The Birthplace of Deaf Education in America

Left to Right: Alice’s brother; two sisters; mother; father Mason Cogswell; Laurent Clerc; Thomas H. Gallaudet; Alice Cogswell; Lydia Sigourney

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many wealthy families in America sent their deaf children to Europe to receive schooling. The Bolling family of Virginia wanted to keep their deaf children in America and contracted John Braidwood, a descendant of Thomas Braidwood, to establish the Cobbs School, an oral program patterned after the Braidwood Academy in England. The school closed about a year and a half later.

In 1812 in Connecticut, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet met a little girl named Alice Cogswell, the deaf daughter of his neighbor, Dr. Mason Cogswell. Dr. Cogswell was eager to have his daughter and other deaf children educated in the country. A survey was conducted that counted 80 deaf children in New England and approximately 800 deaf children in the entire country. Gallaudet, Cogswell, and ten prominent citizens met to raise funds to send Gallaudet to Europe to study the methods of teaching the deaf.

In 1815, Gallaudet traveled to Europe and attempted to learn from the Braidwood system. The administrators wanted him to remain at the school for several years to be trained in oralism and agree to keep the school’s teaching methods a secret. Gallaudet refused and attended a lecture in London by Abbé Sicard, Director of the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Paris, with his two deaf assistants, Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc. Sicard invited Gallaudet to visit his school, and Gallaudet spent several months at the school learning the manual methods of deaf education. Before returning to America, Gallaudet convinced Clerc to go with him to establish a school for the deaf there. In the fifty-five days of the return voyage, Gallaudet learned the language of signs from Clerc, and Clerc learned English from Gallaudet.

The oldest existing school for the deaf in America opened in Bennett’s City Hotel on April 15, 1817. Gallaudet was the director, and Clerc was the first deaf teacher in America. Alice Cogswell was one of the first seven students. In 1820 ASD built its first school on Lord’s Hill (now called Asylum Hill, after the school) in Hartford. With the help of grant money, they were able to lower tuition. In 1821 the tuition dropped to $150/year, and by 1825 the tuition dropped to $115/year. They always reserved funds for “charity cases,” too – for children whose families could not afford to pay tuition. Class sizes were always small, about 5-10 students in a class. Among the requirements to enroll in the school, students had to be over eight years old, able to write and be free from contagious disease.

The school became the first recipient of state aid to education in America when the Connecticut General Assembly awarded its first annual grant to the school in 1819. When the United States Congress awarded the school a land grant in the Alabama Territory in 1820, it was the first to receive federal aid for special education in the United States.

Gallaudet’s youngest son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, followed his legacy by becoming the first director of the newly established Columbia Institution of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind in Washington, D.C. It eventually expanded to become the world’s first only institution of higher education for deaf students. For the rest of the century, more than thirty schools for the deaf were established throughout the United States, some of them by former students at the American School for the Deaf.

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