The deaf community in Spain: Historical perspectives, educational opportunities, and the consolidation of sign language

Aníbal Puente, Jesús M. Alvarado, Marian Valmaseda

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


THE HISTORY of education of the deaf in Spain is one of extremes. On the one hand, it has been seen as a model for educational innovation (during the 16th and 17th centuries), and on the other hand, it has been seen as lacking in educational initiative (18th and 19th centuries and part of the 20th century). Today's situation represents an intermediate point, one increasingly characterized by a move toward modernity. The origins of education of the deaf are attributed to the Benedictine monk Pedro Ponce de León (1506-1584), who proposed educating the deaf children of a rich, bureaucratic family from Madrid's royal court despite the general belief of the time that the "deaf and the mute" were unable to learn how to speak, read, or write. Ponce de León kept his methods secret. Nevertheless, later writings have revealed that he used speechreading, fingerspelling, and the use of signs and of a manual alphabet (the origin of today's International Alphabetic System), which was published by Melchor de Yebra in 1593 (Oviedo, 2006). Later, in 1620, Juan Pablo Bonet (1573-1633) published his book Reducción de las Letras y Arte para Enseñar a Hablar a los Mudos (The Reduction of Letters and the Arts for Teaching the Mute to Speak), the educational effect of which was very influential. Historical sources reveal, therefore, that it was during the 16th century in Spain that the education of the deaf began (Plann, 1997), although the clumsiness and secretiveness surrounding these first efforts (Gunther, 1996) resulted in their being forgotten and wrongly attributed to the Abbé de l'Epée and his 18th-century school for the deaf in Paris. Bonet's book, inspired by Ponce de Leon's methods, was translated and published in English, French, and German in the 19th century, and it had significant influence on John Bulwer (1614-1684), William de Holder (1616-1698), and John Wallis (1616-1703). Bonet's book introduces modern concepts of phonetics and speech therapy to the teaching of the deaf. Although it defends the practice of oral training for older students, it argues, nevertheless, that the first pedagogic task consists of teaching the letters of the manual alphabet in their written form. After this task, the teacher should begin teaching how to pronounce the sound of each letter, later moving on to syllables, then to concrete and abstract words and, finally, to grammatical structures (Marchesi, 1987). Manuel Ramírez de Carrión (1579-1652) and Jacobo Rodríguez Pereira (1715-1780) directed their efforts toward reinforcing the work begun by Ponce and Bonet. Pereira was born in Extremadura but left, first for Portugal and then for France, in the face of religious persecution. He taught deaf students in France before Epée and used the Spanish manual alphabet. His work clearly influenced Epée, and legend has it that he introduced the alphabet to Epée and gave him a copy of Bonet's book (see Moores, 2001). After a long gap of more than a century, Lorenzo Hervás y Panduro (1735-1809) published Escuela Española de Sordos (The Spanish School for the Deaf) in 1795 (Hervás, 1795a, 1795b), thus prompting the creation of the first school for the deaf, an effort that emulated what had already been achieved in France, Italy, and other countries 30 years earlier. As a professor of the deaf, Hervás promoted the simultaneous teaching of words and gestures, thus predating what has been termed "simultaneous communication." Nevertheless, Hervás never considered sign language as a complex language, one capable of expressing not only emotions but also propositions. Additional relevant contributions made by Hervás include his description of "barriers to communication," whose objective of social integration was several centuries ahead of its time; the introduction of advanced linguistic concepts such as "grammatical ideas"; and his rejection of the prejudice that identified deaf people as "idiots" (Gascón-Ricao & Storch, 2004). The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed a vacuum in Spain as educational initiatives disappeared almost completely, despite the fact that deaf education elsewhere in Europe was advancing and becoming more consolidated. Despite the adverse conditions of the times, the figure of Roberto Prádez Gautier (1772-1836) stands out for his pedagogic efforts. In 1805, Prádez became the first Deaf teacher at the Real Escuela de Sordomudo (Royal School for the Deaf and Mute) where he taught reading, writing, and drawing.1 The painter Francisco de Goya is known as the "Enlightened Deaf Man." At the age of 46, he contracted a strange illness that left him profoundly deaf. Once this deafness had set in, Goya had serious difficulties communicating orally, so he tended to communicate through writing. Nevertheless, at some point in his life, Goya began to use signed speech and a manual alphabet to communicate. Proof that Goya had a command of the manual alphabet is a painting titled "Las Cifras de la Mano" ("The Codes of the Hand") (see Figure 15.1), which reproduces the current alphabet with only the minimal variations that one would expect to find. It is not a painting that is typical for Goya; it is small and drawn on a simple piece of paper, which leads one to conclude that it was a drawing made for pedagogic purposes. The 19th century began with a failed attempt to implement deaf education when, between 1800 and 1802, Juan Albert Martín founded the first Municipal School for the Deaf in Barcelona (Llombart, 1991). His teaching methods constituted an application of the writings of Ponce, Hervás, and Epée. He used the Spanish Manual Alphabet at first, followed by Bonet's oral and phonetic method and Epée's "methodical signs." The school lasted 3 years, until it was forced to close because of lack of funds and administrative support. In 1806, the school was reopened under the direction of Salvador Vieta, but a few years later, it closed down again in the face of similar problems. Nevertheless, modern education of the deaf began in Spain, particularly Madrid, in 1805 with the founding of a school created by the Crown, financed by the state, and run and directed by the Sociedad Matritense de Amigos del País (The Madrid Society of Friends of the Country). Before the creation of the Real Colegio de Sordos (Royal School for the Deaf) by King Charles IV in Madrid, and excepting precedents in the Colegio de San Fernando de Lavapiés (San Fernando School of Lavapiés) in Madrid and the (FIGURE PRESENTED) Escuela Municipal del Ayuntamiento de Barcelona (The Barcelona Municipal School), there had never been any specific public, general, or universal education program for deaf children and teenagers in Spain. From the mid-19th century until well into the 20th, changes took place in Spain that reflected the disorientation of policies with respect to deaf education. Changes were made back and forth, and these swings represent the best and the worst of educational policies and methods (Alcina, 2005). After 1975 and the arrival of democracy in Spain, Spanish society began to become aware of the problem of educating deaf students, and policies promoting their integration in society were implemented. In this sense, the intervention of the Ministry for Education, the National Confederation of Spanish Deaf People (Confederación Estatal de Personas Sordas, or CNSE), and parents' movements have played a key role in promoting a more modern system of education for deaf students in Spain. The resulting integration practices were initiated in 1985 (see specifics in the following section). In addition, a more recent series of important changes with respect to educational opportunities for deaf students were initiated in the mid-1990s. Those changes were brought about by the following factors: • The experience accumulated over 10 years of educational integration • The active role played by associations of Deaf people, which championed the use of Spanish Sign Language (Lengua de Signos Española, or LSE) as a vehicle for learning and called for the incorporation of Deaf professionals in schools • The information gathered from experiences in bilingual education using sign language in northern European countries • The educational trends that called for more inclusive schools and the elimination of barriers to participation • Technological advances such as improved hearing aids and, especially, cochlear implants, which have allowed young deaf students to connect aurally with the world around them in a qualitatively different way than they were previously able to do.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDeaf People Around the World
PublisherGallaudet University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9781563684104
Publication statusPublished - 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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