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Alice Cogswell | One girl’s impact on deaf education

Contributed by | Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016
drawing of ASL sign for "I love you."
This familiar sign means "I 
love you" in ASL.

Visitors to the campus of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., might notice an intriguing statue of a man teaching a young girl how to fingerspell the letter “A.” The man depicted in the statue is Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, founder of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. The young girl is Alice, Gallaudet’s deaf neighbor and the inspiration for his dedicated efforts to teaching the deaf how to communicate.

Alice’s story began in 1807 when she was two years old. It was then that she contracted meningitis and lost her ability to hear and later, speak. She was nine years old when Gallaudet moved next door and noticed she wasn’t interacting with other children.

Gallaudet was a Yale University graduate who had studied law and ministry. His goal was to serve as a traveling preacher -- until he met Alice. When he discovered her deafness isolated her from other children — including her siblings — he began teaching her how to communicate by using pictures and writing letters in the dirt. Although many of the traditional teaching methods he used weren’t effective, he was impressed with her intelligence.

Alice was a quick study and her father was elated at the progress she was making. Although many medical professionals of the day believed that deafness was a mental illness and ministers actually proclaimed that deaf children were a punishment from God, Mason Cogswell loved his daughter and wanted the best for her. At the time, no formal school for the deaf existed in the United States and American Sign Language was yet to be invented. In addition to Alice, there were more than forty children in the state who were also deaf. So, using his influence as an accomplished surgeon and prominent member of Connecticut society, Mason raised enough money to send Gallaudet to Europe to study methods for teaching the deaf.  

At the time, the Braidwood family in Scotland was regarded as the leading authority on oral communication for the deaf; however, the Braidwoods were unwilling to share their knowledge with Gallaudet. Purportedly, the family considered their methods proprietary and was only willing to share them with their paying clientele. Oralism, the use of lip reading, speech and the mimicking of mouth shapes and breathing patterns of speech, eventually made its way to the United States in the late 1860s, when the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts began using this method.

But Gallaudet’s European trip wasn’t in vain. While he was in Great Britain, he heard Abbe Sicard, head of the l'Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris was in London giving lectures on his school’s methods of using sign language with two of his former students, Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu. When Gallaudet introduced himself after attending one of the presentations, Sicard invited him to Paris to learn the school’s manual communication method.

After several months of study, Gallaudet was nearly out of money. Additionally, he realized he would need a lot more time to become proficient enough in this new method of communication in order to teach it. Fortunately, Gallaudet was able to persuade Clerc to return to America with him. According to legend, Clerc continued teaching Gallaudet the “language of signs” on the sea voyage to America and Gallaudet reciprocated by teaching him English. Once back in America, the two men traveled around New England and successfully raised enough private and public funds to establish a school for deaf students in Hartford.

All the while, Alice was attending a hearing school and continued learning as much as she could. By the time she was 10, the two scholars had established The Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, and Alice and six other students enrolled in the first class. The school became the first recipient of state aid to education in America in 1819 when the Connecticut General Assembly awarded its first annual grant to the school, and the first recipient of federal aid to elementary and secondary special education two years later when the United States Congress awarded the school a land grant in the Alabama Territory. Soon afterward, the school changed its name to the American School for the Deaf.

For the first 50 years of its existence, the school’s instructors used sign language to help their students become literate, train them to be productive citizens, and— since it was a Congregational school — save their souls. By all accounts, Alice was a good student who enjoyed reading, sewing, dancing and music. She graduated from the school in 1824 and traveled extensively as an ambassador for deaf education. Along with the other students in her class, she changed the way the world thought about the deaf and their ability to learn. As the school’s students graduated, they became instructors at schools for the deaf throughout the United States and American Sign Language spread, becoming part of today’s rich Deaf culture.

Gallaudet served as principal of the school from its inception in 1817 to 1830. Afterward, he went back into the ministry and wrote children’s books. Today, the American School for the Deaf is the oldest permanent school for the deaf in the United States and has graduated more than 4,000 students. In 1864, Gallaudet’s son established Gallaudet University, originally known as the Columbia Institution for the Deaf. Today it is the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the world.

Alice died tragically at the age of 25 on Dec. 10, 1830, broken-hearted over the death of her father who had died 13 days before. The statue of her and Gallaudet remains a memorial to the fateful friendship between the two, which inspired the foundation for a rich, expressive language and monumental paradigm shift regarding education for those who cannot hear.

Editor's note: This is the first of three articles in our Women's History Month series on women with hearing loss who made history. If you've enjoyed this article, please read our other articles on Linda Bove and Sue Thomas.

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