Education: Essay

Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb

by John Crowley

The Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, the first permanent school for deaf Americans, opened on April 15, 1817, in Hartford, Connecticut. At that time, "dumb" meant only "unable to speak" (as we still sometimes refer to someone being "dumbstruck") but in early America almost all those who were born deaf never learned to communicate with others except by home-made signs, and deaf people were often regarded as cognitively impaired as well.

The initial impetus for a school for deaf people came from parents who wanted an education for their deaf children. Chief among these was a prominent Hartford, Connecticut surgeon named Mason Fitch Cogswell, whose daughter Alice was deaf after having contracted meningitis. Another was a lawyer and politician named Sylvester Gilbert, who had five deaf children. These two "parent advocates" (as they would be called today) enlisted other well-to-do parents in their efforts, including Eliphalet Kimball of Salem, Massachusetts. To these New Englanders, religious instruction was all-important, and that meant being able to read and understand the Christian Bible.

It was not only money that these individuals brought to the project. Many had considerable political influence, and some were members of the Connecticut Legislature. They convinced a group of Connecticut ministers to conduct a census to find out how many deaf children there were in their communities. It took three years (1812 - 1815) and identified 84 deaf persons in the state, enough to warrant starting a school.

At first plans for the school depended on British models. Since the 1770s a small number of Americans had sent their deaf children to Thomas Braidwood's Academy in Edinburgh, Scotland, the best-known school for deaf education at that time, but this was a difficult and expensive undertaking. When John Braidwood, Thomas's grandson, arrived in America in 1812 with the idea of starting a branch of the school, Cogswell tried to persuade him to come to Connecticut. But Braidwood's plans eventually came to nothing.

Still Cogswell and his partners looked abroad for models, and in 1815 they asked a Hartford minister named Thomas Gallaudet, who had become interested in the education of Alice Cogswell, to go to Europe and study educational methods. Gallaudet first went to Edinburgh and the Braidwood Academy. He disliked the elitism of a private, for-profit school, and the Braidwoods would only agree to instruct him in their methods if he swore to keep them secret.

In London, however, Gallaudet attended a demonstration of the methods of the French Royal Institution for the Deaf in Paris, where French sign language was the medium of instruction and tuition was free to the poor. The French teachers invited Gallaudet to come with them and study in Paris. In 1816, Gallaudet returned to Connecticut with a star instructor of the Paris school, Laurent Clerc, whom he had hired even though there was as yet no school for him to teach in.

There soon was, however. Cogswell and his partners, aided by the persuasive lectures and demonstrations of sign language that Gallaudet and Clerc gave before amazed New England audiences, raised $5,000 privately. More importantly, they received a charter of incorporation from the state, along with a grant from the Legislature of $5,000, the first public funding for the education of Americans with disabilities.

Because travel in early America was so costly and difficult, the Connecticut Asylum was established as a residential school. Instruction was given in sign, originally the French system Clerc used, gradually modified and evolving into what is now called ASL, American Sign Language. Instruction was given in math, reading, writing, geography, history, and most importantly in the Bible.

Soon after its establishment, the Federal government awarded the Connecticut Asylum a grant of 23,000 acres of land in Alabama to help the school provide education for deaf people throughout the United States. The name of the school was thereupon changed to The American School for the Deaf.

The American School for the Deaf was the model for education of the deaf for much of the 19th century. Several state-supported or state-operated residential schools for the deaf were established, in which manual sign language was used for instruction. (Late in the century, a campaign against the use of sign and in favor of training in oral speech radically changed education for deaf people.) In addition to religious training and the "three R's," schools offered training in those trades that were thought suitable for deaf people, such as bookbinding, cabinet-making, printing, needlework, and shoe-making. Many of the top graduates remained at or returned to the schools as instructors, and networks of graduates kept in touch through newsletters and magazines. The schools were central to the development of a self-aware community of deaf people in the United States.