Thomas Gallaudet: The Voice of the Deaf

The American School for the Deaf, established in 1817 | Photograph courtesy of Gallaudet University

During the 1800s, deaf people in America had no language they could use to communicate with other deaf people, or anyone else for that matter. They let others know their needs and wants through gestures and signs they came up with on their own. Some basic gestures, such as “yes” or “hungry,” were somewhat universal, but those signs only scratched the surface of what deaf people wanted to say. They were in need of their own language and of a way and a place to learn it, and although he was not deaf or hard of hearing, a man named Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was the one who finally acquired it for them.  

Thomas Gallaudet was a man of many talents. After graduating from Yale at seventeen, he worked as a law assistant and a tutor, but due to health-related issues, he left his job and became a door-to-door salesman in rural Kentucky and Ohio, where he schooled young children that couldn’t afford an education. He especially enjoyed teaching geography, U.S. history, and the Bible, which eventually lead to him discovering his own passion for religion. He earned his license to be a preacher, and became a traveling minister, going everywhere he felt there was a needHis constant traveling allowed him to visit his family in his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut on a regular basis.1

Thomas Gallaudet | Sketch | Courtesy of Pearson Education

During one of his visits home, Gallaudet came across his neighbor’s daughter, Alice Cogswell, playing by herself. At the age of two, Alice had contracted meningitis, and as a result, lost her hearing.2 Her father, Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell, explained to Gallaudet that his daughter was deaf and that she had trouble communicating with not only other children but also with her own family. Knowing that Gallaudet was a teacher, Dr. Cogswell pleaded with Gallaudet to help Alice learn how to speak, regardless of whether it was with her voice or her hands.3

Gallaudet agreed, and started teaching a simple form of sign language as best as he could.  Nevertheless, both Gallaudet and Dr. Cogswell were deeply concerned with the lack of deaf education in America and set out to change that. The two them collected donations and support from their community, and soon enough, they had sufficient funds to send Gallaudet to Europe, to track down a sign language teacher.4

During his travels, Gallaudet came across an advertisement for a speech given by Abbe Sicard, the principal of a deaf institution in Paris, France. Gallaudet had previously known about him and his work, so he attended one of his speeches. After the speech, Gallaudet approached Sicard, and spoke to him about his troubles and worries over deaf education in America. Sicard listened intently to his woes and made the decision to invited Gallaudet to the institution he taught at, to take lessons under him. Gallaudet zealously accepted the offer, and went off to Paris with Sicard.5

In addition to taking classes with Sicard, Gallaudet also took private lessons with Sicard’s chief assistant, Laurent Clerc. Gallaudet was entranced by Clerc’s expertise in the sign language and begged him to come to America to teach with him. Clerc was skeptical, but Gallaudet was adamant. He worked hard to get Clerc onboard with his plan. Clerc eventually gave in and sought permission from Sicard to take a leave for his journey to America. Sicard was also initially wary of Clerc’s expedition, but also came around to the idea and granted Clerc the permission he asked for.6

Laurent Clerc | Photograph | Courtesy of Gallaudet University

On June 18, 1816, Gallaudet and Clerc set out for Hartford, Connecticut on the ship Mary Augusta, a journey that lasted fifty-two days. The two men used that time to exchange their knowledge of languages. Clerc continued teaching Gallaudet the vast array of signs that were included in French Sign Language, and Gallaudet helped Clerc to polish his English-speaking skills. On August 22, 1816, the day the Mary Augusta arrived in America, Laurent Clerc met Alice Cogswell for the first time. Although she did not know French Sign Language, Clerc “communicated with her through sign associations.” Clerc saw Alice had a strong will to continue to learn sign language, which fueled him in his quest to teach the deaf people of America a standardized nonverbal form of communication.7

Over the next couple of months, Gallaudet and Clerc traveled the United States. They spread information about sign language and deaf culture, met with potential students and their parents, and they began the process of establishing the first deaf school in America. They collected funds by taking donations from the public and from the Connecticut General Assembly also. They raised over $15,000 and they used that money to start what was originally called the Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (now the American School for the Deaf).”8 On the day of April 15, 1817, a little less than a year since Gallaudet brought Clerc to the United States, the school opened its doors to the public. Laurent Clerc was the first teacher and Alice Cogswell was the first student. The French Sign Language Clerc taught to his students eventually evolved to the dialect that deaf Americans still use today, American Sign Language.9

A Statue of Alice Cogswell | Photograph | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Although the school was good, Gallaudet and Clerc wanted to keep going. They went to Congress and got approval from the House of Representatives, Senate, and President Abraham Lincoln to granted college degrees from their school. Eventually, the American School for the Deaf branched out to form Gallaudet University, the first and only all-deaf university in the United States.10 Both the American School for the Deaf and Gallaudet University continue to provide proper education to those who are deaf and hard of hearing, proving a saying that prevails in deaf culture: Deaf people can do EVERYTHING a hearing person can do except hear.  

  1. Katalin Enders, “Gallaudet, Thomas Hopkins,” 2003, Learning to Give (website), https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/gallaudet-thomas-hopkins.
  2. “Alice Cogswell,” Scholastic. April/May 2012.
  3. Carolyn Ball, The History of American Sign Language Interpreting Education (Minnesota: Capella University, 2007), 11.
  4. Loida R. Canlas, “Laurent Clerc: Apostle to the Deaf People of the New World,” 2015, Gallaudet (website), http://www3.gallaudet.edu/clerc-center/info-to-go/deaf-culture/laurent-clerc.html.
  5. Margret A. Winzer, The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1993), 101.
  6. Margret A. Winzer, The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1993), 101.
  7. Loida R. Canlas, “Laurent Clerc: Apostle to the Deaf People of the New World,” 2015, Gallaudet (website), http://www3.gallaudet.edu/clerc-center/info-to-go/deaf-culture/laurent-clerc.html.
  8. Loida R. Canlas, “Laurent Clerc: Apostle to the Deaf People of the New World,” 2015, Gallaudet (website), http://www3.gallaudet.edu/clerc-center/info-to-go/deaf-culture/laurent-clerc.html.
  9. Marc Marschark and Patricia E. Spencer, Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 13-14.
  10. Loida R. Canlas, “Laurent Clerc: Apostle to the Deaf People of the New World,” 2015, Gallaudet (website), http://www3.gallaudet.edu/clerc-center/info-to-go/deaf-culture/laurent-clerc.html.

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61 Responses

  1. This was a very informative and touching article! Gallaudet had a passion for teaching which lead to his motivation to create a language for people with a hearing disability. Life is harder for people with hearing disabilities because a small percentage of people know let alone use sign language. I can’t imagine how it was like for deaf people back when ASL wasn’t created. Even though Gallaudet wasn’t a part of the deaf community, he changed the future for people with a hearing disability for the better. There are restaurants, schools, and jobs that use ASL as their main form of communication. Gallaudet gave the deaf community a chance and opened up many opportunities for them.

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