History of Language Disorder Treatments

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

How have persons with language or hearing impairments been treated in the past? In this lesson, we will look at historical explanations, social approaches, and advances in knowledge that led to the treatments speech pathologists use today.

Communication Disorders: Early Understanding (or Lack Thereof)

Society has recognized for centuries the existence of members who for whatever reason had trouble communicating. In the Bible, Moses used a speech impairment to try to get out of God's commission to lead Israel. God did not accept Moses' excuse, pointing out he made everyone, disabilities and all.

Other ancient civilizations held varying beliefs and attitudes. The Mesopotamians, in the region now known as Syria and Iraq, shared the Hebrew view that all people were created for divine service and employed citizens, with disabilities, in the temples of their gods. Likewise, in Egypt of the pharaohs, religious teachings forbade ill-treatment of persons with disabilities.

The ancient Greeks considered speech a gift of their gods and deaf people incapable of learning. However, some of the earliest recorded treatment to remediate speech problems dates from this time. The mirror, a tool beloved by speech pathologists to this day, was first noted to have been used during speech exercises in this period. Language disorders as a separate problem would not be recognized for a long time.

Further advances were documented in Roman times when physicians studied disorders of voice, and articulation, and tried surgical techniques to right them. Still, people with disabilities, including communication disorders, were mocked, put on display like wild animals, or employed as court jesters.

Into the Middle Ages

The time known as the Middle Ages was strongly influenced in the West by religion. Disabilities including deafness were sometimes ascribed to sin. People with disabilities were often hidden away.

Later, the idea of all people being created with a purpose re-emerged. A shift in attitude began, from treating so-called 'deaf and dumb' persons with contempt to giving them care and treating them kindly. They were still considered incompetent, however, and legal guardians were often appointed for them.

In the medical book Lily of Medicine, written in 1305, Bernard de Gordon describes 'those who express a concept with difficulty' as one of a group of speech impairments. This is one of the earliest references to language disorder as a separate entity.

The most inclusive of the Middle Ages cultures was the Arab world. In Muslim countries, deaf persons led their own lives, participated in daily affairs, and held jobs. Some persons with hearing impairments taught themselves to read lips and even became teachers.

Enlightenment

As Western culture progressed, science and medicine began moving away from their earlier religious bases. One area in which great strides in understanding was made was that of communication. Doctors such as Johann Gesner in Germany and Alexander Crichton in Scotland began in the 1700s to study and document the different types of aphasia, a language disorder resulting from stroke and head injury.

During this period, the drive to help deaf persons communicate started. By the late 19th century, several forms of sign language had been developed, and schools around the world had been established to educate people with hearing impairments, proving they were not mentally deficient simply because they could not hear!

Educators tried various techniques, in working with persons with special needs, and discovered what worked best. In France, Jean-Marc Itard was among the first to use sensory stimulation for teaching language, in working with Victor, known as the Wild Boy of Aveyron.

People with disabilities, including hearing and language impairments, were still largely excluded from the mainstream of society, however. In the 1850s, the US Congress even considered forming a separate state in the western US for deaf people, though the idea never came to fruition.

The Dawn of Modernity

Self-taught educators interested in speech problems gave way in the early 20th century to a new group of professionals, speech therapists. In the 1930s and 1940s, awareness of the importance of how children learn a language and what can go wrong in the process increased. Textbooks started including sections on child language development, disordered language, and therapy approaches.

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