University of Edinburgh

Newsletter No 8: August 1999

Gold Digging in the SSC Library

by Mary Brennan

I now know why I love libraries. The joy is so often in the searching (though the boundary between joy and frustration is a fine one). However, every now and again there is the sheer delight of falling upon - or, if you are me, falling over - the unexpected. And there it was - as I allowed my eyes to wander over the rows of Scottish Association for the Deaf (SAD) library books - an old, yet new delight in the form of a Report for the National Deaf Children's Society on the Care of the Deaf written by a Mr J B Perry Robinson and costing all of five shillings.

Now what dinted, somewhat, my pride in my purported academic scholarship was that I'd never even heard of Mr Perry Robinson. I can recall in the early seventies clutching at anything and everything that I could get hold of in order to understand more about the education of deaf children. I read some very dry reports indeed, as well as some of the 'classics' of the time that some of us may now wish to categorise rather differently. Yet somehow I never laid eyes upon this obviously controversial document.

So what is so special about this document? For me, it is the fact that Mr Perry Robinson (let's call him PR for short) put forward so many views and ideas that are still utterly and directly relevant to deaf education today. I know that some of you who are reading this will disagree with PR's views - and mine - but he certainly makes us think. The Report perhaps has even more of an impact in that it is couched in such old-fashioned language. Without giving too much away, I was in my early teens when PR was writing this, yet I'm sure I would have regarded his language as old-fashioned even then. The Report at times reminds me of accounts of the sign languages of North American indigenous peoples written by military personnel and missioners during the nineteenth century. These authors often had remarkable insights into the nature of these languages while simultaneously regarding their users as "uncivilised savages". Not that PR views deaf people in this way, but his language reveals he was living in a different age: we no longer speak of the "deaf and dumb" or "the mentally defective". Yet it is worth recalling that when PR was writing this report, the British Deaf Association was known as the British Deaf and Dumb Association, the Royal National Institute for the Deaf did not yet have the word 'Royal' in its title and the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf was in its former realisation as the National College of Teachers of the Deaf. This was the period when Manchester and the Ewings held sway as the central focus of the training of teachers of the deaf and oralism was the norm in schools for the deaf. It was also of course a period when it was usual to send profoundly and severely deaf children to one of the 77 residential schools in the UK (77 is the number given by PR in this Report).

So this was indeed another era. Yet PR makes comments that, not to put too fine a point on it, hit one between the eyes. Now before giving you some of my own favourite comments from the book, I have to admit that it is rather like the Bible: extracts from this Report could be chosen in such a way as to support a range of different interpretations of past and present issues in the field of Deaf Education. Yet there are some themes that are consistent. What is clear is that PR is not a crowd-pleaser, he is trying to tell it like it is, as he sees it. His comments are often provocative, clearly to some infuriating. Let's get a flavour of them.

Let's Ask the Deaf Themselves

"I think the NDCS should also send out a questionnaire to members of deaf clubs and Missions asking a number of carefully planned questions aimed at eliciting from the deaf themselves, especially the younger deaf, what has been their personal experience of the outside world, what if anything, they think their schooling lacked in preparing them for it, what they want in the way of opportunities for further education and vocational training, and whether they want to live among hearing people or among deaf people . . ." (J B Perry Robinson, 1958, p16)

"A particular reason for this exercise is that virtually all decisions about the life of the deaf are taken exclusively by hearing people, and the deaf themselves are seldom or never consulted. It is possible that we might all be very startled if we knew what the deaf really think about our arrangements for them." (J B Perry Robinson, 1958, p16)

Let's keep in mind that PR wrote this in 1958. Now 41 years later, let us ask the questions again: Do we really know today what deaf people think about their education? When we do know, do we take any notice? Are groups of hearing people still making decisions about deaf children, deaf pupils and deaf people's lives without any input from deaf people themselves?

Not only do we take relatively little, or no, notice of the views of deaf people, but we do not have the mechanisms in place to ensure these views - and insights and understandings - are taken account of.


One of PR's ongoing themes in the Report is the need for research, including both qualitative and quantitative:

"The extent of our present ignorance, even on a statistical footing, is worth examining. We do not know how many deaf there are in Britain (I make some tentative guesses in this Report). We cannot make any precise statements about the prevalence of different kinds of degrees of deafness." (J B Perry Robinson, 1958, pp8-9)

We still do not know how many deaf children and adults there are either in Scotland or in the UK as a whole. The figures that are often given are based on average deaf births within the population and, amazingly, on an extrapolation of figures from the USA.

". . . I believe that a proper programme of basic research and experimental field work will not only give a solid factual basis of information for educational and social reforms, but will also show that most of the present 'bones of contention' are unreal and silly. I have already said that I believe the present controversy over 'oralism' and 'signing' is unreal; so also, I believe would the arguments over 'segregation' and 'integration' appear unreal in the light of proper knowledge about deaf capacities and attainments." (J B Perry Robinson, 1958, p35)

In a recent overview of Deaf attainments by Powers, et al, undertaken for the DfEE, the authors comment:

"...we have no evidence to demonstrate an overall significant improvement in the education of deaf children since Conrad's study."

Powers et al, 1999, p8

Perhaps even more disturbingly they suggest that:

"Neither language competence nor access to the language of the classroom can be assumed for deaf pupils. This has implications both for educational achievement and assessing attainment."

Powers et al, 1999, p7

While the review by Powers does provide an overview of what appears to be a substantial amount of research, if we remove that which was undertaken outside of the UK, then we are left with a rather meagre quantity. However, more important than quantity are the concerns which the authors express about the bases and assumptions of much of the research. Research on deaf children's attainments often makes use of tests developed for hearing children and frequently obscures or distorts findings by not clarifying the access language through which the tests are being mediated. PR's demand for more appropriate research remains relevant.

The Unreal antithesis between oralism and Manualism

PR is very direct about the negative impact of oralism:

"The zeal for oralism, for example, which released many thousands from the slavery of dumbness, has now become a crippling restraint on deaf education, both because it unquestionably hampers many of the more severely deaf among schoolchildren from gaining as much knowledge and power of expression as they might have, and because it is largely responsible for the rift between the schools and the Missions which makes after-school life so needlessly difficult for the adolescent deaf." (J B Perry Robinson, 1958, p13)

He goes on to argue:

"The controversy over 'oralism and signing' seems to me to have produced a sort of unreal antithesis between them which makes it difficult to see the real issues underlying them. It may, for instance, be true that by enabling a deaf person to extend his range of knowledge and understanding by giving him language and ideas through all possible means of communication (signs, finger-spelling, lip-reading as well as speech), we may most fully develop his personality and his capacity for leading a full life. Nor do I think that it need be assumed that we should thereby be segregating him rather than integrating him. Too much significance seems to me to have been attached to those terms - another unreal antithesis." (J B Perry Robinson, 1958, p19)

PR repeats several times that the antithesis between oralism and manualism is an unreal one. If we transfer this account to the present day, it can be suggested that the choice between spoken language and sign language is an unreal, certainly an unnecessary choice. We know that currently some organisations and practitioners support the exclusion of signing from education and particularly from the early years of the deaf child's life. Yet few deaf adults or proponents of the use of BSL within education would seek to exclude English or indeed any other language from the life of deaf children or adults. The present-day 'zeal for oralism' comes in new forms and with new brand-names, but it can be just as restraining as the 1958 variety.


Another of PR's themes is dissension. He focuses attention on: "dissensions and jealousies among organisations working on behalf of the deaf . . ." and comments that:

"The saddest of the dissensions and jealousies dividing those who work for the deaf and one of the prime causes, in my view, of the inadequacy of current provision for the care of the adolescent deaf, is the rift between teachers of the deaf and Missioners. I believe this rift does much more harm to deaf children's schooling than is generally realised. It has produced a situation in which the voice of those who, in actual fact, know most about the life of the deaf after school is virtually never heard in schools - either in the daily life of the schools themselves or in the councils of educationists planning that daily life." (J B Perry Robinson, 1958, pp14-15)

At first sight it may appear that at last we have found claims which would no longer apply in today's civilised climate, in an era when "collaboration" is the name of the game. However, we probably all know that rivalries and individual interests lie just below the surface. This is not to take an overly pessimistic view. Efforts have been made in recent years to ensure that deaf organisations work together on national committees and the like. Yet each has its own agenda which may not always sit easily with that of the other organisations. At times, the difficulties involved in keeping all constituencies happy can result in rather bland joint statements and ambiguous policies.

Missioners as a group may no longer exist, but we can legitimately ask, how much interaction there is between those professions who work with deaf children and adults and indeed between deaf people, particularly deaf professionals and those involved in pre-school and primary and secondary education. I have been struck, since my return to a focus on school-based education, by the different types of discourse involved in for example Deaf Education and Deaf Studies. It may not seem to matter that the Deaf Community embraces the term "Deaf" and rarely uses the term "hearing-impaired", while educational services adopt such terms as "Services for Hearing-Impaired Children" or "Services for Sensory-Impaired Children", but such differences are symptomatic of real gaps in perspective. Having recently gone from a very well attended SSC conference on Audiology to a Deaf Nation Symposium in Preston, I was struck forcibly by the contrast between the two worlds. We need to bring them together; to find ways of talking, signing to one another about the issues so that the positive elements in both worlds can be shared with in terms of attitudes towards deaf people.

National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS)

PR's Report was undertaken for the NDCS and PR has no misgivings about being as direct with this organisation as with others. He suggests that the NDCS may be able to take on leadership, but stresses that:

"Leadership of this kind will not come easily for the NDCS. To achieve adequate authority and support from the public, it will have to transform its activities and its structure. It will have to turn itself from being essentially a mutual-aid society among parents of the deaf into a forceful authoritative public body with a clearly defined policy on all deaf affairs, a nation-wide organisation, and a substantial administrative structure. It is a matter of some doubt whether the NDCS can become such a body on its own. . ." (J B Perry Robinson, 1958, pp13-14)

I think we can say that PR's doubts on this one were unfounded. Certainly the NDCS has undergone such a transformation, perhaps not in the immediate decades following PR's Report, but certainly in recent times.

Some Detective Work

One of the other fascinating aspects of reading old books is noting the comments which other - unknown - individuals have made in the margins. (Yes, it is an annoying habit, but sometimes illuminating.) The copy of the Report in the SSC library does not have that many comments, though it does have a number of exclamation marks - are they positive or negative? However, one comment which I found particularly revealing is written in the margin next to the suggestion from PR that the NDCS should send out a questionnaire to find out the views of deaf people themselves. The written comment is:

"Could they fully grasp the questions?"

No doubt this question itself tells us just what Perry Robinson was grappling with when he examined the nature of Deaf Education in 1958.

This leads me to the final set of questions to which some readers may well know the answers. What was the response to PR's report? In fact the Preface to the Report, which stresses that "Mr Perry Robinson's conclusions are his own" also adds:

"This Report has aroused keen and constructive controversy. Not all its recommendations may be found acceptable or practicable, but the National Council of the NDCS will consider them carefully and impartially in deciding the future policy."

Interestingly, attached to the SAD copy of this Report is a memo from Miss M Johnson of the National College of Teachers of the Deaf asking schools to respond to the Report with particular reference to:

a) Inaccurate statements in the Report

b) Fair and unfair comments in the Report

c) The value of the Report as a contribution to the welfare of the deaf child.

d) Any other comments.

I assume that the NCTD did indeed publish the results of this survey. I will try to locate the response before the next issue in case, like me, you are fascinated by a piece of history which has so much relevance to today! In the meantime, if any readers can remember the Report's publication and the aftermath, we would welcome contributions and comment in the next Newsletter.

Mary Brennan, Lecturer in Deaf Education, SSC

(PS In case there is any doubt, and echoing the NDCS Preface, Mary Brennan's conclusions (and interpretations) are her own!)