It wasn’t long ago that the Deaf community was regarded as “deaf and dumb”
(a now-outdated term). As heartbreaking as it sounds, deaf students were once considered unable to be educated. The tide began to turn for the United States Deaf community when Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, a Deaf teacher from Paris, founded the first permanent school for the Deaf.
In a previous blog, we told the story of educator Thomas Gallaudet and his chance meeting with Alice Cogswell and her family in 1814. After Gallaudet began teaching the nine-year-old Cogswell, who was deaf, her father generously sponsored Gallaudet on an educational trip to Europe.
Gallaudet’s first stop was England. A family called the Braidwoods was known for their methods of teaching deaf children, and Gallaudet intended to learn from them. However, the Braidwood family was unwilling to share their methods for less than an exorbitant price.
Fortunately, while in England, Gallaudet met Abbé Roch-Ambroise Sicard, the director of a Paris school called the Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets, the very first school for the Deaf that Charles-Michel de l'Épée founded in 1755. Sicard was giving demonstrations of his Deaf students Laurent Clerc’s and Jean Massieu’s French Sign Language abilities.
Gallaudet connected with Abbé Sicard’s Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu, and Gallaudet accompanied them back to France to study. While in France, Gallaudet underwent a teacher preparation program with his new friends.
Gallaudet had a vision to start a permanent school, but he knew he couldn’t do it alone. When funds were exhausted to stay in Europe, Gallaudet asked Clerc and Massieu to come back with him to the United States. Clerc accepted and Massieu declined. The long voyage home enabled Gallaudet and Clerc to continue learning each other’s languages.
When the pair returned, they founded the American School for the Deaf on April 15, 1817, in Hartford, Connecticut.
The creation of this school marked a turning point for people with disabilities in the United States. It asserted that yes, Deaf people could indeed be educated and become contributing members of society.
The school also made swift progress in teaching fingerspelling due to the widespread focus on literacy and religious missions in the hearing culture at that time. The general attitude of Christian missionaries was that the general public needed to be able to understand written language to understand the gospel. Great pains were taken to educate both the hearing and the Deaf to that end.
The American School for the Deaf paved the way for a number of other sign language-based schools that opened shortly afterward. As more people learned sign language, those people were able to go on to become teachers and instruct the next generation. In some ways, these early Deaf institutions became the building blocks for Deaf culture as we know it today.
The American School for the Deaf is still open, thriving, and making a difference in the lives of students today.
“Abbé Sicard.” 2020. INJS. November 27, 2020. https://injs-bordeaux.org/linjs/historique/abbe-sicard/.
“Deaf History - Europe - 1715 – 1806: Thomas Braidwood (UK).” https://deafhistory.eu/index.php/component/zoo/item/17.
“History & Cogswell Heritage House American School for the Deaf.” n.d. American School for the Deaf. https://www.asd-1817.org/about/history--cogswell-heritage-house.
“Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris.” Wikipedia, June. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institut_National_de_Jeunes_Sourds_de_Paris.
Marcath, Kathleen. 2023. “Respectful Terminology for the Deaf Community in 2023.” ASL Picture Books (blog). February 10, 2023. https://www.aslpicturebooks.com/post/respectful-terminology-for-the-deaf-community-in-2023.
“Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet Meets Alice Cogswell - History | Gallaudet University.” 2022. Gallaudet University. August 24, 2022. https://gallaudet.edu/museum/history/thomas-hopkins-gallaudet-meets-alice-cogswell/.
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