Thomas Gallaudet’s inspiration for beginning what would be the first permanent school specifically for the Deaf was a young girl named Alice Cogswell.
Cogswell was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1805. When she was two, she contracted what was know then as “spotted fever”, actually a type of meningitis. Alice lost her ability to hear and speak due to the disease.
Alice’s father, a doctor, was concerned for her proper education, since deaf children were unable to be educated with hearing students and were sometimes even shunned as being mentally ill.
When Alice was nine years old, her father found a potential way to help her. Thomas Gallaudet, who had attended Yale and afterward Andover Seminary and intended to become a traveling preacher, had returned to Hartford, where he grew up, and was living near the Cogswells.
Mr. Cogswell asked Gallaudet if he would attempt to teach his daughter, offering to pay for young Gallaudet to travel to Europe and observe various methods of teaching the deaf. Gallaudet accepted the offer and eventually met the Abbe Sicard, who headed the Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets in Paris, or the Royal Institute for Deaf-Mutes.
Sicard and his colleagues Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu introduced Gallaudet to teaching through a manual alphabet, the French sign language. Gallaudet persuaded Clerc to return to America with him, and together they opened, in 1817, the the American Asylum for Deaf-Mutes, whose name has since changed to the American School for the Deaf.
Alice was the first student to be enrolled in the new school, and one of the first nine students during the first year of classes.
Although Alice died in 1830, only 25 years old, she was responsible for helping shift people’s attitudes toward the deaf and their education. Alice traveled extensively before her death to promote education for the deaf, and Gallaudet’s success with her and the other students had proved that deaf people were no less intelligent or mentally capable than the hearing.
The change in attitude toward Deaf education allowed schools like the American School for the Deaf to continue to teach the manual alphabet. Today, Gallaudet University, the only higher education institution specifically for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing, is named for Thomas Gallaudet and features a statue of him with his first student, Alice.