Written by Linda Alexander
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Signers of American Sign Language have been around as long as there have been deaf Americans. Many people mistakenly believe that ASL is a translation of English conveyed through signs. In fact, it is its own separate, natural language that has been passed through generations at home and at school. Even when sign language was banned from classrooms beginning in the late 1800s, signers passed on their language in secret.

Signers: Deaf Rights Throughout History

Deaf people were discouraged from using ASL for a long time. Many well meaning educators believed the only way deaf people would fit into the hearing culture was to learn to speak and lip read. Luckily, this attitude is changing. Today, people recognize that the deaf community has its own language, culture and traditions, and strives to keep its heritage alive.

Very little is known about ASL before the 1700s. Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, is an area where both hearing and deaf people used sign language to communicate for many years. A large number of deaf people lived there at the time and the language remained alive among signers who were both deaf and hearing.

Fast forward to the 1950s, where Thomas Hopkins Gaulladet, founder of the first American School for the deaf, hired William Stokoe to teach English literature. Stokoe was able to prove that sign language is a language in itself. He published several books on sign language in the 1960s, and his findings brought back the strong sense of community and the culture that had been taken away from deaf people so many years before.

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