Re Oralism vs Speaking

This is my response to Ella Mae Lentz’s vlog about the difference between the philosophy of oralism and the mere act of speaking, either by deaf or hearing people. In this video, signed in ASL—PSE (along the continuum), I tell of my experience as an interpreter with oral deaf, English-oriented deaf, and strongly ASL deaf people. In my experience, I have not found oral deaf people to be against signing deaf or condescending toward culturally deaf people who choose to use sign language instead of speaking and lipreading. I share my experience being an oral transliterator for certain deaf people who were able to read almost 100% of what I mouthed, despite the “myth” that oral deaf people understand only 30–40% of what the get from reading lips. I also share my experience of having a deaf boyfriend who was culturally deaf and very strong in ASL, not so strong in English. When his mother came to visit, she insisted that he could read her lips even when she wasn’t facing him. He looked to me for interpretation, and I thought, “Why should I have to interpret for my boyfriend and his mother? Come on, Mom, learn sign!”

My basic message echoes what Ella said in her blog: there is nothing better or worse about signing or talking, as long as people are respectful of other’s communication styles and speaking people don’t look down upon signing people. I add to this that, in my experience and opinion, it should go both ways— that deaf signing people shouldn’t look down upon deaf speaking people, either, and that it is everyone’s responsibility to respect people’s language preferences and meet them where they are, if at all possible. That is, hearing people who wish to communicate with signing people who are not skilled in English or lipreading should learn now to sign. And hearing people who wish to speak with deaf people who speak and read lips should face the person and speak clearly so the person can read their lips.

One thing I must clarify: I didn’t mean that deaf signing people should meet oral deaf people in mouthing and lipreading. For many deaf people, that is not possible. I know that deaf people have a wonderful skill at meeting other deaf people at many levels and styles of communication, but you can only do what you can do. When I spoke of meeting oral and signing deaf people in their language style, I was thinking of hearing people who interact with deaf people.


12 responses to “Re Oralism vs Speaking”

  1. Windy Avatar

    To weigh in here, I think as interpreters we are pretty good at determining whether or not we are understood. I can tell you, there are many occasions when I am interpreting in ASL and it becomes clear to me that I am not understood. I generally assume that the error was mine and try to clarify my interpretation, but sometimes it is pretty clear to me that the reason for the lack of understanding falls to the Deaf person. Whether that be due to a lack of education in general, a lack of fluency in ASL, or some other factor, my point is that sometimes ASL fails to be the perfect solution, too. If I had a deaf child, I would probably choose to give them every tool I could. I have an advantage in that I already know ASL so I could start teaching them from birth (which I would do whether my child was deaf or hearing). But I would also encourage any oral abilities that my child were capable of (even up to considering a cochlear implant). I think we all know that it is easier for a Deaf person who can speak for themselves to get along in this hearing world, all other things being equal; I don’t think it’s fair, but it’s reality, and if my child had an opportunity to have those tools available, I would make sure they were available. That being said, if my child were deaf, I would also be sure to surround him with Deaf role models who could help him gain a perspective of cultural pride rather than inferiority. I would definitely want my child to attend a school where there were Deaf role models and Deaf peers available. My point is, both methods offer benefits, and I would not see the logic in either oppressing someone else’s choice of one or the other, nor in denying my child the benefit of any possible advantage in his education or life in general.


  2. Howie Avatar

    I grew up an oralist. I wanted to share this with you. Being an oralist is NOT easy. I’m an expert in lipreading but it doesn’t meant that I can read lips 100%. I only can read lips approx. 50%. I missed alot of words especially the articles, a, an, the, etc.. There were so many new words that I’ve never heard of it. It i impossible to comprehend when someone said some words that I was not familiar with. I realize that oralism , in my opinion, is not the best method of communication for Deaf. Signing in ASL is the best method of communication because you can understand everything. It is like opening your eyes and absorb the context of using ASL. I felt “audsim” because I had to belong to hearing world which I was felt ashamed. I could not express it myself until I learned ASL at Gallaudet. I was able to express everything. It was awesome.

    Remember there was a TV show called Sue Thomas F.B.I? It is IMPOSSIBLE for her to read lips 100%. There are several errors on the show that I’ve caught. For instance, when a guy talked and looked at the floor, she was looking at him. Obviously, she couldn’t read his lips.


    1. Daniel Greene Avatar

      I think the point Ella made that I agree with is that being a speachreader and speaker is not the same as being an oralist. Oralism is a belief system. Speech training, speaking, and lipreading are not belief systems; they are modes of communication. When you strip away policies and propaganda, speaking and signing are simply communication methods that work for certain individuals and don’t work for others. Oralism may be akin to audism, but speaking is not the same as oral”ism.”


    2. Daniel Greene Avatar

      P.S. I’m not under the illusion that all speechreaders get 100%; I’m just saying it’s a very individual thing and people should neither overestimate nor underestimate its effectiveness since it varies so much from person to person and from situation to situation.

      P.P.S. Oral transliterators are trained to articulate articles very distinctly. One reason a deaf person understands an oral transliterator more than an average speaking person is because of the OT’s special techniques. When I OT, I mouth quite differently from the way I do when I speak.


  3. deafmuse Avatar

    I’ve spent 30 years in the deaf area with signing people, and I can see even the level of SIGNING ability is not determined first by interpreters. My partner signs pretty well, but not highly educated and needs help with many technical terms, yet I constantly have to stop the interpreter in mid-flow and tell them she hasn’t understood the sign, (including the current taught BSL, because she learnt sign before the ‘new’ versions came out), the assumption by many terps is the deaf understand all things signed, in fact from my own observations less than half actually do. If you meet someone for the first time there is no way you can determine their comprehension level, and, who would dare ASK and risk offending ? I fon’t think hearing people can be blamed for not knowing, when the deaf will often not accept they can’t follow anyway !


  4. chanux Avatar

    Came here through your comment on my blog about Facebook feed on WordPress. Nice to meet someone with different but interesting interests 🙂


  5. Candy Avatar

    Thank you for doing this vlog/blog piece. This should dispel these perceptions that some deaf peope have about hearings, orals, etc. I do agree with you. The other day, my daughter was telling that majority of hearing people tend to tell her that it’s cool that her parents are deaf and know signed language. Hearing people, for the most part, do not look down on deaf ASL signing people. Sure, there are some ignorant ones.

    However, my view of Ella’s vlog was that she expect to see “war” between the oralist and the signers. Not gonna happen.


    1. Daniel Greene Avatar

      Thank you for your comment, Candy.


  6. AWandererFromDeafRead Avatar

    Speech class if requested by parents/IEP/student at the residential high school is usually 30 mins a week. BTW, they get out 3 hrs early on Fridays to travel back home.

    I still cannot speechread even 2% on my 42″ tv…if captions are ahead of speaker, the % jumps big time. Betcha it is same for my father…that’s why captions are a boon to us! I guess a trained (you do some airwriting! Never knew that…ha) oral transl’ and knowing the topic in advance should help the % understood. I should try an oral transliterator but I think it would be more tiresome to stare at one small area…so I prefer ASL ‘terp.

    How many different oral deaf persons you have been exposed careerwise?


    1. Daniel Greene Avatar

      Thanks for wandering over here from DeafRead and leaving a comment. 🙂

      “How many different oral deaf persons you have been exposed careerwise?” —That’s a good question, and I’ll be honest with you. I have not had a great demand for my oral transliteration, which is one of the reasons I haven’t gone for my RID OTC (Oral Transliteration Certificate). I can only say that the ones I interpreted for have been skilled speechreaders who reported little fatigue and great understanding, and the most skilled of them was completely deaf. I have probably only oral transliterated for a handful of people, to tell you the truth, although one was a repeat client I interpreted for numerous times. I can only base my experience upon clients who request oral transliterators, which by definition means that oral transliteration works for them.

      There was one unforgettable assignment I once had to oral transliterate for two young children whose IEP (read, parents’ demands) required them to be given oral transliteration only. The sad thing was that these kids obviously didn’t understand anything I was saying, and they didn’t understand ASL either. I reported after the one-hour job that they understood nothing of oral transliteration and it would be unethical of me to provide them with a service they could not benefit from. I never went back.


  7. deafmuse Avatar

    How do hearing people KNOW the level of English understanding in the deaf ? Do you suggest they give deaf a questionairre first ? The biggest problem in the pro-signing world is they are mixing up ‘oralism’ as a teaching aid, with speaking which is what most hearing and deaf people do anyway. That is why we get these ‘attacks’ on deaf who find speech useful or lip-reading useful, yet another ‘attack’ on signing ? I sign AND speak to deaf signing friends, no problem, I can’t see why others find issue with it. I use what is natural to me, and this is still using a mode they are familiar with, so will hearing people. If they acted ‘dumb’ and used no speech to satisfy a very minor sector of deaf people, who are going against natural access requirements, what image will that present of us ?


    1. Daniel Greene Avatar

      Thanks for your comment, deafmuse.

      “How do hearing people KNOW the level of English understanding in the deaf ?” —a very good question. I can only base it upon what deaf speechreaders report and the fact that I have seen my oral clients respond appropriately to every question posed to them by their hearing interlocutors. Also, as an interpreter / transliterator, I am trained to watch for signals of understanding in the client’s face and body language. I will be honest and say that a couple of my oral clients didn’t seem to understand everything I gave them, but oral transliteration was their choice and I respected their requests as adults who made informed decisions.

      I think you and I are in agreement that there is nothing superior about either speechreading or sign language, and that people should be free to use what is natural to them and take no flack for it. As the French say, “chacun à son goût,” or “to each his [or her] own.”

      As someone who has worked with clients who run the gamut between purely oral and purely ASL, I value them all equally— not because they all indirectly put money in my pocket, but because I respect them as human beings. My philosophy is, “whatever works.”


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