The Struggle between Natural and Normal

"God had provided a language addressed to the eye. This is to the deaf-mute a natural language and the only natural language ."

-Collins Stone, 1869, report of the Principal. American School for the Deaf, Hartford ,Connecticut

Many deaf adults and signing teachers referred to the "natural language of signs," but oralists believed that speech was the "normal" or "universal" way to communicate among civilized humans. The depth of feeling was great on both sides, and the conflict of ideas and values lead to accusations of dishonesty and hypocrisy. The terms "natural" and "normal" remain tangled up in this enduring argument.

"He (my father) determined even at my early age to have me brought up as much like a normal child as possible. As a result, I do not know to this day, how to speak on my fingers. The sight of deaf people speaking in the public on their fingers was always obnoxious to me and I remember declining repeatedly during my youth to learn this method from my deaf acquaintances."

-Lincoln Fechheimer, 1876-1954, Clark Institution Alumnus and board member


During speech lessons, teachers and deaf students often touched each other's throats to feel vocal chord vibrations. This student is learning the sound of "O" at the New York Institution of the Improved Instruction of Deaf Mutes, now the Lexington School for the Deaf. Many students spent hours each day in speech training .


Gallaudet University Archives


Candles were often used to teach speech, because the flame flickered when a students correctly pronounced letters such as "b" and "p".


CLARKE School for the Deaf/
Center for Oral Education


The Principal's Group of the American Association for the Promotion of Teaching Speech to the Deaf met in Philadelphia in 1896. Alexander Graham Bell (second row center), an oral education proponent, watches as two members sign.

Gallaudet University Archives


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