How American Sign Language Overcame Historical Hurdles to Become a Language of Empowerment

In the latest episode of their incredibly informative whiteboard series for Mental Floss , linguist Arika Okrent and illustrator Sean O’Neill verbally and visually explain the history of American Sign Language, the hurdles it has overcome since its inception and how it’s grown to be a language of empowerment for the deaf community.

ASL became the language of the American deaf, deepening and expanding over generations of use. That process hit a roadblock in the 1880s, when proponents of oral education, including Alexander Graham Bell, convinced many schools to discourage sign language in favor of speech training. Suddenly students were forbidden from signing, punished by having their hands tied behind their backs. …But ASL lived on in the shadows and under the tables. It wasn’t until a century later that attitudes toward ASL began to change back. Research began to show the benefit of having a full, easily acquired language as early as possible, and the harm of not having one, which happened to many kids who could never manage to acquire speech.