The Milan Conference of 1880: When Sign Language Was Almost Destroyed

An Unpleasant Setback in Deaf Education

Teacher showing pre-school girl sign language
Juan Silva / Getty Images

No other event in the history of deaf education had a greater impact on the lives and education of deaf people than a conference held in Milan in the late 19th century. 

Overview of the Milan Conference of 1880

In 1880, there was a large multi-country conference of deaf educators called the Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf. At this conference, a declaration was made that oral education was better than manual (sign) education.

As a result, sign language in schools for the Deaf was banned.

Here are the first two of eight resolutions passed by the convention:

  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.
  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.

The other resolutions dealt with issues, like:

  • The education of impoverished deaf students
  • Strategies to educate deaf students orally and the long-term benefits of this manner of instruction
  • The need for educational books for deaf oral teachers

As a result of the conference in Milan, deaf teachers lost their jobs, as there was an overall decline in Deaf professionals, like writers, artists, and lawyers.

Also, the quality of life and education of deaf students was negatively impacted.

The good news, though, is that organizations like the National Association of the Deaf stepped up and reigned in many supporters. Even more, the president of Gallaudet College made the executive decision to keep sign language on campus.

Eventually, in 1970, a long-term linguistics professor at Gallaudet College, William Stokoe declared sign language a true language.

In the end, the decision for Gallaudet College to retain sign language played an instrumental role in sign language's survival. This is in addition to the many deaf students who still secretly communicated to each other with signs, despite the ban. 

The Banning of Sign Language: A "Fixed" Outcome

According to experts, the banning of sign language at this international conference in Milan was a known outcome. This is because the conference was represented by people who were known oralists. An oralist is someone who advocates for oralism, which is the practice of teaching deaf individuals to communicate through speech or lipreading, as opposed to sign language.

It's interesting to note that the United States and Britain were the only countries that opposed the ban. Unfortunately, their opposition was ignored. 

Long-Term Impact of the Milan Conference

The conference in Milan in 1880 is of such significance in deaf history that it has been honored in cultural pieces, like the painting, Milan, Italy 1880, by deaf artist Mary Thornley. This painting depicted hunters pointing their guns at the letters "ASL," which stand for American Sign Language.

In October 1993, Gallaudet University held a conference called "Post Milan ASL and English literacy." The conference proceedings included an essay titled, "Reflections upon Milan with an eye to the future," by Katherine Jankowski.

In retrospect, one could say that in the years since sign language and oralism have learned to co-exist peacefully. There will never be another Milan 1880.

A Word From Verywell

The conference in Milan was an unpleasant setback in history for the Deaf community. Thankfully, sign language is no longer oppressed in schools. Instead, sign language is embraced as a truly rich and special form of communication.

With that, if you or a loved one has an infant or child who is deaf or hard of hearing, there are resources available to help your precious one develop the communication skills he or she needs.

One especially useful resource is an organization called  CHOICES for Parents, which not only provides strategies for enhancing communication skills for your child, but also provides support, advocacy, and a variety of social services.

Sources:

American Sign Language Dictionary: Milan, Italy 1880.

Gannon, J. R., Butler, J., & Gilbert, L.-J. (1981). Deaf heritage: A narrative history of deaf America. Silver Spring, Md: National Association of the Deaf.

Kushalnagar P et al. Infants and children with hearing loss need early language access. J Clin Ethics. 2010 Summer;21(2):143-54.

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