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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

History Grand Rapids by the Grand Rapids Historical Commission


The Power of Speech

by Stella M. Champney

[i] Deaf Children Who Did Not Know They Had Voice Are Made to Speak As Others Do and to Discern Speech of Others by Reading the Movements of the Lips---Wonderful Work of the Oral School for the Deaf [2]

      Given into your hands a little child who never has heard even his mother’s crooning lullaby’s; who has never heard the twitter of a bird or the voice of a playmate; who has never learned that within his throat is a voice whereby he can express his feelings of joy or of grief, or can convey to those about him the desire of his heart—given to understand that you must teach this child all those things and drill him in the art of reading and living life with the handicap of total deafness, and you might say the task is hopeless.

      Yet in the Grand Rapids Oral School for the Deaf all those things are taught to “even the least of these.” little ones born into the world without the faintest sense of hearing, who have known things only as they see them, or feel them, but who live a life unto themselves, until bit by bit, step by step, the great world about them begins to unfold its wonders, and they know things as we know them.

      They have seen and loved roses because of their beauty and fragrance, but here they are taught to name that which they delight in, to call it a flower, a rose, and to tell some of the beautiful legends that have been handed down for centuries about the queen of flowers. They are taught that it grows, develops, that it sends out tiny buds that expand until they bloom forth in all their glory of coloring and perfection.

      All of us have seen the “deaf and dumb” conversing with the sign language. They converse as readily with each other as any two normal people can carry on a conversation in the ordinary way.

Giving the Dumb a Voice

      But the children of the Oral School for the Deaf are anything but “dumb,” when they learn that they have a voice and can use it as their teacher does, and as they go on through the grades, they complete their courses with a vocabulary that is equal to that of the average child who goes no higher than the grades.

      To enable them to take their places in the world side by side with the young man or young woman who is blessed with hearing, to be equipped for the battle of life with the gift of speech and understanding of the spoken word—it is for these things that the boy or girl enters the Oral School for the Deaf and puts in years of study under the competent instruction of a little group of women who are devoting their lives to them.

      If one is of a pessimistic turn of mind, and looks upon life “as through a glass, darkly.” one of the very best antidotes for the obscured vision is a visit to the Oral School for the Deaf.

      There is no doubt but that these children are afflicted. They have started life lacking one of the five senses. Yet to see them at their work, eager, intense, happy, is an inspiration and a guide to the joy of living.

The Devoted Teachers

      There are four rooms in the Oral School for the Deaf, with Miss Martha Hill as principal. Miss Marcia Heath has the little beginners, Mrs. Mina Drew the hard of hearing, Mrs. Blanche Pierce teaches the third and fourth grades, and Miss Annie Condon the grammar grades. Miss Alice Barron has the sewing class.

      When the deaf child makes his first appearance at school, if he has been deaf from birth, he is also what is commonly supposed to be “dumb.” At least, he does not know the value of his vocal chords. He knows that he is different from other children, but he is eager to learn.

      First of all, the child’s interest in the school must be aroused. Imitative exercises are given him, first with the large muscles of the body then with the lips and tongue. He is taught to do the things his teacher does. Various positions of the body are taken , and these are followed by the lips and tongue exercises. When these are acquired, the child is taught to produce sound by placing his hand upon the teacher throat when she makes the sound of vowels, consonants and phonetics, and he is not long in imitating the vibration in his own throat.

Getting the First Words

      These are followed by commands to run, to jump, to walk, or to hop, and the child is taught to read the command by watching the lips of the teacher. When she says “hop,” a child farther advanced will obey the command and the newcomer will do likewise. When he has learned to read the words from the lips, he is then shown its written and printed form on the board. Thus, little by little, he acquires the knowledge of not only the word, but its meaning. To be able to articulate the word does not mean ability to understand it. Hence the child is taught that everything has a name. He must learn the names of common or household articles, of games, acts, food, of the animal kingdom and of growing things.

      If he cannot speak, how is he to express any “ideas” to others?

      It is because of the knowledge of things that come sweeping over him, faster than he can find words to express them, that he acquires the habit of expressing emotion with his hands. And because all deaf children learn to write faster than they can articulate words, more pain is taken with teaching them how to articulate than is given to their writing in the beginning.

      While the school is equipped with articles to aid the teachers in impressing the names of certain objects upon them, the teacher is always on the alert to employ every stray bit of assistance in this respect that she can command. Toy animals such as a kitty, a dog, a sheep or cow are used in various exercises, one of them being touch training.

      In the photo 8-year old Barbara, blindfolded, has picked up a dog from the lap of her teacher and carefully placed her little hands over it and handed it back, to be placed among the other animals on Miss Heath’s lap.

      Barbara not only must find the right animal, but she must also learn to name it, to write and print its name, and to recognize the animal in picture.

      These exercises are gone over again and again, to thoroughly impress the names of the animals or other articles used upon the mind of the pupil.

The Value of Games

      Another exercise which is valuable in training the children in rapid thinking and articulation, is a guessing game in which the teacher or one of the pupils takes small articles from a box, holds them up and makes the children guess what it is. The child who guesses right is permitted to hold the articles until the game is ended, and the one holding the largest number wins the game. Benny was leading the game when the camera caught the little group.

      Still another game is a great favorite with the larger pupils, and if one had any doubts as to the degree of animation expressed by deaf children, they would be dispelled if one could but see this game played through.

      The teacher tells them that high above their heads is a basket, and that each one holds an apple, which must be put in the basket. At the count of three all step forward and reach as high as possible in an effort to place an imaginary apple in a myth of a basket.

      Still another game that keeps the children interested and also is valuable in quickening their senses is called “Squirrel.” Normal children, as well as little ones whose ears are closed, play this game, but it is doubtful if they enjoy it as thoroughly.

      All but one are grouped about in a circle, sitting on the floor. If their teacher plays with them, so much the better. The fortunate one who starts the game holds a nut in his hand, and while all place their hands over their eyes, he goes from one to the other, repeating “Hold fast all I give you.”

      But he doesn’t give anything at all to anyone, until he has said it several times: then suddenly, he will drop the nut in an outstretched hand and rush away, for he knows he will be pursued by the one to whom he gave the nut. When caught he must sit on the floor and let his successor continue the game.

      When the children were grouped for the photograph Johnny was so interested in the photographer he forgot entirely to cover his eyes and little Barbara’s curiosity was so keen she peeked with one bright black eye.

Learning to Sew and Cook

      While the teachers are all interested in every department of the work, they are especially proud of the sewing class, which is under the instruction of Miss Alice Barron. These younger girls, all of them unable to hear sound, have already learned to cook and now they are doing advanced work in sewing. They are a happy, cheerful lot of girls too, and it does one’s heart good to see them at work, each with her own little task with which she takes infinite pains, and the older girls can cut and make a plain dress that would do credit to many a seamstress.

      Mrs. Blanche S. Pierce has children of the fourth and fifth grades, and an earnest, industrious group of boys and girls they are, too. They do exceptionally fine work in language, and their action work upon the blackboard is always watched with interest by the class.

      In this work two [children] illustrate [the] parts of sentences. For instance, John will give Gertrude an apple. While she stands before the class holding the apple in her hand John will read the sentence, “I gave an apple to Gertrude,” signifying the parts of speech by diagram.

Aid to “Hard of Hearing”

      It is popularly supposed that only totally deaf children are admitted to the Oral School for the Deaf, but this is not the case. Mrs. Mina Drew has a little class of “hard of hearing” children, who cannot keep up with hearing children in the public schools, as infinite pains must be taken with them. But while they would not advance in a class with hearing children, under the special instruction given them by Mrs. Drew their little minds grasp knowledge readily, and they are doing remarkably good work, considering their affliction.

      Teaching the children the days of the week, time of day, etc., is an interesting part of the work and this is called “time exercises.” Various kinds of weather are also taught at the same time.

      On the day the pictures were taken to illustrate this article the teacher wrote on the board the following sentences: “Today is Wednesday.” The sun shines.” Had it been a dark day, a sentence to that effect would have been written. Rain, snow, high and low temperatures are also taught the children in this way.

      When a word has more than one meaning it is hard for the deaf child to distinguish between the two. For example, he is taught that a rose bush grows larger, but as a snowball melts it grows smaller. He is also taught that as night comes on it grows darker. All of these meanings confuse the mind of the deaf child, and it is only after repeated lessons that he distinguishes the different meanings.

The Meaning of “Death”

      The teachers are ever ready to grasp every opportunity for impressing some truth upon the child’s mind, and the meaning of the word “death” was brought home to them the other day.

      For some time one of the cherished treasures of the children was a bullfish, which was kept in a small aquarium. One day the fish was found floating on the surface of the water, lifeless. The teacher then explained to them that the fish was dead, that this was death, and the difference between life and death was made clear to them.

      Exercises that aid the vocabulary and also give the children physical exercise are in the course. The children play horse: the teacher or one of the pupils giving the command, “Run like a horse.” Or they are told to fly like a bird, to stand behind their chairs or carry their chairs into the hall. The child must pay strict attention to these commands or he will be carrying his chair away when he is supposed to stand behind it.

      The aim of the instructor is to first get the talking idea firmly installed in the mind of the child, then the work on the articulation is carefully carried out.

Teaching Articulation

      In teaching the child to articulate various methods are employed, sometimes a lighted candle being placed before the child’s face, when the instructor wishes to teach the child the sound of the letter “p,” and to distinguish it from “h.” In pronouncing the former letter he blows out the flame.

      As soon as the child has an idea he is taught to put it into a sentence of his own construction. This is a delight to the majority of them, for they love to create and to express their ideas in writing.

      Naturally, deaf children are slow of speech. This is not to be wondered at when one considers that a deaf child has everything to learn from the articulation or the elementary sounds, which he acquires only by diligent tongue exercises and locating the vibration in the throat by the aid of his little hand. But take a typewriter for the first time and see how rapidly you can write a letter. With them, as with everything else, it takes practice to make perfect. And some of the deaf are as perfect in articulation as the average among the hearing people.

Support of the School

      The Grand Rapids Oral School for the Deaf is one of the string of state schools scattered over Michigan, but is not wholly supported by the state. The local board of education furnishes the building and supplies, the state paying the salaries of the teachers.

      There are similar schools in Michigan, located at Detroit, Bay City, Saginaw, Manistee, Traverse City, Ironwood, Sault Ste. Marie, Iron Mountain, Calumet, Marquette and Lake Linden and the schools at Detroit and Grand Rapids also being normal training schools for teachers of the deaf. Each deaf child brings to the school $150 from the state, the local school having about 30 students.

      The local teachers were all trained for the work before becoming connected with this school, with the exception of Mrs. Drew, who is just completing her course of training here. Miss Hill, the principal, secured her training in the Detroit school; Miss Heath was graduated from Northhampton, Mass., under Miss Yale; Mrs. Pierson trained at Milwaukee and taught at Detroit before coming here and Miss Condon also fitted herself for the work at Milwaukee.

      Every effort is made by the teachers to secure the attendance of deaf and hard of hearing children at the local school. At the West Michigan fair this fall, the school gave an exhibition of one of the classes, a group of the bright youngsters appearing there and talking with hundreds of visitors, some of whom found it rather hard to believe that the children were deaf, so carefully did they “attend to their knitting,” and watch the lips of the speakers, in order not to lose any words.

      A little missionary work was done by these children, and by their efforts several deaf children were brought to the school, who had never been identified with it until after the class was exhibited at the fair.

      While the state does not include children of defective speech in the schools for the deaf, these are never turned away from this school, but come under the supervision of the board of education. At present one child of defective speech is in attendance here.

Naturally Are Pessimists

      Too often the deaf child is a spoiled child. In the home his affliction has won for him his way in pretty nearly everything he wants, and his parents and all interested have tried to make up for him in other ways.

      But this is a mistake. No limitation should be placed on the deaf child more than is placed on the hearing child. There are deaf merchants, lawyers, bankers, railroad men, manufacturers, painters, sculptors, architects, authors, inventors, editors, publishers, scientists, in fact almost every walk in life has been and is being travelled by people whose ears are closed but whose brain is active, for all that.

      The deaf child loses much by having limitations placed upon him, by those whose duty it is to encourage and help him win his way in the world. Living in an atmosphere of pessimism, he naturally loses faith in himself, and makes no effort to develop. Gradually his energies are paralyzed, and from him is taken the strongest incentive to exertion and achievement, the hope of an adequate reward for his efforts,

      It is not so with the hearing child. he is given to understand that to him the heights are not unattainable, that within him lies the power to overcome any obstacle, to win for himself fame or wealth, or a kingdom if he is anxious for power to overcome any obstacle, to win for himself fame or wealth, or a kingdom, if he is ambitious for power and he always has the bright star of hope to beckon him on. But the deaf child is deprived of these incentives for work. He is not interested in the lives of great men, because he has been given to understand that he can never be great himself. He sees no place for himself to the world of letters, of science, of art or in the practical, workaday business world. He sees no rosy pictures of success along his pathway, and when other children are building air castles and planning on the great things they mean to accomplish when they become men and women, the deaf child sinks into a lethargy of mind from which only the most optimistic teacher can lift him.

Overcoming All Difficulties

      A story is told in the Volta Review of a deaf boy who was born in the Mt. Airy school. His work there was only of average ability. His father was a business man, but he always found time for and took pleasure in his son’s companionship. In the family, no distinctions whatever were made between him and his hearing brothers and sisters, and he associated constantly with them and other hearing children of his age. After graduation he wished to continue his education and was entered at a large private school for boys.

      It was his father’s wish that he should go to the university, but his own preferences were for a business career, so after three years in this school he took a course in commercial law and other business branches, then entered a large department store. He was soon trusted with the charge of a department, and then went on the road transacting his business through speech and lip-reading. Later, he and his father started a clothing manufactory, of which he soon became the head. Later he sold out his business and went abroad, making an extensive tour up the Nile. Upon his return he went back into the store, with the determination to master every department of the business.

      This young man is optimism personified. His deafness presents no imaginary difficulties, and the few real ones are met with an assurance and cheerfulness that causes them to shrink into insignificance. He has read much and with discretion, and can talk intelligently upon as wide a range of subjects as the average professional man with university training while his travels and his business associations have given him the poise of a man of the world and a ready wit that enables him to hold his own in any discussion that might arise. What he is and what he had done he owes to his own efforts, but had he been subjected to the depressing influences that usually surround the deaf child, it is probable that he would have accomplished little and have received few of the gifts that the gods, or one’s efforts provide.

Founders of the Oral System

      There seems to be a popular belief that the oral method is a new thing. But this is not true. The oral method is the oldest and best known of all methods of teaching the deaf and has been far more widely used than any other. The first teacher of the deaf was imported to this country about a hundred years ago, bringing with him the French sign method. Half a century later, through the efforts of Gardner Green Hubbard, Horace Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe, the German method was introduced into Massachusetts. Alexander Melville Bell, who by his organic method of classifying sounds and his visible speech symbols, had placed the study of phonics upon a scientific basis in England, devoted some attention to the work of teaching articulation to the deaf. His son. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the Bell telephone, devoted his expert knowledge of the subject and his remarkable powers as a teacher. to this task giving lessons to pupils and teachers in several schools and established a training class for students in Boston.

      The American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, founded by Dr. Bell and endowed by him as a memorial to his father, maintains in the Clarke school a normal class which is sending out every year highly trained articulation teachers, who are carrying on the schools for the deaf all over America, the careful scientific work begun 40 years ago by this great philanthropist and inventor.

Parents Must Aid Teachers

      The tendency of the parents to let the teacher give all the instruction is a great handicap to the progress of the deaf child. Instructors urge the mother to learn to appreciate the instruction which the child receives at the hands of his teachers, and not take it for granted that it is his due. She should keep in touch with his work and make use of the information which the instructor gives her and go over with the child at home the same exercises he has had in school.

      As far as possible, communication with members of the family should be by sight. Requests in the everyday life may be quickly learned and understood in this way. And at all other times the endeavor should be made not to depend upon the ears when the eyes can see.

      John Conrad Amman, a Swiss physician, once said, “In the human voice may be said to dwell the very essence of life. The voice is a distinct emanation of that immortal spirit which God breathed into the nostrils of man when he created him a living soul.”

      These little deaf children, mutes until they learn the power of their vocal chords at the oral school for the deaf cannot hear the human voice, but they learn to use the voice in expressing themselves, so that they may take their places in the world about them limited only when lacking in the qualities that make for success in the hearing world.

[i] Grand Rapids [Michigan] Herald, Sunday Morning, November 19, 1911

[2] Full title “Giving the Dumb the Power of Speech.”

Typed by Shirley M. De Boer, 2014



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