the events, to decide who would officiate. They arranged to have a small group of oralist students perform, answering questions put to them by their teachers, much to the audience's delight - making sure to choose students who had not been born Deaf, who had learned spoken language before becoming Deaf, which of course was kept from the audience. They arranged for anyone who spoke supporting sign language or the combined system to be ridiculed and jeered off the platform, while those who supported oralism were cheered wildly. And they carefully planned who would be invited. Of all the attendees, only one was Deaf.

Sign-supporting attendees did their best, but they were far in the minority. They numbered perhaps four: Edward Miner Gallaudet and the Rev. Thomas Gallaudet of the United States, Richard Elliot of England, and the sole Deaf attendee, James Denison, who was the principal of the Columbian Institution of the Deaf. Elliot even asked that a stranger be allowed to read a passage aloud for the oralist students to lip-read and repeat; his request was rejected out of hand.

The over 160 oralists at the Milan Conference passed eight resolutions which were to have a profound impact on the treatment of Deaf people around the world:

1. The Convention, considering the incontestable superiority of articulation over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society and giving him a fuller knowledge of language, declares that the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in the education and instruction of deaf-mutes.
Passed 160 to 4.

2. The Convention, considering that the simultaneous use of articulation and signs has the disadvantage of injuring articulation and lip-reading and the precision of ideas, declares that the pure oral method should be preferred.
Passed 150 to 16.

3. Considering that a great number of the deaf and dumb are not receiving the benefit of instruction, and that this condition is owing to the impotence of families and of institutions, recommends that governments should take the necessary steps that all the deaf and dumb may be educated.
Passed unanimously.

4. Considering that the teaching of the speaking deaf by the Pure Oral method should resemble as much as possible that of those who hear and speak, declares ­

    a) That the most natural and effectual means by which the speaking deaf may acquire the knowledge of language is the "intuitive" method, viz., that which consists in setting forth, first by speech, and then by writing the objects and the facts which are placed before the eyes of the pupils.

    b) That in the first, or maternal, period the deaf-mute ought to be led to the observation of grammatical forms by means of examples and of practical exercises, and that in the second period he ought to be assisted to deduce from these examples the grammatical rules, expressed with the utmost simplicity and clearness.

    c) That books, written with words and in forms of language known to the pupil, can be put into his hands at any time.

Motion carried.

5. Considering the want of books sufficiently elementary to help the gradual and progressive development of language, recommends ­that the teachers of the Oral system should apply themselves to the publication of special works on the subject.
Motion carried.

6. Considering the results obtained by the numerous inquiries made concerning the deaf and dumb of every age and every condition long after they had quitted school, who, when interrogated upon various subjects, have answered correctly, with sufficient clearness of articulation, and read the lips of their questioners with the greatest facility, declares ­

    a) That the deaf and dumb taught by the Pure Oral method do not forget after leaving school the knowledge which they have acquired there, but develop it still further by conversation and reading, when have been made so easy for them.

    b) That in their conversation with speaking persons they make use exclusively of speech.

    c) That speech and lip-reading so far from being lost, are developed by practice.

Motion carried.

7. Considering that the education of the deaf and dumb by speech has peculiar requirements; considering also that the experienced of teachers of deaf-mutes is almost unanimous, declares

    a) That the most favourable age for admitting a deaf child into school is from eight to ten years.

    b) That the school term ought to be seven years at least; but eight years would be preferable.

    3) That no teacher can effectually teach a class of more than ten children on the Pure Oral method.

Motion carried.

8. Considering that the application of the Pure Oral method in institutions where it is not yet in active operation, should be to avoid the certainty of failure­ prudent, gradual, progressive, recommends ­

    a) That the pupils newly received into the schools should form a class by themselves, where instruction could be given by speech.

    b) That these pupils should be absolutely separated from others too far advanced to be instructed by speech, and whose education will be completed by signs.

    c) That each year a new speaking class be established, until all the old pupils taught by signs have completed their education.

Motion carried.

The effects of these resolutions were immediate and far-reaching. Deaf educators all over were fired, and replaced en masse by hearing teachers. The focus of Deaf education shifted from science, art, and literature to the oralist goals of lip-reading, speech, and hearing. Proponents of the "intuitive method" supported by Franck were attempting to teach language through writing and drawings alone. By the 1940s, oralist Alexander Ewing at Manchester University was training new teachers in the "Natural Aural" method, also known as "hear and speak," which used headphones and microphones to try to force Deaf students to (as you might have guessed) hear and speak.

By the 1970s, signs were creeping back into even oralist curricula, at least as a method of teaching speech. Sign language had gained a great deal of support with the research of linguist William Stokoe, who proved that sign languages were real languages. Deaf communities, never quiet for long, had begun producing their own research into Deaf language and culture. Educators all over began to look at the failings of oralist methods. The French Ministry of the Interior had already found early in the twentieth century that students at the Paris Institution for the Deaf were graduating unable not only to speak but to write their own names; sadly, teachers there were inclined to attribute this to the students themselves rather than their own methods. One said, "Most of our students have such poor intelligence, and are so inept at using the few phrases that they want to use, that their impoverished reflection and imagination are expressed only in virtually unintelligible language."

In the 1970s, Gallaudet University did a study of 17,000 high school students' SAT scores. They found that the average Deaf senior in high school was scoring at a fourth-grade level in reading and a sixth-grade level in mathematics. Conditions appeared to be even worse across the Atlantic, possibly the United States had a higher number of Deaf schools using sign language than England. In 1976, Dr. Reuben Conrad of Oxford University performed a national study revealing that “when Deaf children leave school, half of them have a reading age of less than 7.6; half of them lipread worse than the average hearing child, untrained and inexperienced; 70% of them have speech which on the whole is too difficult to be understood, and only 10% have speech which their own teachers consider fairly easy.”

Sign languages had not been wiped out entirely. Many students of oralist schools had Deaf family members who grew up signing and continued to sign, or signed to their classmates even when risking strict punishment. In fact, James Denison observed that even the oralist students performing at the conference communicated in sign. He noted that "two or three times, a group, noticing the intentness with which I was watching their conversation, abruptly suspended the sign-making part of it... I inquired in sign whether they ever used gestures. The response was a blank mystified look on each face, then a general shaking of heads. But when I reminded them of what I had just observed, they pleaded guilty, with propitiatory smiles, to having partaken of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge."

In many places, there were still Deaf community organizations where sign language flourished. But the more a country adhered to the Milan resolutions, the more the sign language there suffered. In the Netherlands, where oralism was embraced, Deaf children became extremely isolated. Flemish Sign Language shattered into five regional dialects (West Flanders, East Flanders, Antwerp, Flemish Brabant, and Limburg) as well as splitting by gender in many areas because of segregation between boys' and girls' schools. Only now, with greater contact between Deaf community members there, is it becoming standardized again.

In France, matters were even worse. According to Sarah Veal of the International Herald Tribune, oralism essentially wiped French Sign Language out. She writes that "in the mid-1970s, Europe's deaf people began to show a growing determination to decide their own fate. In 1975, an American deaf actor and interpreter, Bill Moody, brought sign language back to Europe from the United States and helped start the International Visual Theater in Paris. But to fill the hundred-year gap left by its prohibition, everything had to be done from scratch." She quotes Josette Bouchaveau, director of the Academy of French Sign Language, as saying that "we had to develop the language, decide which signs from all the different dialects to use and create all the pedagogical materials and methods."

The Deaf community has in no part of the world returned to its pre-1880 status. However, its fight continues, with Deaf culture, visibility, community, and language growing more powerful every year. Bilingual/bicultural teaching methods are increasingly prevalent, and the advent of the Internet has connected Deaf people around the world for the first time. A new golden age cannot be far behind.


  • Sarah Veal, International Herald Tribune. "Use of Sign Language Grows, Not Only for the Deaf."
  • Nick Sturley. "Milan 1880 History."
  • Jamie Berke, "Deaf History - Milan 1880."
  • David Eberwein, Berkeley Community College. "The Deaf Country Before 1880." Not available online.
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