deaf history profile-geronimo cardano

Geronimo Cardano, a physician and mathematician living in Italy in the 16th century, was one of the first people to believe that deaf people were just as intelligent as hearing ones. Since the time of Aristotle, people had assumed that since the deaf could not be educated through traditional oral methods, they were incapable of learning.

Geronimo Cardano-Photo Credit Wikipedia

Cardano, who was a scientist and deeply involved in learning, began studying how best to educate the deaf because of a son who was born unable to hear. Cardano used written lessons to educate his son, and was successful in teaching the child the same subjects and ideas that hearing children were learning at the time. His work proved that hearing was not a requirement for learning, and that the deaf were not unintelligent.

Cardano and his contemporaries Pedro Ponce de Leon and Juan Pablo de Bonet laid the groundwork for deaf education that would become more widespread in the future. Proving that the deaf could learn was the first step toward the work of those like Abee de l’Epee and Thomas Gallaudet.

Even though Cardano is a largely unknown figure whose work is centuries in the past, his influence has been felt through the history of deaf education even to modern times.


“History of Sign Language.” StartASL. n.p, n.d. Web. 14 April 2016.

Lewis, Jacob. “American Sign Language: Deaf History.” LifePrint., 29 April 2003. Web. 15 April 2016.


deaf history profile-abbe de l’epee

Charles Michel de l’Epee, who is often called the first true teacher of the Deaf, created the first public school for the deaf in Paris, called the  “Institution Nationale des sourds-muets de Paris,” which means “the National Deaf-Mute Institute of Paris”.

Image Credit-Wikimedia Commons

De l’Epee was born in Versailles on November 25, 1712. Epee studied theology as a young man, and later became a lawyer. He eventually did become a priest in Paris, where he encountered a fellow cleric, Father Vanin, who had been tutoring two deaf girls. When Vanin died, Epee took over the sisters’ education.

In order to teach the girls, Epee began to study the existing forms of sign language used in Paris, hoping to use them to form a basis of communication with his pupils. From his research, he was able to create a system of signs to be used in teaching the Deaf. He formulated a one-handed signed alphabet and also many words in the already-used signing.

Epee, unlike many of his contemporaries, believed that education for the Deaf should be accomplished by communicating with the Deaf in their signed language, rather than using the traditional oral methods.

“Every deaf-mute sent to us already has a language,” Epee once wrote. “He is thoroughly in the habit of using it, and understands others who do. With it he expresses his needs, desires, doubts, pains, and so on, and makes no mistakes when others express themselves likewise. We want to instruct him and therefore to teach him French. What is the shortest and easiest method? Isn’t it to express ourselves in his language? By adopting his language and making it conform to clear rules, will we not be able to conduct his instruction as we wish?”

This was a challenge to the traditional belief that signing was not a true language and that its only proper use in Deaf education was paving the way to learning phonetic speech. Some of Epee’s predecessors had expressed similar opinions, but Epee was the first whose ideas began to foster a change in the way Deaf education was viewed and an acceptance of the idea of sign language as a valid language in itself.

Another way Epee changed the landscape of Deaf education was his belief that all Deaf children ought to be instructed in their language, regardless of their families’ economic standing. Before Epee’s time, education for the Deaf, and often education in general, had been a privilege available only to the upper class. However, Epee’s school accepted children from all backgrounds.

Epee’s methods continued to be taught at his school after his death in 1789. His successor, Abbe Sicard, taught Epee’s methods to Thomas Gallaudet when he toured Europe seeking a way to teach his charge Alice Cogswell. With Gallaudet and his companion Laurent Clerc, a teaching assistant from Epee’s school, the idea of sign language spread to America. The French Sign Language that had developed as a result of Epee’s work would adopted and adapted into what we know today as ASL.


“Charles Michel de l’ Epee.” YourDictionary. n.d. Web. 8 April 2016

“History of Sign Language.” StartASL. n.p, n.d. Web. 8 April 2016.

Hollier, Kayla. “Abbe Charles Michel de l’Epee.” American Sign Language. 29 April 2003. Web. 8 April 2016.

“The Abbe Charles Michel de l’Epee.” Gallaudet University. 2014. Web. 8 April 2016

deaf history profile-alice cogswell

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.


Statue of Thomas Gallaudet and Alice at Gallaudet University-Photo Credit Gallaudet University

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.


“Alice Cogswell.” StartASL. n.p, n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

“The Legacy Begins.” Gallaudet University. n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2016

“Alice Cogswell Changed the World for Deaf People.” New England Historical Society. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

deaf history profile-laura bridgman

While Helen Keller is famous as a breakthrough student in deaf-blind education, she was actually preceded by a woman not as well known, Laura Bridgman.


Laura Bridgman- Photo credit National Women’s History Museum

Bridgman was born in New Hampshire in 1829, and when she was two years old, she caught scarlet fever. Laura survived, but lost her senses of sight, smell, and hearing. She created her own simple signed language with the help of a local man named Asa Tenney. Laura was also able to learn to perform household tasks such as sewing by feeling her mother’s hands completing the chore.Despite this limited ability to communicate, Laura’s family relationship struggled as she grew increasingly frustrated and would have violent fits of temper.

When a Dartmouth college professor heard about Laura’s communication through signs, he wrote an article for the local Hanover, New Hampshire paper. The article made its way to Dr. Samuel Howe, head of the Perkins School for the Blind. Howe was intrigued by the prospect of teaching language to a person both deaf and blind, and he convinced Bridgman’s family to let her come to his school in Boston, which she did in the fall of 1837.

Howe’s method for teaching Laura Bridgman the concept of language was innovative. He labeled familiar objects with paper labels showing raised letters. After he allowed Laura to associate the names with the objects, he removed the labels and allowed Laura to match the label to its original object.

Although Laura was able to learn to pair the labels to objects rapidly, Dr. Howe was not certain that she had grasped the true essence of language. His next step in teaching consisted of cutting the labels into individual letters and having Bridgman rearrange those letters into the correct word. When she was able to complete this assignment, Howe was convinced that Laura understood what language was.

When she was twenty, Laura left Perkins and returned to her family home, but her health suffered and she had difficulty adjusting to being mostly alone again. After three years, she returned to Perkins, and lived at the school until her death in 1889.

Laura was a prolific letter writer during her years at Perkins, and traveled to visit friends and family, often spending summers with her parents. She made and sold needlework pieces and contributed to household chores at the school.

Laura Bridgman, although she never attended a college like her more famous counterpart, Helen Keller, was the first deaf-blind person considered to have truly learned language, and thus is a very important figure in Deaf culture and history.


“History of Sign Language.” StartASL. n.p, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

“Laura Bridgman.” National Women’s History Museum. n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. “Laura Bridgman.” Perkins School for the Blind. 2004. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.

small world

At last night’s meeting of the on-campus ASL club, I was able to see firsthand how much Deaf people value connections to others.

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After the class I was talking to the two students who teach the group. I was wearing a t-shirt with the logo of a camp I help open,”Camp Lake Louise”, and the oldest of the students asked me if I knew the camp, and if I knew a family who worked there.

When I said I did, he explained that he knows that family very well. He went to school and ran track with a young man that I have worked with while opening the camp several times, and he knows the whole family very well.

We were all thrilled to find out this connection, and it opened up a whole new avenue of conversation. I was surprised to find such close connections to a favorite place in a college so far from the camp, and finding people who know some of my family’s closest friends is amazing and wonderful.

While learning ASL I had read that finding connections is very important to the Deaf since their community is so much smaller than the general population. Last night, I was able to experience firsthand the thrill that comes when such a connection is made. This search for connection is one of the most wonderful parts of Deaf culture to be, and being part of it was a truly amazing thing.


deaf history profile-juan pablo de bonet

I decided that for Deaf History Month, I will publish a profile of an influential figure in Deaf history and culture each week. This week’s profile is of the first person to publish a recognized manual alphabet, Juan Pablo de Bonet, a Spanish priest.


Juan Pablo de Bonet

Juan Pablo de Bonet-Photo credit

Bonet, who lived and worked in the second half of the sixteenth century, studied the work of Pedro Ponce de Leon, a monk who had been successful in teaching deaf children. Bonet’s interest was practical; he was part of the household of the Governor of Castille, whose younger brother was deaf.

Juan Pablo de Bonet’s studies led him to develop a comprehensive method of teaching the deaf. He advocated the use of various methods of learning, some involving speech training but also advising a focus on manual alphabets and signs to facilitate that learning. He stated that early training and consistency were vital to education for the deaf. One of his ideas for maintaining consistency was to have everyone who lived in a house with a deaf person ought to use a manual language.

One of the most important contributions Bonet made to advancing sign language was his publication of Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (1620; “Reduction of the Letters of the Alphabet and Method of Teaching Deaf-Mutes to Speak”). This book addressed the aspects of Bonet’s research involving spoken phonetics and fingerspelled signing.

Although Bonet’s work was intended to teach vocal speech through phonetics, aided by manual letters to represent spoken phonetic sounds, his work validated the use of a manually signed language as a legitimate form of language and expression. Even more importantly, Bonet’s work was disproving an ancient idea that the deaf were incapable of learning.

Manual alphabets’ intended use is very different in today’s signing than Bonet intended when he published his essays, but his work paved the way for legitimizing signing as a form of genuine communication.


Duchan, Judy. “Juan Pablo Bonet: 1579-1633.” n.p. 12 May 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2016

“History of Sign Language.” StartASL. n.p, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Juan Pablo Bonet.” Encyclopedia Britainnica. n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2016


deaf history month

One of the most interesting things I learned while looking up more about ASL this week was that March 13- April 15 is Deaf History Month.

Deaf History Month begins on the date in 1988 that Gallaudet University chose its first Deaf university president in response to student protests. Since Gallaudet is the world’s only university specifically for the Deaf, students wanted to have a Deaf rather than a hearing administrator. The movement, known as Deaf President Now, succeeded in securing the appointment of I. King Jordan, Gallaudet’s first Deaf president.

Another important event of Deaf History Month is April 8, 1864, the date that President Abraham Lincoln signed the school charter of Gallaudet University itself in response to a letter from the school’s administration. This school was the first to offer higher education specifically to the Deaf community, and continues to be known for its academics today.

Closing the month is April 15, 1817, when the American School for the Deaf, which was the first permanent Deaf public school, was formed in Hartford, Connecticut.

Deaf History Month is promoted by the Deaf community to raise awareness of the issues and culture of the community in the majority hearing culture. Deaf people often organize community-wide events to introduce others to their language and way of life.

I am looking forward to finding out more about Deaf history and culture not only during this month, but all year long as I continue to study ASL and the vibrant culture it is part of.