April 15: First American School for the Deaf founded in Hartford

 

A statue of Alice Cogswell, located at the junction of Asylum and Farmington avenues in Hartford, commemorates the founding of the first permanent school for the deaf in the United States.

The inspiration for the first American school for the deaf began in 1814 with an amiable relationship between neighbors Dr. Mason Cogswell and Congregational minister Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet in Hartford, Connecticut.  Cogswell’s young daughter, Alice, was deaf, and after observing Gallaudet’s compassionate but amateur attempts to communicate with her — teaching her to spell words like “hat” in the dirt — he implored the minister to help him find a better way to formally educate his daughter.

Gallaudet agreed to travel to Europe to study methods of communicating with and educating deaf persons, which were more well-developed in Western Europe.  In France, he encountered Laurent Clerc, a deaf French priest who had experience developing methods of “manual communication,” or sign language.  Gallaudet convinced Clerc to return to Connecticut where they developed the formal communication method known today as American Sign Language.  With support from Dr. Cogswell and other philanthropists, they established a formal school for the education of deaf persons, and on April 15, 1817, Gallaudet and Clerc first held classes for seven full-time students, including Miss Alice Cogswell.  Their institution, formally known as the Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, was the first permanent institution in the United States dedicated to the education of deaf people.

The school soon attracted dozens of students from around the country, ranging in age from 10 to 51 years old.  In 1819, the Connecticut General Assembly voted to allocate financial support to the school, marking the first example of state-sponsored educational aid in United States history.  The school was also the first recipient of federal aid for special education in 1820.

Today, the since-renamed American School for the Deaf (pictured at left) is located on a spacious suburban campus in West Hartford, where it educates nearly 200 full-time students and serves as a resources for deaf youth throughout the region.

Statue of Thomas Gallaudet teaching Alice Cogswell the sign for the letter “A,” sculpted by Daniel Chester French in 1889, on the campus of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

Further Reading

200 Years of Deaf Education in America,” The Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center at Gallaudet University

Our History,” American School for the Deaf

Amanda Keenan, “Connecticut Deaf History Tour” (Interactive online map)