Thomas Gallaudet: Great Way for Deaf Education in America

Thomas Gallaudet

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851) , American educator, founded the first free school for the deaf in America. Before Thomas Gallaudet, deaf education was nonexistent in America. Inspired by a young girl Gallaudet set sail for Europe to learn methods for teaching the deaf. With Laurent Clerc he co-founded the first permanent school for the deaf in North America. This act opened doors of education and opportunity for deaf children, forever changing their lives. Gallaudet’s legacy lives on in the American School for the Deaf and Gallaudet University, a testament to his lifelong dedication.

History of deaf education in the America

Deaf education in America during the 18th century was very limited. There weren’t any formal schools established for deaf children. Wealthy families with deaf children might have sought out private tutors or sent their kids abroad for education. The Braidwood Academy in Edinburgh, Scotland, was a popular destination.  An interesting development was the publication of a report on deaf education by William Thornton in the 1790s. This addressed teaching methods for deaf students, although there weren’t widespread applications at the time. Overall, the 18th century in America wasn’t a period of significant progress in deaf education. Formalized educational opportunities would only emerge in the early 1800s.


Deaf education in 19th-century America went through a period of significant development. Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc founded the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in Hartford, Connecticut (1817).  Clerc, a deaf teacher himself, brought French Sign Language which heavily influenced the development of American Sign Language (ASL). ASL became the preferred method of instruction for ASD. This method, known as manualism, flourished. Many educators saw ASL as a natural and effective way for deaf students to learn and communicate.


Later 1800s a new philosophy, oralism, gained traction. Proponents believed deaf people should be taught to speak and lipread to integrate better into hearing society. The first schools promoting oralism opened, like the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. Supporters of oralism viewed sign language as a barrier to assimilation, while ASL users argued it was their natural language and essential for deaf identity and community.


The 19th century laid the foundation for ongoing debates in deaf education. It witnessed the rise of ASL as a core element of deaf education and the emergence of opposing views that would shape the field well into the 20th century.

Early life of Thomas Gallaudet

Thomas Gallaudet was born in Philadelphia on Dec.10, 1787. His family moved to Hartford Conn., where he attended grammar school. He entered Yale College as a sophomore in 1802 and graduated the youngest in his class and with the highest honors. He was a bright student who excelled at Yale University.



He then tried his hand at law, teaching, and business but finally decided on the ministry. He attended Andover Theological Seminary from 1811 to 1814. Though he tried various paths like law and business, health issues persisted. In 1821 He married Sophia Fowler, a deaf-mute and former pupil. They had eight children.

Encounter with a deaf girl.

A chance encounter with a deaf girl, Alice Cogswell, in 1814, sparked Thomas Gallaudet’s passion for education. Witnessing the lack of opportunities for deaf children, he dedicated himself to finding a way to teach them. Alice Cogswell ‘s father set about to establish a special school for children like his daughter. This set the stage for his life-changing journey to Europe and his pivotal role in founding the American School for the Deaf.

Journey to Europe for learning

Enlisted in the project to formalize deaf education in America, Thomas Gallaudet went to Europe in 1815 to study established systems of symbolic instruction. He investigated the Braidwood method used in London and Edinburgh. Learning of advanced techniques practiced by Abbe Sicard with deaf-mutes in Paris, he visited him and mastered his methods.



When Thomas Gallaudet returned to the United States in 1816, accompanied by one of Sicard’s assistants, he began seeking financial support for a school for the deaf and dumb which had already been incorporated by the Connecticut Legislature. The school, inspired by the ability of Alice Cogswell to overcome her handicap, opened in Hartford in 1817.

Thomas Gallaudet’s Contribution in deaf education.

Deaf education in America began with Thomas Gallaudet. Before him, deaf people were isolated and unseen. He founded the first permanent school for the deaf in the US (1817). This school not only educated deaf students but also trained teachers, fostering a ripple effect. Gallaudet’s work championed deaf education and helped develop American Sign Language, a vital form of communication for deaf communities.

Founded the first permanent school for the deaf

In 1817, Thomas Gallaudet co-founded the “Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons” (now known as the American School for the Deaf) in Hartford, Connecticut. This marked a major turning point for deaf education in the US.

Introduced sign language

Thomas Gallaudet traveled to Europe to learn methods for teaching the deaf. There, he met Laurent Clerc, a deaf teacher who used sign language. Impressed by this method, Gallaudet convinced Clerc to return with him to America. Clerc then became the first deaf teacher of deaf students in the US, and his influence significantly shaped the development of American Sign Language (ASL).

Advocated for education of the deaf

Thomas Gallaudet’s work helped challenge the prevailing belief that deaf people couldn’t be educated. By establishing a school and demonstrating the success of sign language, he opened doors for deaf children to receive an education.

Inspired future advancements: Gallaudet University

Gallaudet’s son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, later went on to found Gallaudet University, the world’s first liberal arts university for deaf and hard of hearing students. Gallaudet University, established in 1864, is a private university in Washington D.C. exclusively designed for deaf and hard of hearing students. It holds the distinction of being the first ever university for the deaf and hard of hearing globally, and offers undergraduate, graduate and continuing education programs in a bilingual (American Sign Language and English) environment. With a strong emphasis on Deaf culture and history, Gallaudet fosters a unique learning experience for its students.

Writings of Thomas Gallaudet

Thomas Gallaudet’s direction, writings, and public appearances made the school successful. He worked on a speller and a dictionary and wrote Book on the Soul (1831), Scripture Biography (1833), and Everyday Christian (1835). These along with numerous journal and magazine articles, gained him worldwide recognition.

Thomas Gallaudet’s dedication and vision played a pivotal role in creating educational opportunities for deaf people in America. He died in Hartford on Sept.10.1851.


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