In mid 17th century England, several scholars, who were associated with Oxford University worked with and wrote about people who were deaf. They included William Holder, George Dalgarno, and John Wallis. An interest in the deaf was not only theirs, but was held by many others in England.
One origin of the interest in the learning and education of people with severe hearing impairment came from Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626). call for codifying and classifying elements of sensed nature so they could be best learned and understood. Bacon’s emphasis on learning through the senses led to an educational movement that began with sense training.
The effort to sense the elements of nature led to the puzzling question of how, if one did not have full access to nature through the senses, one would experience and understand reality. This puzzle led to an effort to find out whether those deprived of hearing could learning language through visually based means such as signing or writing or gesturing.
For example, Juan Pablo Bonet (1579-1633) in his book on The reduction of letters and the art of teaching the mute to speak, advocated using a one-handed manual alphabet. In his book on the “reduction of letters” he argued that speech should be taught by teaching the sounds associated with the letters and signs of the alphabet (Moores, 1978, p. 36-7)
William Holder (1616-1698) took another visual teaching approach, that of written language, and used it to teach a deaf student to speak. In 1659, he began teaching letters to Alexander Popham, a young deaf boy. He first taught his student to copying letters of the alphabet. Once the letters were learned, he had Popham pronounce each letter, using a two handed alphabet, with letters located in different positions on the hand. He used a “distinctive features” approach to teach speech reading, relying on context to differentiate sounds from one another.
The letters on the hand was also adopted by George Dalgarno (1628-1687) who advocated finger spelling for training the deaf. He went the further step anticipating today’s universal design movement, by recommending that his manual alphabet be taught to all children and that it be included in the hornbook, a classroom textbook used by regular teachers. Dalgarno’s alphabet involved the use of two hands. The letters were on the fingertips and palms of one hand, and touched by the finger or thumb of the other hand. Dalgarno was among the first to assert that deaf children have normal learning abilities.
These advances presupposed that those with severe hearing impairments who were also mute as a result were, nonetheless, intelligent and capable of learning language with the right educational experiences.