First Deaf School in America

The American School for the Deaf (ASD) in Hartford, Connecticut, is the oldest permanent and recognized school for the deaf in the United States. It was founded on April 15, 1817, by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc. The founding was sought by Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell, a wealthy local surgeon who had a deafened daughter, Alice Cogswell. Dr. Cogswell and nine other citizens decided that the known 84 deaf children in New England needed appropriate facilities. However, competent teachers could not be found. In 1815 Dr. Cogswell and the others sent Thomas Gallaudet, a young graduate from Yale University’s School of Divinity, on a tour of Europe, where deaf education was a much more developed art. After being rebuffed by the Braidwoods in Europe, Gallaudet turned to the French school teachers of the famous school for the Deaf in Paris. There he successfully recruited (Deaf) Laurent Clerc. On the strength of Clerc’s reputation, the first deaf school was incorporated as the “American Asylum for Deaf-mutes” in May 1816. It opened in 1817 with seven students: Alice Cogswell, George Loring, Wilson Whiton, Abigail Dillingham, Otis Waters, John Brewster, and Nancy Orr. The original name of the school was “The Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons.” During the winter of 1818-1819, the American School for the Deaf became the first school of primary and secondary education to receive aid from the federal government. – Reference: Wikipedia +

Deaf Schools in America 1970 – 2012

First, I do not claim to be a professional educator, but I am a missionary who has ministered to the deaf for over 45 years and have personally observed the following transitions and developments of the deaf world during my lifetime. During my 20 years (1973-1993) at the Bill Rice Ranch, a free camp for the deaf in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, I personally visited at least 20 different deaf schools across America to invite deaf children to a free week of summer camp. During that time, each state had at least one centralized school for the deaf. Some states had two schools. The deaf throughout the state would attend the state deaf school and live on the campus. I discussed different teaching methods and philosophies with administrators. It seemed that each state had a different philosophy. Also during that time, Sign Language was not permitted in most state deaf schools. In one school, I could use only the manual alphabet. In another school, I was not permitted to use any signs, but only voice. A few schools permitted both voice and signs. Most of the leaders were hearing people who did not know Sign Language. In some schools the leaders used interpreters when they stood before the student body. Also, most deaf schools taught both education and vocation to help deaf adapt to the hearing world after graduation. The average deaf person who graduated had a 4.7 grade reading level (Comparing Deaf vs. Hearing Reading Levels SWM D14). Because of the different signs and philosophies, there was no nationwide method in Deaf education. It created problems with different levels of deaf people. Naturally, the older deaf people were never taught proper Sign Language so they used “home-made” signs with each other. I referred to this as “Sign Slanguage.” I noticed in all the schools that even though Sign Language was not permitted, the deaf children all signed to one another. In the schools I did not notice one hearing teacher using Signs in the classroom. Also, I noticed that deaf people were serving as house parents, but they were absent in educational leadership. It seemed the educated deaf were circumvented by state school policies and education. These different philosophies and methods produced at least four different deaf worlds. (1) Older deaf spelled much, using few signs. (2) Adult deaf used American Sign Language (ASL). (3) Children used SEE (Signing Exact English) and ASL. (4) Oral deaf used both voice and signs. Naturally, ASL has always been the preferred language of most American Deaf people.

1990 – Because of the American Disability Act (ADA), deaf children were  mainstreamed from state schools into local schools. At first, this resulted in school teachers using an accepted program called SEE which uses special signs to sign proper English. SEE was never intended as the language of the deaf, but only a tool to better educate them. I also noticed that the deaf children used ASL and not SEE when signing to one another.

2013 – Since 1990 there has been a great advancement in deaf education. Deaf people have become and are becoming professionals who major in many different highly professional fields. ASL is becoming the first language of the Deaf in public schools. I would estimate that there are now hundreds of schools for the deaf, and possibly thousands of schools with deaf students. Also the Deaf have become very involved. Deaf educators are now teaching and leading within many of these schools. Their influence is changing the system into a deaf culture environment. Some deaf say, “We can do everything but hear.” Naturally, there is still a need for government, states, cities, and local churches to become more aware of the educational and spiritual needs of the deaf. It has been exciting to see deaf becoming pastors, teachers, missionaries, educators, dentists, scientists, and productive citizens. Naturally, some still discuss the best method in educating the deaf, but in 1887 Thomas H. Gallaudet also had this problem.

My Conclusion – I learned from a leader in the Michigan School for the Deaf that the best teaching method depends upon the deaf people before you. What is their level of communication and education? Deaf people are “individuals” with different backgrounds, education, IQs, and abilities. “Deaf People” cannot be “universalized” as “All Deaf” are the same, any more than you “universalize” all “Hispanics.” I personally feel there is no one method that’s exactly right for all Deaf people. The key words are “communication” and “understanding.” “If the deaf do not understand the way you sign or teach, then sign or teach the way they understand.” It is sad that in this modern generation, there are only a few deaf churches and interpreting ministries. It is also sad that many family and friends of the deaf do not learn Sign Language. Let’s do all we can to help more people become more aware of the deaf. SWM’s goal is to change the deaf worldwide, one deaf person at a time!

Other SWM Helps in Sign Language ASL Video Vocabulary – Learn Signs with Loxy the FoxDeaf Timelines – Deaf Booklet Series 101

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