Frances Parsons, known to friends around the world as Peggie, was hit by a car and died yesterday. Peggie’s life was long and remarkable: she was instrumental in establishing the Deaf Peace Corps, she travelled around the world many times teaching and promoting deaf education, wrote several books and worked for many years at Gallaudet University.
Peggie first visited Trinidad in 1975 to teach American Sign Language, signed English and Total Communication, an approach to deaf education which emphasizes the use of all possible methods of communication, including speech, lipreading and, crucially, sign language. Before her visit, teaching at the schools for the Deaf was strictly oralist, that is, the deaf children were forced to try to speak and make use of their residual hearing, and signing was banned. This approach was failing deaf children badly, and denying them access to education in an accessible, visual language.
Her trip caused a considerable stir. She was pictured in the newspapers alongside Governor General and (soon to be) first President Sir Ellis Clarke, she spoke on the radio, to general amazement, and was featured in reviews of the notable events of the year on television.
Despite her oversubscribed classes, there was certainly resistance to the use of signing at first from teachers accustomed to the oralist approach who were reluctant to switch. Peggie’s friend, Wallace Pedro, Principal of the Cascade School for the Deaf, was determined however, and, over time, sign language has been accepted as crucial to the education of deaf children.
Peggie was made an honorary member of the Trinidad Association in Aid of the Deaf in recognition of the work she did here, and when the first dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language was completed recently, her name appeared on the first page.
I never met her, but we did correspond by email recently. She was anxious to know how her friends in Trinidad and Tobago were and how things had changed at the schools for the deaf. She was extremely keen to come back to visit, despite concerns about her beloved hearing dog being quarantined. She would have found that much has changed since 1975. There is a growing pride in Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language, and the use of signed English in the schools has been questioned. But her visit in 1975 remains a crucial turning point in the history of deaf education in the country, marking the shift away from oralism, and towards signing in the classroom. For that she will be remembered for years to come.