Nebraska School for the Deaf

Quad of the campus showing buildings on two sides of an open green area
Campus of Nebraska School for the Deaf

Photograph by Cale Miller, Brian Whetstone, Matt Pelz, courtesy of Nebraska SHPO

Quick Facts
Omaha, Nebraska
Architecture, Education, Social History, Disability History
Listed in the National Register – Reference number 100003571
The Nebraska School for the Deaf (NSD)  in Omaha, Nebraska was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on June 10, 2019.  The school grew from its founding in 1869 to a 23-acre campus with 11 buildings. The campus can be split into two subdistricts based on the time frame of construction and architectural style of the buildings. The ‘northern’ grounds contain buildings that were predominantly constructed after World War II in the Mid-Century Modern style while the ‘southern’ area contains buildings built during the 1920s and 1930s. The southern campus dominant voice is that of Gothic Revival, more specifically Collegiate Gothic.

The history of the school follows the controversy of teaching methods for deaf students. Until 1817, the United States had no formal institutions to educate deaf children. Deaf children often never went to school, remaining at home where they developed “their own idiosyncratic gestural systems in order to communicate” with their families. An informal solution for the wealthy was to send their deaf children abroad to study. A growing number of schools for the deaf established before the Civil War used methods of education employing sign language—known as “manualism”—at the core of their curriculums. Many schools for the deaf also utilized other methods of instruction, including finger spelling and writing while pairing these with sign language. Deaf schools brought together deaf children in larger numbers than ever before, and, as these children received a formal education, they informally began to learn about themselves. This process hinged on the creation of a shared linguistic identity informed by sign language. As most antebellum deaf students could attest, they overwhelmingly “preferred the sign language to English,” often assuming sign language as their primary language and means of communication and English as a second language. Sign language, manualism, and schools for the deaf were foundational in the process whereby deaf people became Deaf. 

To cultural reformers following the Civil War, the Deaf community existed outside a larger national collective. These reformers targeted and subsequently attacked sign language as the most visible expression of Deaf culture and insisted on “oralism,” a method of education that taught deaf people how to appear like hearing people via lip-reading and speaking. Both manualists and oralists predicated their understanding of deaf education along paternalistic and patronizing ideas of deaf children, and deaf people generally, as disabled and inferior to hearing people. Oralism, however, was far more devastating to deaf education than manulism. Oralism stunted early language and educational development; only a few deaf individuals were ever successful under oralist methods of education while the vast majority of deaf children met frustration and repeated failure. 

This contentious terrain formed the backdrop of efforts to create a school for the deaf in Nebraska. NSD staked out a middle ground between manualism and oralism, advocating for the combined method—a form of deaf education that borrowed from both manulist and oralist methods.  At the same time NSD sanctioned the combined method to educate deaf students, school officials aggressively pursued the implementation of a vocational program. Such a vocational program hoped to provide Nebraska’s deaf students with skills “essential to success in life” by teaching printing, drawing, and other trades skills to increase the marketability and employability of NSD’s graduates. NSD stood at the forefront of deaf education in the United States, aligning with schools across the country in reinforcing a commitment to vocational training in conjunction with a traditional educational curriculum.

As the nineteenth century wore on NSD’s efforts to find balance between manualism and oralism became increasingly fraught as proponents of oralism, most notably Alexander Graham Bell, overwhelmed and exerted influence on the national deaf educational establishment. The organizing effort against sign language alarmed members of Nebraska’s adult Deaf community and Deaf instructors at NSD. Sign language was used throughout NSD at student gatherings, sporting events, and chapel services and was likewise sanctioned by school officials as an appropriate means of communication between and amongst students and faculty. NSD maintained the combined method of instruction within classrooms at NSD. Students and instructors—Deaf and Hearing alike—understood that this approach sustained “the deaf subculture that had developed in nineteenth century America” at NSD and ensured deaf students at the school received a high-quality education.

However, the Nebraska legislature pressed on in their mission to eradicate sign language at NSD. On February 1, 1911, Senate File 173 was introduced to the Nebraska legislature to instruct students in the “oral, aural, and lip-reading method to the exclusion of the deaf alphabet and sign language…” Students at NSD decried the law as a threat to their “educational welfare,” reaffirming that they preferred the combined method. The adult Deaf community in Nebraska and throughout the United States echoed these fears, warning against such an “unwise law.” But “Nebraska oralists undercut the Deaf community’s power to influence educational policies and to preserve its culture within the schools. These oralists largely ignored Deaf pleas…” and in May of 1911 Governor Charles Aldrich signed Nebraska’s oralism bill into law. By the turn of the century, roughly 40 percent of deaf schools in the United States banned sign language and replaced manulist curriculums with oralist curriculums. After World War I, nearly 80 percent of all schools followed these trends. 

Despite efforts to ban the use of sign language in the classrooms at NSD, students and faculty continued to use sign language, subverting and resisting the 1911 law in an attempt to sustain cultural and linguistic sovereignty throughout the twentieth century. The hallways, dormitories, grounds, athletic facilities, and vocational classrooms served as the backdrop for these efforts; throughout the NSD campus, deaf students wishing to tap into and learn of Deaf culture could find sympathetic students and faculty. Athletics and extracurricular activities emerged as a primary arena where Deaf students could sustain cultural and linguistic sovereignty at NSD. Like NSD’s vocational department, athletics and extracurricular activities were led or organized by Deaf instructors or graduates from NSD. Within sporting activities students and coaches engaged in sign language, reinforcing solidarity and cultural identity while working together as teammates.  While NSD administrators may have viewed deaf students patronizingly, on the field or court, NSD students proved themselves as capable (if not more so) than any hearing person.NSD’s 1931 victory as Class A champions in the Nebraska State Basketball tournament showed Nebraska’s hearing population, as well as its Deaf community, that Deaf students had significant abilities as athletes.

Ultimately, these students’ attempts to connect with and maintain Deaf culture at NSD triumphed. In the fall semester of 1970, sign language was gradually reintroduced into NSD’s curriculum. In March of 1977, the Nebraska Legislature repealed the law barring the school from teaching sign language methods.

Last updated: April 16, 2021