Dr. R. Orin Cornett
Born in Driftwood, Oklahoma on November 14, 1913, Dr. R. Orin Cornett, inventor of Cued Speech, died December 17, 2002, in Laurel, Maryland, at the age of 89.
Dr. Cornett’s invention of Cued Speech, a communication system for deaf children, and his life’s body of work touched and improved the lives of thousands of people in the deaf community. His noble spirit and concern for mankind live on.
According to Dr. Charles Berlin, Clinical Professor of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at Louisiana State University Kresge Lab, Cornett “effected great changes permanently for the good of the human condition, persevered through many difficulties, had a good sense of reality, and a good sense of his/her own limitations.”
Dr. Cornett earned a bachelor’s degree from Oklahoma Baptist University, followed by a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma and a Ph.D. in physics and applied mathematics from the University of Texas. He taught at his alma mater and at Penn State and Harvard universities.
He earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Oklahoma Baptist University in 1934, followed by a Masters of Science from the University of Oklahoma in 1937, and a Ph.D. in physics and applied mathematics from the University of Texas in 1940.
Between 1935 and 1945, Dr. Cornett taught physics, mathematics, and electronics at Oklahoma Baptist University, Penn State University, and Harvard University. From 1945 to 1958, he held various administrative positions, including Vice President of Oklahoma Baptist University.
In 1959, Dr. Cornett became the Director of the Division of Higher Education at the U.S. Office of Education. While at the Education Department, he reviewed Gallaudet’s funding. In the process, he was appalled to learn that most deaf persons have below grade level reading skills.
In 1965, Cornett accepted a position as vice president for Long-Range Planning at Gallaudet. During 1965-66, he developed Cued Speech, with the express purpose of providing a way for deaf and hard of hearing children to become good readers after learning that children with prelingual and profound hearing loss typically had poor reading skills.
Dr. Cornett remained vice president of Long Range Planning at Gallaudet University until 1975 when he became Research Professor and Director of Cued Speech Programs, a position he held until 1984. During this time, he adapted Cued Speech to 52 languages and major dialects. He has written and published audiocassette lessons in 34 of these languages and dialects.
In addition, from 1981 to 1983, he was also Chairman of the Center for Studies in Language and Communication at Gallaudet. When he retired in 1984, Gallaudet University awarded him the status of professor emeritus.
Cornett’s mother was a kindergarten teacher and director who played an important role in his philosophy of life. She taught him the value of education and the importance of teaching in such a way that a child could understand it easily. He applied this thought process to the development of Cued Speech in 1965.
After developing Cued Speech, Dr. Cornett received grants from the Office of Education and other agencies to do parent education, training, and research. He also became a widely sought after lecturer on the international scene.
Cornett said “I had supposed that deaf persons were bookworms, served by reading as their one clear window on the world. A few months of study convinced me that the underlying cause of their reading problem was the lack of any reasonable way to learn spoken language, without which they could not use speech for communication, become good lipreaders, or learn to read (as opposed to being taught the recognition of each written word). So, I really started with the conclusion that what was needed was a convenient way to represent the spoken language accurately, through vision, in real time. That was the problem I set out to solve, the perceived need that set my direction.”
Dr. Cornett’s ingenuity also was the primary factor in reducing the Gallaudet football team’s offside penalties. He suggested the offense use a large bass drum at the line of scrimmage. Prior to this unique idea, when the offensive players got to the line of scrimmage, each had to count to themselves--1, 2, 3…and on whatever number the quarterback signaled in the huddle, that is when the ball would be hiked. It was almost impossible to have all 11 players count at the same pace. Invariably, Gallaudet would amass a lot of offside penalties. When the bass drum was introduced, the drummer would hit the drum with a tremendous force until the ball was hiked. Even though Gallaudet football players are deaf or hard of hearing, they can feel the vibration from the bass drum and as a result, offside penalties became rare.
He wrote and published hundreds of articles and several books on mathematics, physics, higher education, deaf education, Cued Speech and other subjects as well as serving as editor of several publications, including the Cued Speech Resource Book for Parents, a guidebook for parents.
Among Cornett’s achievements were three honorary doctorates, the 1963 Award for Outstanding Alumni Achievement from Oklahoma Baptist University, the Nitchie Award in Human Communications from the New York League for the Hard of Hearing in 1988, and the Distinguished Service Award of the National Council on Communication Disorders in 1992.
Dr. Cornett was listed in the Marquis Who’s Who in America continuously beginning in 1956, and was also in Who’s Who in the World, Who Knows What, American Men of Science, The Blue Book: Leaders of the English-Speaking World and other biographical dictionaries.
In addition, Dr. Cornett presented his findings at seminars and conventions around the world. A pattern of presentations repeated a dozen or more times was four-or-five-day Cued Speech camps for families and professionals, with attendance ranging from 75 to as many as 330 persons. The week-long family Cued Speech Learning vacations at Gallaudet University, held annually for a decade, became so large and unwieldy that they were replaced by multiple smaller family programs, some at Gallaudet and some elsewhere. However, these workshops were a research tool for Dr. Cornett, who learned from the feedback of parents and later modified the rules of Cued Speech.
According to Dr. Jacqueline Leybaert of the University of Brussels, Dr. Cornett’s “work constitutes an invaluable gift non only to the deaf community, but also to the community of scientific research. Our many studies have confirmed what Dr Cornett expected from the Cued Speech system: the delivery of accurate information about spoken language has a strong and positive effect on the development of linguistic and cognitive abilities of deaf children.” After Cornett’s retirement from Gallaudet University in 1984, he continued to work closely with members of the international Cued Speech community from his Laurel, Maryland home.
Cornett’s wife of 59 years, Lorene, died on January 21, 2002. Orin and Lorene are survived by three children: two sons, Robert and Stanley, a daughter, Linda, and three granddaughters.
Donations in Dr. Cornett’s memory can be sent to the R. Orin Cornett Scholarship Fund
of the National Cued Speech Association, 23970 Hermitage Rd, Cleveland OH 44122-4008.