In recent times, deafness has not been regarded as a barrier to learning, and deaf children attend mainstreamed schools and deaf schools across the country. But this was not always the case. In fact, prior to the early 19th century, deaf children received virtually no formal education. Certainly some were taught to read and write by family members, but many worked in jobs that valued physical skills over mental ones. The person who was instrumental in changing this situation would later lend his name to the world's first liberal arts university for the deaf.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was a pioneer of deaf education in the United States. An acquaintance in Hartford, Connecticut had a young daughter named Alice Cogswell who had become deaf in infancy due to illness. Gallaudet was eager to prove that Alice could be taught, and after successfully educating her his mission turned toward other deaf children. At the time, there were approximately 80 deaf children in the New England area, and about 800 total in the country. Gallaudet traveled to Europe to research methods of educating the deaf, starting in London with the Braidwood school. Unfortunately he did not have much luck, as the Braidwood family felt their oralist method was proprietary and did not wish to freely share it with an outsider. Gallaudet declined to pay for each deaf child educated under this method, and had to leave London without having gained anything for his year-long stay there.

While in London, though, Gallaudet had met a French abbott who was successfully educating deaf children there. He traveled to France and visited Abbé Sicard's school, where he met Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc, assistants at the school who were deaf themselves. Sicard preferred manualism over oralism, and Gallaudet stayed for some time attempting to master sign language as well as methods for teaching deaf children. He was forced to return to the United States because he could no longer afford to stay in Europe, but Laurent Clerc traveled with him; Clerc continued to teach sign language to Gallaudet on the transatlantic voyage, and Gallaudet taught Clerc English in exchange.

In 1817, Clerc and Gallaudet established the first school for deaf children in the United States. The school was also the first institution to receive state aid through an 1819 grant; in 1820 the school received a federal grant. It was at this school that the foundation of American Sign Language was born. Three separate manual systems mingled in the Hartford school: Clerc taught the students in French Sign Language, who also incorporated their own home signs into the communication. Additionally, when residents of Martha's Vineyard began sending their deaf children to Hartford, the children contributed to the linguistic mix with Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (which was related to Kentish Sign Language from Great Britain). From these three different sources, American Sign Language was formed and became the standard mode of deaf education for several years.

With the formation of other schools for the deaf came the need for an institute of higher learning for that population. In 1864, the Columbia Institute for the Deaf was founded in Washington, DC, and sign language was used there immediately. Just a few years later, though, attitudes towards deaf education were changing throughout the country. The oralist methods, which emphasize speech, lipreading, and the use of residual hearing, were gaining in popularity. The Clark School for the Deaf, the nation's first oral school, was opened in Massachusetts in 1867. Over the next hundred years, oralism became the primary method of deaf education. The American School for the Deaf, still at Hartford, used a combined method: if students were not successful in oral classes, they would be transferred to the manual program. But many other schools did not permit the use of sign language at all, and children were sometimes punished if caught using it. Nevertheless, American Sign Language continued to mature as children in the manual schools taught it to their younger peers.

In the 1960's, manualism achieved new recognition when research showed ASL to be a fully distinct language from English. Some deaf schools, such as St. Rita's in Cincinnati, Ohio, used a dual approach called Total Communication. This meant using whatever means was necessary to communicate with a child - speech, sign, or gestures. As a result of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, students were increasingly integrated into mainstream public schools - although not always with any support system or targeted educational assistance. Following the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, some of these mainstreamed students now have access to a dedicated teacher who specializes in deaf education, an interpreter for classes, and other resources to benefit their education.

Residential schools for the deaf, though, still exist in every state. The American School for the Deaf continues to operate in Hartford, as do many other institutions that were established in the mid-1800's. The majority of state-run schools for the deaf provide residential programs, where students live at the school full-time during the week and often go home on the weekends. It is in this environment that the use of ASL continues to thrive, as children are immersed in a signing world for much longer stretches of time than they would be if they returned to their non-signing household each night. The oralism/manualism debate has largely quieted down, and students in state schools are usually taught using bilingual-bicultural philosophies; private schools also exist if a parent chooses an all-oral or all-manual environment for their child.

Several schools for the deaf have achieved renown in the deaf education community. Situated on the campus of Gallaudet University, Kendall Demonstration Elementary School and the Model Secondary School for the Deaf (both established around 1885 as offshoots of the Columbia Institute for the Deaf) provide K-12 education for children from the Washington DC metropolitan area. The Rochester School for the Deaf in New York is another well-known school, located in the vibrant deaf community that has grown around the National Technical Institute for the Deaf there. The Maryland School for the Deaf, which has campuses in Frederick and Columbia, is also respected and serves the large deaf population of the nation's capital. The California School for the Deaf, established in 1860, is particularly known for its Fremont campus, which is often a feeder school for the National Center on Deafness, located at California State University - Northridge.

In the space of 200 years, deaf education has progressed from manualism to oralism to a bilingual-bicultural model. The future of deaf education is uncertain, but it will undoubtedly change to benefit America's deaf children as much as possible.

Additional resources
http://www.asd-1817.org/
http://clerccenter.gallaudet.edu/
http://ncod.csun.edu/
http://www.rsdeaf.org/
http://www.msd.edu/

originally written for nonficwrimo06

The day she learned that her 2-1/2-year-old son had become deaf she came home from the hospital and threw the still-decorated Christmas tree out the front door.

This was in Upper Michigan just before WWII, before penicillin and other wonder drugs. Her son, Ray, had contracted spinal meningitis during the Christmas holidays. Within three weeks he went from a toddler eagerly learning nursery rhymes to near death. That he survived without serious brain damage was divine intervention.

Three other young children in the area also contracted spinal meningitis. One, a girl of four, died. A pair of twin boys, age three, survived but were mentally affected.

In the months that followed it would have been pardonable if Ray’s parents had questioned the “divine intervention”. Doctor after doctor was visited, each visit ending in “there’s nothing we can do”. Ray seemed to have some vestigial hearing but was so lethargic and withdrawn it was impossible to test him.

Before being sick he had been bubbling over with words learned on a daily basis; now he lost all his newly-acquired language skills. He was confused, frightened, puzzled and angry. His mood swings went from near-comatose to blind rage. The following year he had a mastoid infection and that seemed to destroy whatever hearing he may have retained.

The family finally accepted it; he was deaf. Not “deaf and dumb”, an expression then commonly used. He was “deaf but not mute.” He still had the power of speech but, without the ability to mimic sounds, he would never talk in a normal fashion.

What do you do with a deaf child? A child who, except for his handicap and lack of speech, is normal and healthy in every way? A child who can be taught only by physical example, a child who can only interact with others through pacifying or threatening gestures? What was his future if he could not be educated?

When Ray was six he was accepted at a “school for the deaf and blind” in another part of the state. Cousins living there agreed to have Ray board with them. He might as well have been in California. Gas rationing and tire shortages prohibited long trips by automobile. Travel by bus and train was difficult, priority being given to servicemen. He went away in September and returned for the Christmas holidays. What had he learned? Nothing, really. The school apparently was a daycare center for parents of handicapped children.

There was a state school for the deaf, located in Flint, but it did not accept children younger than twelve. What was to be done with Ray at home for six more years? Normally, at age 12 he would be about to enter middle school. Must he wait until age 12 before beginning formal schooling?

By the time he was seven, and with the intervention of a State Representative, Ray was admitted to the school in Flint on a trial basis. Attendance at the school was on a residential basis and the school administration did not feel they were equipped to deal with children younger than 12. Fortunately, as he was so much younger than the other students, Ray became a mascot of sorts. Older students quickly taught him sign language, which was not an official curriculum item at that time.

He was at home with his family for Christmas holidays and the summer vacation. Gradually, the school campus became his real home, the world of the deaf his world. Passionate for sports, he became a star athlete and, while in high school, travelled to Europe on the U.S. Fencing Team to participate in the Olympics for the Deaf.

Graduation from high school came at the age of 20. He then attended Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Four years later he graduated and began teaching in various state schools for the deaf, first as a football coach and later as a drama teacher.

So far, Ray has managed to spend his entire life in a deaf environment. Married three times, he always chose a deaf woman as a marital partner; the first wife was a student in one of his classes, the other two were on the staffs of schools where he taught. While in Washington he had been part of a large deaf community, which has not always been the case since he began teaching. He took early retirement a few years ago; his wife continues to work and he is alone most of the day with his two dogs.

His life could have been different. While at Gallaudet he considered becoming a software programmer. This would have led to more interaction with the hearing world. Maybe he would be married today to a woman with hearing, someone who would lead him into further interaction with the non-deaf. Maybe.

There has always been an argument within the deaf community once the possibility of enhancing residual hearing became technically feasible. A large contingent claims that deaf children do not want to be among the hearing, that they prefer to remain within their own community, their closed and silent world. Certainly they feel more comfortable there, better understood, being able to cope in a skilled fashion. The world among the university-educated deaf is still relatively small and, nationwide, they are a tightly-bound fellowship. Hopefully, this is enough for Ray.


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Sources:
Family history – Ray is my brother
Siblings forever

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