Student Papers

The Wonderful World of the Deaf

Winter Coulter


When you think of Deaf history, you might just think about the history in America. However, when it comes to deafness, it does not stop in America or in the 1800s. Deaf history has been intertwined with history for as long as people have existed. Having knowledge about Deaf history, especially if you have started ASL, will give you a more in-depth relationship with the Deaf community, as well as the people in the community.

Several outstanding people were involved in Deaf History, but some might stand out more than others. One of the most prominent and well-known persons in Deaf history is Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. His motivation for learning sign language started when he met Alice Cogswell, his deaf neighbor. He was inspired to teach her after having communicated with her by writing the word “hat” on the ground and pointing at it, which she understood. He set a course for Europe, his trip being funded by Alice’s father, Dr. Mason Cogswell. His first stop was England, specifically to the Braidwood Academy for the Deaf and Dumb, to learn the Braidwood’s family methods. However, Gallaudet was not satisfied with their oral teaching methods, and the family was not too keen on sharing them. While in England, Gallaudet met Abbe Sicard, as well as Laurent Clerc, and accompanied them to the Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets in France. After running out of funds to care for himself, he brought Laurent Clerc when he returned to America. They established the American School for the Deaf in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut.

Another important person in Deaf History, who associated with Gallaudet, was Laurent Clerc. His motivation for learning sign language was because of his deafness. According to Gallaudet University, he was born hearing, though he had an unfortunate accident at one year old. This accident resulted in him losing his hearing and his sense of smell, as well as gaining a severe burn on his right cheek. At 12 years old, he entered the Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets in Paris, where Abbe Sicard and Jean Massieu taught him sign language. After graduating, he was asked by his school to stay as an assistant teacher. After showing much dedication, he was promoted to teaching the highest class. This school was where he taught Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Gallaudet and Clerc were not the only people to make schools and language available for all, but they did accomplish bringing it to America.

Deaf culture and communities have been intertwined in history for as long as it has existed. Deaf culture was defined by a Deaf sociolinguist as “a set of learned behaviors of a group of people who are deaf and who have their own language, values, rules, and traditions.” This culture has several values and behaviors unique to others. According to Gallaudet University, examples include promoting an environment that supports vision as a primary sense used in any setting (such as home, work, school, or in the community), value children who are deaf as the future of deaf people and Deaf culture, the inclusion of specific rules of behavior during communication and turn talking and unique strategies for gaining a person’s attention.

As you may know, Deaf communities lived with these values and behaviors. One well-known one is Martha’s Vineyard. Now a tourist resort, this little isolated island, which was located off the coast of Massachusetts, was inhabited by deaf and hearing English immigrants in the mid 17th century. Deaf people in this community were treated as equals and had a language that most, if not all, people could use (whether they were hearing or not). Their language was a mixture of spoken words, sign language, and gestures. The language they used is now known as MVSL. Communities like Martha’s Vineyard existed, though were very rare to find. According to Britannica, some communities were politically motivated. Learning the things I mentioned above will not only give you a better perspective of the community but will help give you a closer relationship to the language associated with the Deaf community.

The introduction of education and sign language for the deaf has given people an opportunity to not only learn about their environments but also to communicate with others. There were a plethora of schools that popped up throughout the world and had several methods of teaching their students. According to Wikipedia, the first known school for the deaf was created in France, in 1760 and was founded by philanthropic Catholic priest and “Father of the Deaf and Sign Language,” Charles-Michel (Abbe) des l’Epee. He used the already existing signs he learned from his pupils and implemented them into his school curriculum. Another school that opened up in the same year was Braidwood Academy for the Deaf and Dumb, which was located in England. Founded by Thomas Braidwood, Braidwood Academy used a “combined system,” which incorporated sign language, articulation, speech, and lip-reading. Students that attended this school did not retain the oral manners of their education. Instead, they went on to choose career paths that did not require them to speak or lip-read.


Sign language has existed throughout history, and was used for both personal and religious purposes. According to Wikipedia, a couple of examples are the Middle Ages and the 19th century. In the Middle Ages, monastic sign languages, which were signs used by monks, were well-developed systems of gestural communication used by numerous religious orders. The Rule of St. Benedict forbade conversation in certain parts of the monastery or certain hours of the day. In the 19th century, historical languages were limited to the manual alphabet, which were fingerspelling systems. During this time, many sign languages had developed independently. Deaf education and sign language is important in our history, and took several years to develop into what it is today.

Having knowledge about Deaf history, especially if you have started ASL, will give you a more in-depth relationship with the Deaf community, as well as the people in the community. Prominent people in deaf history are Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, who were taught sign language at a prestigious school in France and opened up the first school for deaf people in America in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut. Culture in the Deaf community has its own set of values and traditions. One community that followed those values and traditions was Martha’s Vineyard, a small isolated island off the coast of Massachusetts. People living here used their own language (creating barrier-less communication) and treated deaf people as equals. There were a few deaf institutions that existed in history. One example of this is a school for deaf people in France in 1760. Founded by Charles-Michel de l’Epee, he used already existing signs he learned from his pupils to teach his students. Sign language not only existed in that time frame, but also in the Middle ages, as well as the 19th century. As said by Marlee Matlin, “Every one of us is different in some way, but for those of us who are more different, we have to put more effort into convincing the less different that we can do the same thing they can, just differently.”

Works Cited


AJ, Published By : “Martha’s Vineyard: A History of Deaf Equality on a Little Island.” AJ Hydell’s, 4 Mar. 2020,

Center, Gallaudet University and Clerc. “American Deaf Culture.” Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center,

“History of Deaf Education in the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 July 2021,,Hopkins%20Gallaudet%20and%20Laurent%20Clerc.

“History of Institutions for Deaf Education.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 June 2021,

“History of Sign Language.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 May 2021,

“History of the Deaf.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,

“Laurent Clerc.” Gallaudet University, 17 Mar. 2021,

“Laurent Clerc.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 June 2021,

“Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.” Gallaudet University, 12 Jan. 2021,

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Please leave only comments that add to the article or discussion. Any help or support comments should be directed to Start ASL Help & Support. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *