Sign Language

A brief history of sign language

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A brief history of sign language

​Communication is one of the most important skills we use in everyday life; from building relationships and asking questions to simply having fun, the ability to communicate effectively plays a key role in our lives.

Good communication is particularly important for establishing trust and empathy between a healthcare professional and a service user. However, it can be difficult to understand the needs and preferences of an individual if they're not verbal or have impaired hearing.

We encounter a wide range of service users who can't rely on speech to communicate. Underlying reasons include both congenital conditions and acquired injuries and in these instances, we need an alternative means of communicating.

For many years, we've been championing the Makaton sign language programme and across the UK we run training courses to teach our staff and clients how to sign.

The earliest mentions of sign language

There is much debate as to when people first communicated via sign language with some scientists hypothesising that early humans probably used a basic form to communicate with one another before the advent of speech.

You might be surprised to know that the first time sign language is mentioned in recorded history is way back in the 5th century BC.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is credited with saying; "If we hadn't a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn't we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body.”

However, despite that, the ancient Greeks weren’t exactly understanding of deaf people. Aristotle, for example, theorised that people could only learn via the spoken word and therefore in ancient Greek society those who could not hear were often treated as non-people who were not allowed to marry or buy property. This mentality remained commonplace throughout Europe right up until the Renaissance period. In fact, when in 685AD the Archbishop of York John of Beverly was recorded as teaching a deaf person to speak it was seen as a miracle and for this John was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1037.

Whilst Europe spent centuries thinking as Aristotle did, in North America, the Native Americans regarded deaf people as more than capable and developed several sign languages. Tribes also used sign language to communicate with their neighbours who spoke different languages.

The Ottoman Empire regarded deaf people as extremely useful as court servants due to them being regarded as more trustworthy. A basic form of sign language was used by court members to communicate with each other and their servants.

Things only began to change in Europe during the 1500s when an Italian mathematician called Geronimo Cardano identified that learning does not require the ability to hear and educated his deaf son by using written words. Around the same time in Spain a monk development successful learning techniques for educating deaf children.

A Spanish priest called Juan Pablo de Bonet further developed the techniques of the monk and created his own methods. He developed a manual alphabet system that utilised handshapes and is recognised as the first in Deaf history.

In Britain during the 1600s sign language was used for secret communications as well as for public speaking and interaction by the deaf. By 1760, Thomas Braidwood opened ‘Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb’ which is considered to be the first school in Britain to include sign language in education.

Organised education begins

It wasn’t until the 1750s that organised education for the deaf was first established. A Parisian Catholic priest called Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee (also known as ‘The father of the deaf’) founded the world’s first social and religious association for deaf people. Abbe is regarded as one of the most important figures of early sign language, and in 1771 he established the first free deaf school open to the public. As time went on more schools were founded in France and eventually across Europe. Old French Sign Language a system Epee invented spread across Europe as more and more people were educated. Epee learnt signs from his students and then took those signs and formalised them into the language system.

Sign language under threat

In the 1880s the use of sign language in schools for the deaf came under threat. Thanks to efforts by people such Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone) a system known as oralism was imposed at the Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf met in Milan, Italy. This system required the cessation of the use of signing in favour of spoken methods.

Following the conference, the oralism method was widespread in most schools for the deaf all the way up until the 1920s. The impact on deaf people was severe and almost reversed all of the progress made over the previous decades. Fortunately, in the United States, the founders of the National Association for the Deaf fought back and fought in favour of the use of sign language. It wasn’t until 1964 that oralism was denounced as a dismal failure. In 2010, the 21st International Congress on Education of the Deaf held in Vancouver formally apologised for the 1880 ruling citing that it accepted the damaging ramifications of the sign language ban.

Newcross and Makaton

Over the following decades, several new sign languages developed including forms such as Makaton. Today there are over 137 different forms of recognised sign language. Some have legal recognition whilst others have no status whatsoever.

Helen McCabe, one of the most experienced members of our Learning & Development team, has been tutoring others in Makaton for four years.

"I have been a Makaton tutor now for four years but have been using it since 2011 when I was working in a day centre for individuals with learning disabilities. The use of Makaton enabled them to communicate with staff and it significantly helped reduce frustrations and challenging behaviour. It also enhanced speech in the individuals which was amazing to witness.

Makaton is a simplified version of sign language and is now used in over 50 countries. Their symbols are also being used for individuals living with dementia to help them communicate with choice boards and label areas to enhance independence."

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