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Positive Influencers in Early Deaf History: A Timeline

We’ve been reviewing figures in early Deaf history on the blog lately. Curious how it all fits together? Today, we’ve got a short and sweet overview of several figures in Deaf educational history, what they did, and when. Of course, history is vast, and we can’t cover every significant event or person. Consider this brief outline an opportunity to be inspired and gain a deeper appreciation for the Deaf community's rich history.



Positive Influencers in Early Deaf History: A Timeline. Deaf History with ASL Picture Books. New Blog. Images of six men featured in this blog and the American School for the Deaf Sep 12, 1817. The bottom right corner is a sketch of a hand holding the world
Positive Influencers in Early Deaf History: A Timeline. Deaf History with ASL Picture Books. New Blog. Images of six men featured in this blog and the American School for the Deaf Sep 12, 1817. The bottom right corner is a sketch of a hand holding the world


Mid to Late 1700s


Charles-Michel de l'Épée – Father of the Deaf

The image is a diagram from 1712-1789 featuring Charles-Michel de l'Épée; the image incThe image is a diagram from 1712-1789 featuring Charles-Michel de l'Épée; the image includes human face, letter, clothing, and handwriting.ludes human face, letter, clothing, and handwriting.

Charles-Michel de l'Épée (1712–1789), a French Catholic priest's legacy, was lovingly known as “the Father of the Deaf.”  The Deaf community considers him one of the most influential people in the history of sign language. De l'Épée developed a series of gestures that became the world’s first sign language. De l'Épée also founded the world’s first school for the Deaf in Paris, France. In this blog post, we go into more detail about de l'Épée.


Late 1700s to Early 1800s 


Roch-Ambroise Cucurron, also known as Abbé Sicard 

mage description: Sketch of Abbi' Sicard, wavy hair is parted in the center. He was wearing a heavy double-breasted coat, an 1800's next tie, and several layers of clothing.

Roch-Ambroise Cucurron, also known as Abbé Sicard (1742–1822), dedicated his life to educating deaf children. He started as the principal of a deaf school in Bordeaux, France, and later succeeded de l’Epée at the deaf school in Paris. Jean Messaue and Laurent Clerc were both his students. Sicard’s work directly affected Thomas Gallaudet, who brought Sicard’s teaching methods to the United States.


Jean Massieu – The World’s First Deaf Teacher

The image is a screenshot of text describing Jean Massieu, the first deaf teacher of the deaf in France from 1772 to 1846. The content includes information about his historical significance.The image is a screenshot of text describing Jean Massieu, the first deaf teacher of the deaf in France from 1772 to 1846. The content includes information about his historical significance.

Jean Massieu (1772–1846) was the world’s first Deaf teacher—both in the sense that he taught the Deaf and that he was also Deaf from birth. Due to his family circumstances (being one of six special needs children in a poor family), Massieu didn’t attend school until the age of thirteen, which may explain why he became so dedicated to education later in life.

Massieu was a student of Charles-Michel de l'Épée—and ended up taking de l'Épée’s place as an instructor at the school de l'Épée founded in Paris. At that school, Massieu taught Laurent Clerc, who you’ll read about next. Massieu later established a school for the deaf in Lille, France.


Early 1800s Sign Language Comes to the USA

Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell, Thomas Gallaudet, Laurent Clerc, and the First Permanent School for the Deaf in the US


Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell

The image is a portrait of Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell, who lived from 1761 to 1830. The portrait is a public domain image from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Dr. Cogswell is depicted in the portrait.

Dr. Mason Cogswell (1761–1830) gave educator Thomas Gallaudet (1787–1851) his start. Gallaudet taught Dr. Cogswell’s deaf daughter, nine-year-old Alice Cogswell and went on to study in Europe to bring deaf education to the US at a time when the Deaf had few resources in society. You can read more about Thomas Gallaudet here.


Thomas Gallaudet



Laurent Clerc


Laurent Clerc (1785–1869) was a French educator often called “the Apostle of the Deaf in America.” He had been deaf since the age of one when he lost his hearing due to injury in a fire. In the early 1800s, Clerc worked with Thomas Gallaudet in Europe to prepare Gallaudet for opening a Deaf school in Connecticut. When Gallaudet confessed he couldn’t do it alone, Clerc accompanied Gallaudet back to the US and worked with him to open the school, which became the model for a new wave of schools for the Deaf in the US.


The First Permanent School in the US


The American School for the Deaf was initially named the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons and opened with seven pupils in Hartford.


Picture of the American School for the Deaf dated Sep 21, 1817
Image source: SEP 21, 1817 American School for the Deaf https://www.timetoast.com/timelines/interpreter-history

While in a new location on 50 acres, Today the American School for the Deaf serves Deaf students ages 3-21, offering a residential campus and numerous programs to satisfy the needs of every student. 


Today, the American School of the Deaf is housed at 139 North Main Street, West Hartford, CT  06107.



In Conclusion

The influential people in Deaf history have made remarkable contributions to the Deaf community. They have challenged the barriers and fought for the rights and recognition of the Deaf community. From the pioneers of sign language to the leaders of Deaf education, their work has paved the way for the Deaf community to thrive and achieve their full potential. Their legacy continues to inspire and impact the lives of Deaf people around the world. Let us honor and remember their contributions to the Deaf community and strive to build a more inclusive and accessible society for all. If you know of a pioneer in early deaf history, share it with us.




"The American School for the Deaf – Today in History: April 15"


“American Sign Language, a Language Recognized - Awareness, Access and Change.” Gallaudet University. August 24, 2022. https://gallaudet.edu/museum/exhibits/history-through-deaf-eyes/awareness-access-and-change/american-sign-language-a-language-recognized/.



Clerc, Laurent. “JEAN MASSIEU.” American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb 2, no. 2 (1849): 84–89. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44401132.


“History & Cogswell Heritage House.” n.d. American School for the Deaf. https://www.asd-1817.org/about/history--cogswell-heritage-house.


“The Legacy Begins.” Gallaudet University. August 24, 2022. https://gallaudet.edu/museum/history/the-legacy-begins/.


Marcath, Kathleen. “A Short History of the Origin of Sign Language.” ASL Picture Books (blog). October 26, 2023. https://www.aslpicturebooks.com/post/a-short-history-of-the-origin-of-sign-language.


“Roch-Ambroise Cucurron, Abbé Sicard | Deaf Educator, Innovator, Philanthropist.” Encyclopedia Britannica. September 16, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roch-Ambroise-Cucurron-Abbe-Sicard.


“1772 - 1846: Jean Massieu, First Deaf Teacher of the Deaf in France.” Deaf History – Europe. https://www.deafhistory.eu/index.php/component/zoo/item/jean-massieu-deaf-teacher-of-the-deaf-fr.


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