About

History & Cogswell Heritage House

In 1817, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a recent Yale graduate and ordained clergyman, met the Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell family and their deaf daughter, Alice. Embarking on a voyage to Europe to learn the art of educating deaf children, Gallaudet encountered the exciting work of l'Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris (school for the deaf in Paris, France). He then enlisted Laurent Clerc, a talented, young, deaf teacher to join him in a historic journey back home to establish the first permanent school for the deaf in the United States.

Over the years, this school has served as the "Mother School" in providing an exemplary model educational program; a site for teacher training and practicum; and as a springboard from which trained and experienced educators of the deaf went forth to educate and to start other schools for the deaf all over the country and to help found a college in Washington, D.C.

We are proud of our alumni who are engaged in the world as educated, self-supporting and productive citizens. We take pride in our tradition of excellence and innovative educational programming. As we address the ever-present challenge of serving infants, children, youth and adults who are deaf and hard of hearing, we are always seeking ways to apply new knowledge, approaches and technology in our work.

As you learn more about ASD, you will discover a community that shares a passion for the school, demonstrates great accomplishments, and has a rich base of support. I encourage you to visit the campus, attend a workshop, sign up for a community sign class, or use this website to contact a member of our faculty, staff, or administration. Whether you are a prospective student, alumnus, friend, or fellow educator, we invite you to explore and learn more about us.
Dr. Cogswell was excited about the prospects for educating his daughter and all deaf children in the country. The Congregational Churches of New England, probably the most reliable source of census data of that day, reported 80 deaf children in New England and approximately 800 deaf children in entire U.S. Gallaudet, Cogswell, and ten prominent citizens decided an American school for the deaf was sorely needed. In just one afternoon, sufficient funds were raised to send Gallaudet to Europe to study the methods of teaching the deaf.

The Braidwood family, formerly of Edinburgh, Scotland, operated a school for the deaf in London as a family business. They did not wish to share their knowledge to train prospective teachers of the deaf, unless terms could be negotiated to pay the Braidwood family, on a per capita basis, for each deaf child who would be subsequently educated using the Braidwood methods. Gallaudet would not sign such an agreement or embrace the doctrinal tenets of the Braidwood system. He remained in London for 13 months, but gave up hope of bringing the Braidwood system back to Hartford.

The Abbe Sicard, Director of the French Institute for the Deaf in Paris, was in London at that time with his two deaf assistants, Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc, giving lectures and demonstrations on the methods used to educate deaf children in France. Gallaudet was familiar with the work of the French School, and had even met with the abbe at the beginning of his visit to England, but it was not until he had despaired of reaching his goal with the English that he turned to the French. Gallaudet attended one of the lectures, met with the abbe and his assistants, and accepted their invitation to enter the teacher preparation program at the French school.
Laurent Clerc worked closely with Gallaudet, but there was not sufficient time for Gallaudet to master all of the techniques and manual communication skills before his diminishing funds forced him to book return passage to America. Gallaudet prevailed on Sicard to allow Laurent Clerc to accompany him on the return trip to America to establish an American School. 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 (picturedabove) on April 15, 1817. 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 instance of federal aid to elementary and secondary special education in the United States. More than four thousand alumni have claimed this historic school as their alma mater.

A Turning Point in American History

The founding of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn., in 1817 was a crucial milestone in the way society related to people with disabilities. The time and place are significant because it was a unique conjunction of different currents which led to the school's establishment.

Many threads in developing U.S. society coalesced in Hartford in the early nineteenth century. The importance attached to universal literacy (by no means common in the world at the time) and the particular missionary religious doctrines of the prevalent Protestant sects provided both means and motive for the attempt to educate deaf people. The concept of self-reliance and the belief that religious salvation is possible through understanding the Bible determined the methods and purposes of the founders. Literacy, salvation and the skills needed to earn a living were the goals. Achieving these required clarity and fluidity of communication, which is why the school was based on sign language from the start.

The experiment aroused great interest. Governor Oliver Wolcott, in an 1818 proclamation, asked the public, "to aid . . . in elevating the condition of a class of mankind, who have been heretofore considered as incapable of mental improvement, but who are now found to be susceptible of instruction in the various arts and sciences, and of extensive attainments in moral and religious truth." His words express the great change in attitude toward deaf people which had only just occurred.

The school's founders were well aware of the groundbreaking importance of their project, and they and their successors saved a great many letters, teaching aids, illustrations, books and other objects. These materials remained in the school's possession and now form a rich collection. They document not only the history of deaf education, but also the study of educational techniques, the history of religion, and the history of Hartford, of Connecticut, and of the United States.

History of Deaf Education in America

The first half century of the school's existence was a time of flowering and growth for deaf education in America. ASD served as a model institution and a training ground for numerous schools for the deaf which opened elsewhere during this period. Instruction was in sign language, with the goals of imparting literacy, training for productive labor, and religious salvation. ASD was a Congregationalist school in its early years, which was consistent with the civil government of Connecticut at the time the school was established.

An important feature of manual communication as a teaching language is that it allows deaf people to be teachers. Many alumni did go on to become teachers and principals at schools for the deaf throughout the United States, which spread sign language throughout the country. A deaf culture developed during this period, with periodicals, organizations, social relations and all the other features to be expected of a minority culture dispersed through the general population. So rapid and positive was the spread of this language and culture that the period is today referred to as a golden age.

The culminating achievement of that time was the establishment of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf at Washington, D.C. in 1864. Now called Gallaudet University, it is still the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the world, although there are now many other institutions offering college and post graduate degrees to the deaf.
The later half of the nineteenth century witnessed the rise of oral theories of deaf education. Although there are a variety of these theories, they have in common an emphasis on the importance of oral skills (speech-reading and speech) in the education of deaf children. A leading proponent of oral methods was Alexander Graham Bell, whose mother and wife were both hard of hearing. The first major oral school in the U.S., Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, opened in 1867.

This difference in philosophy between the proponents of traditional sign language and supporters of the oral method was a crucial division throughout the second half of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. The dispute was often bitter, leading to deep divisions within the deaf education community. It is beyond the scope of this history to go into the merits of the argument, but a few points are worth noting.

The ability to learn oral skills depends in large part on the degree of hearing loss, the age at which the student became deaf (especially whether it was before or after acquiring spoken language), and other factors. There is therefore a wide range of success and failure dependent, not on intelligence, but on these factors. Oral skills are not usually very useful for communication among deaf persons, and the use of the oral method practically bars the deaf from careers as teachers. The American School for the Deaf, during this period, tried out students in oral classes first, and if they did not succeed, put them in manual classes instead, under a philosophy called the Combined System. Many other schools for the deaf embraced the oral method to a greater extent.

The twentieth century has seen a loosening of the grip of the oral method, as sign language has regained legitimacy. The school's current educational and commnication philosophy, Total Communication, is described in the last paragraph.

As the oral/manual dispute has waned, a new philosophical division has appeared; the mainstreaming debate. Public Act 94-142 mandates that each child be taught in the "least restrictive environment" possible, and this has been widely interpreted to mean the local public school. The mainstreaming, or "inclusionist", movement has led to a decline in the proportion of deaf and hard of hearing students attending center schools such as the American School for the Deaf.

Without going into detail, it is fair to say that this debate shares some features with the oral/manual debate of 100 years ago. Success in a mainstream setting is very dependent upon degree of hearing loss and degree of oral skill. Deafness is a very low-incidence condition, and very few public schools have more than one or two deaf students within their districts. Since it is uneconomic to hire a teacher exclusively for the education of those few children, once again, deaf people are prevented from obtaining teaching positions, and deaf children in the mainstream setting are prevented having deaf adult role models in the school setting.

It can also be very restrictive to be blocked from easily communicating with classmates and teachers, from participating in sports or from normal social interaction without the need for an interpreter. The philosophy of the American School for the Deaf is that there is no one easy answer that applies to all situations, but that each child's education should be based on the specifics of that child's needs. There is a place for mainstreaming and center schools both.

Cogswell Heritage House

ASD maintains an archival collection containing many items from the history of deaf education.

Among the thousands of items in the archives are:

  • The oldest book on sign language in English, Chirologia, 1644
  • Numerous books from the 17th, 18th and 19th century, in several languages, on deaf education
  • Personal papers of those involved in opening ASD, including founders Mason Cogswell, Thomas H. Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc; the school's earliest pupils, notably Alice Cogswell and George Loring; Alice's early tutor Lydia Sigourney, later a famous American poet, and others.
  • Documents relating to the first state and first federal aid to special education in the history of the United States.
  • Complete collection of the school's Annual Reports, as well as many from other schools for the deaf.
  • Complete collection of the American Annals of the Deaf, oldest professional journal in the field, begun in 1847 by ASD staff
  • Extensive collections of the Silent Worker, Christian Observer and other periodicals.
  • Works by 19th and 20th century deaf artists.

The Archives Today

The school, which exists for the purpose of educating deaf and hard of hearing children, has had only limited resources to maintain the collection since the retirement of Gary Wait, Archivist, in June 2013. Currently, tours are limited and by appointment only.

The school has made a commitment to properly stabilize, preserve and catalogue the collection, make it accessible to scholars and, eventually, develop interpretive exhibits and materials for the public. The school hopes to preserve for the nation's future this precious piece of its past.
    • Sofia dress

Current projects being worked

  • Opening over 100 boxes of various school, community and ASDAA materials and organizing them.
  • Recording the names of all files and materials we have in the fire proof cabinets in the former Executive Director's house.
Both of these projects are labor intensive and the school is examining it's resources to develop a plan for the future. We recognize the importance of preparing for 2017, ASD's 200th birthday and hope much of this organization work can be done by then. The new school building will have several areas for the display of ASD's rich historical items.

Providing the best education possible for deaf and hard of hearing students remains the principle priority of the American School for the Deaf. A limited amount of funding has been made available by the school to begin the preservation, cataloguing and display of the magnificent collection housed in the ASD Archive. However, additional funding is required for the school to achieve its goals.

How You Can Help

All those who have an interest in preserving these treasures - members and friends of the deaf community, friends of history, of education, and others - are encouraged to consider a gift to the Archive Fund, recommend the names of others who may have an interest, or assist in continuing to build the archive collection. Call 860.570.2355 (Voice/TTY) or E-Mail: jean.linderman@asd-1817.org for more information. Make an online donation.