The story of the Milan conference in Italy in 1880 is a well- and often-told historical moment in Deaf history. Delegates to this conference decided that oralism was the preferred mode of instruction for deaf students and sign language would be phased out. Starting immediately and continuing for several decades, deaf teachers were removed from instructional positions within deaf schools, sign language become increasingly prohibited, and the deaf community at large underwent a kind of dark ages following an otherwise bright 19th century.
What did we miss? During my ITP I wrote a term paper on the Milan conference. To complete the assignment I purchase an excellent monograph by Richard Brill. Brill’s book outlines the history of the International Congresses on Education of the Deaf, of which Milan was the second.
That’s right. Milan was not the first. Nor was it the last. And what actually happened at the conferences is mostly glossed over and its rich details ignored. As I hold the book open in front of me, it’s remarkable to read the names of presenters: E.M. Gallaudet, Edward Fay, George Veditz, William Stokoe, Stephen Quigley, and more. And the conferences themselves continued for years: Milan in 1880, Chicago in 1993, London in 1925, Washington, D.C. in 1963, Tokyo in 1975.
I can’t help but wonder. What we would gain from excavating the ongoing debates at these conferences? What were the international politics of the conferences like? How did these conferences tie into other political and economic issues of the day such as colonialism, white supremacy, and women’s suffrage? Also, how did a vote at a conference in Milan become so widely accepted as legitimate and decisive? There’s so much more to these conferences than meets the eye.
I am mentioning all this for a simple reason: when we are learning (or teaching) about deaf history and the deaf community, things often get compressed into tablet form, like chewable children’s vitamins. But in fact there is a lot more to this history that no one has looked at very closely. I wonder if this history will get the attention it deserves someday?