What You Don’t Know About Milan

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?


4 thoughts on “What You Don’t Know About Milan”

  1. Interesting… having paid the history of the congresses some considerable attention, I’d have a lot of questions. For example:
    – Does Brill mention that the initial congresses weren’t about education, but simply the ‘situation’ of Deaf people?
    – Does he discuss the Deaf international congresses?, and what happened when they combined with the hearing in 1900, and then separated into Deaf ‘free’ congresses, and those that continued to bind themselves into the hearing-led ones?
    – etc.

    Perhaps I ought to find Brill’s book and read it.

    Somewhat self seekingly… have you read my final PhD chapter, which discusses the 1900 congress, and the role that it played (which was much more significant, I think, than the 1880) in the mindful disabling of the Deaf community by the French Church, for wider political gain against the secular State?

    That would seem to start to answer some of your questions, and through a spatial lens 🙂

    Great reading as always Austin, thanks.

    1. Yes, I thought a lot about your dissertation when I was writing this. I just ran across this book and I thought I would post something on it. Brills book is a great overview but probably more of a novelty to you at this point than a real resource. I suppose my main point is to remind people that there is a lot of history that got overlooked! Which is why your research is so important, of course. And the book version of your dissertation is coming out …. when? 🙂

      1. Yes… that’s a good question! I don’t know is the honest answer – at this rate, it’ll have to wait until I retire.

        I wonder how much more research is virtually stillborn for its failure to make it out into the big wide world.

        I’ll look out Brill’s book though, I didn’t know of it, and I’ve not seen a treatment of the congresses as a whole, and it would be interesting to see them developed. I only really know them until about 1905, so to see them extended through to the modern era would be useful.

        Cheers Austin.

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