Professor Graham H. Turner salutes Dr Reuben Conrad, whose groundbreaking research in the late 70s proved that depriving deaf children of the opportunity to sign hindered their education.
The British Psychological Society presented, in the July 2016 issue of The Psychologist, an appreciation of Dr Reuben Conrad, “to celebrate his long and distinguished career as he reaches the grand old age of 100”. If you’re thinking ‘Reuben who?’ please read on.
As a psychologist, Reuben Conrad spent many years producing new thinking about the development and education of Deaf young people. Ever since the 1970s, Conrad’s research has provided one of the most effective weapons in the battle for recognition of BSL. Without evidence of the kind he produced, it is likely that the life of every BSL user in the country would be harder than it is today. As educator and interpreter Brigitte Francois says: “I don’t know how many times I have said or interpreted ‘The Conrad report says…’ His report is a benchmark by which we measure progress since 1979 – and there has been progress.”
To understand why Conrad is so respectfully recognised, you have to remember what he was up against. The influential International Congress on Education of the Deaf, held in Milan in 1880, had taken a decision to recognise ‘oralism’ – teaching through speech, hearing, lipreading and literacy – as the only worthwhile approach to the education of deaf children. Nearly a century had then passed during which this way of thinking had continued in the UK.
Miranda Pickersgill, who studied to become a ‘teacher of the deaf’ at Manchester University in 1972-73, remembers: “Any reference to sign was dismissed and there was certainly no debate or discussion. I was taken in by the belief that one would be ‘saving’ the deaf children and there was a real feeling of a calling to this work which was reinforced by the presence of nuns and priests in many of the schools we visited! Looking back, I can see that the training was about us as teachers and how we would need to perform; even on my teaching practices, the assessors didn’t seem concerned about whether the children could understand me at all.”
Given some of the attitudes expressed by the experts of the day, this dismissal of sign language was no surprise. Anthony van Uden, for example, wrote (as late as 1977) that signed languages were not “of the same value as oral languages… signs are not arbitrary codes, but iconic and dramatizing ones, keeping thinking much too concrete… sign-language cannot be acknowledged as a fully humanizing language, [it is] only to be used when no other form of communication is possible”.
Nevertheless, against this backdrop, an alternative point of view was beginning to take shape. William C. Stokoe and colleagues had begun to publish scientific papers demonstrating the systematic linguistic basis of American Sign Language. In the UK, the government’s Lewis Report of 1968 had tentatively suggested there may be room for some ‘manual communication’ (they meant fingerspelling, not BSL) in deaf education. In the mid-1970s, Mary Brennan (in a paper published as an insert by this very magazine: how I wish the BDN still shared new scholarship and research with the Deaf community in the same way!) had started to set out the arguments for looking again at the status of BSL.
Everyone knew then, as they know now, that the vital arguments to win were those that challenged the oralists’ grip in classrooms. Poor education had created a vicious circle in which Deaf people could not access the very information needed to tackle a century of neglect and oppression. Evidence was needed that oralism wasn’t working. But how to gather such evidence?
Enter Dr Reuben Conrad. As a scientist, Conrad was far more interested in solving practical problems than in making grand theoretical claims. He went to University College London in 1938 to study psychology (then a new subject regarded as an easy option), and was completely hooked by a lecturer who gave vivid and dramatic talks, at one point arriving in class with a chimpanzee that he had borrowed from London Zoo! When war broke out, Conrad joined the Army, and so ended up with no degree but considerable expertise in artillery.
When he was able to pick up his career in psychology, Conrad specialised in research on memory. He moved to Oxford University and started to apply his ideas about the relationship between language and memory to child development: specifically, how did deaf children remember words if they couldn’t remember the sounds? He decided that his goal would be to test every deaf school leaver in the country – a massive project.
Conrad gave talks and wrote papers during the 1970s and 1980s, but it was the 1979 book The Deaf School Child, setting out the findings over 370 pages, that had the greatest impact. Partly, that is because Conrad was a good scientist, using his knowledge to conduct really well-planned applied psychological research and see into the workings of deaf children’s minds! And partly, it is because he used what he learned to stand up to the oralist establishment alongside Deaf people.
The authorities could not dismiss Conrad’s overwhelming evidence: “When deaf children leave school, half of them have a reading age of less than seven point six; half of them lipread worse than the average hearing child, untrained and inexperienced; seventy percent of them have speech which on the whole is too difficult to be understood, and only ten percent have speech which their own teachers considered fairly easily understood.” In other words, Conrad showed that many Deaf children were leaving school at 16 able to read only as well as the average hearing 7½-year-old. And the very same teachers who had insisted that oralism would enable them to ‘function in a hearing world’ had to admit that the pupils’ speech was rarely understandable.
Conrad’s conclusion made perfect sense: if you want to teach a profoundly deaf child, you need to do so in a medium they can access. By depriving deaf children of the opportunity to sign, teachers were hindering rather than helping their education. It’s as true today as it was then.
Is Conrad’s story one of absolute success? Well, ask yourself: is deaf education perfect today? Are the pupils all being taught in a way that enables them to achieve to their full potential? Reuben Conrad set out the basis for the way forward over a generation ago. It’s clear what he would have wanted. We all still have work to do together.
Professor Graham H. Turner is Director, Centre for Translation & Interpreting Studies in Scotland at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.