A brief history of the early days of Deaf education in the United States, 1800-1880

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Question:  Which of the following trends was central to the growth of U.S. Deaf culture in the 1800’s?

A.  The proliferation of schools for the Deaf, and the spread of American Sign Language.

B.  Deaf people were encouraged to play football.

C.  The establishment of Deaf Alumni Associations.

D.  Charitable efforts of religious organizations.

Answer:  A.  The proliferation of schools for the Deaf, and the spread of American Sign Language.

Hands engaged in sign language
American Sign Language

Gallaudet University has been in the press quite a bit recently, with their most successful football season ever in the history of the school. But do you know how Gallaudet was founded? And do you know why the founder Edmund Minor and his father Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet are two of the most important figures in Deaf history in the United States? Read on to learn a little bit more about the start of Deaf education in the U.S.

Founded in 1817, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons was the first American school for the Deaf. Three men founded the school: Mason F. Cogswell, Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, and Laurent Clerc. Mason F. Cogswell was a wealthy physician from Connecticut, who had a Deaf daughter, Alice. Cogswell wanted his daughter to receive an education. Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a neighbor of the Cogswell family, tutored Alice in reading and writing but could find no school for her. Frustrated, Mason Cogswell asked Thomas Gallaudet to travel to Europe to see their schools for the Deaf, and learn how they educated Deaf children.

While traveling, Thomas Gallaudet met Abbot Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard, head of the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets à Paris, and one of the Deaf faculty members of the school, Laurent Clerc. Sicard and Clerc invited Gallaudet to come and stay at their school and learn the school’s method of teaching the Deaf, manual communication (sign language). After learning their system of manual communication, Gallaudet convinced Laurent Clerc to return to the United States with him to found The Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons along with Mason Cogswell.

Up until this point Deaf children had been largely isolated living with their families, scattered throughout rural communities. With the founding of the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, Deaf students came from across the country to go to school and learn manual communication from Gallaudet and Clerc. At the school, Clerc’s Parisian sign language mixed with the sign language used by students from New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, which lead the birth of American Sign Language. Graduates of the school went on to found schools for the Deaf around the country, and ASL spread across the country. By the 1850’s more than twenty schools for the Deaf had been established, and by the early 1900’s more than fifty would be open.

In 1857, the son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Edward Minor Gallaudet, founded the Columbia Institution of the Deaf and Dumb in Washington D.C. (which would later become Gallaudet College, and then Gallaudet University). As schools for the Deaf grew in number and reputation, the demand grew for a way for Deaf individuals to receive a college education. On April 8 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed an Act of Congress to “authorize the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind, to confer degrees.” With this new access to college degrees, many Deaf students studied education to become teachers, and Deaf education lead by Deaf individuals spread further. Between 1857 and 1877, American Sign Language and Deaf culture flourished as many alumni associations, church groups social clubs, sports teams and society organizations were established and the Deaf community became unified across the country.

The founding of Gallaudet as an institution of higher learning for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing was critical in the unification of the community, the spread of sign language, and the start of a long history of Deaf and disability advocacy, and contributions in medicine, art, literature, poetry, sports, and politics.

Primary Sources:

Gallaudet, T. H. On the natural language of signs and its value and uses in the instruction of the deaf and dumb. American Annals of the Deaf142(3), 1-7. 1848, reprint 1997.

Secondary Sources:

Bergy, J. L. Formation of a Community: A Place of Our Own. On www.gallaudet.edu. (n.d.).

Burch, S. In a Different Voice: Sign Language Preservation and America’s Deaf Community. Bilingual Research Journal, 24(4), 443-464. Fall 2000.

Sayers, E., & Gates, D. Lydia Huntley Sigourney and the Beginnings of American Deaf Education in Hartford: It Takes a Village. Sign Language Studies, 8(4), 369-411,419-420. 2008.