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Deaf History

Deaf history is completely intertwined with American history. It is often ignored during history lessons. We aim to educate you today on the highlights of the most important events in Deaf history. Modern Deaf culture began in the United States in 1817 (Harvard University, n.d.). That same year, the American School for the Deaf was founded in Hartford, CT (Harvard University, n.d.). However, the beginning of Deaf culture began almost a hundred years prior.

Martha’s Vineyard

Before American Sign Language was developed (ASL) in 1817, an island off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts had its own way of communicating (Harvard University, n.d.). The residents of this island created Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). Although there was a very high population of Deaf residents, this eliminated any communication barriers between them and the hearing residents. Sources say this language was developed in 1714 and is often the beginning of any Deaf history lesson (Harvard University, n.d.).

Father of Deaf Education

In 1816, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a hearing American known as the Father of Deaf Education, became fascinated by his neighbor’s daughter, Alice Cogswell. She became ill with meningitis and lost her hearing at the age of two. Alice is the inspiration to Gallaudet for the creation of the American School for the Deaf. (Chapman, 2021c)


Gallaudet was driven to find a way for Alice to communicate, so Alice’s father funded a trip for Gallaudet to travel to Europe and learn about French Sign Language (LSF) from Laurent Clerc, a Deaf Frenchman. Together, they traveled back to the United States and began to set up an educational institute for the deaf in America. By the next year, 1817, the first School for the Deaf that used sign language was founded by Gallaudet and Clerc. Clerc is known as the Father of ASL because of his often accreditation in combining LSF and MVSL to make American Sign Language. They called this school Hartford Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and the Dumb. (Harvard University, n.d.).

Gallaudet University

The next highlight in Deaf history is the chartered grammar school known as the Columbia Institute for Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind in 1856. Gallaudet’s son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, founded this institution and became the first superintendent (Chapman, 2021d). This school focused on educating children who were deaf or blind and provided moral training. They became a college and started giving out college degrees in 1864 (Chapman, 2021d). This became known as the Gallaudet University we know today; first changed to Gallaudet College in 1894 and then Gallaudet University in 1986 (Chapman, 2021d).

Alexander Graham Bell

The next highlight for Deaf history is one I doubt many people know! I am sure you are wondering where Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, fits into Deaf history specifically. Unknown to many, Bell’s central interests were education for deaf children and oralism. Oralism is the belief that Deaf individuals should be taught speech/lip reading over sign language (Harvard University, n.d.). Having a hard-of-hearing mother, Bell willingly used sign language with his mother and other deaf adults. But, when it came to children, he advocated for strictly oral education. Bell founded an oralist school located in Boston in 1872. He believed that “Deaf individuals need to learn to speak in order to be professionally and socially integrated.” (Harvard University, n.d.). Eventually, Bell’s name became a synonym for oralism in the Deaf community. (Chapman, 2021b).

Only a few years later, in 1880, the Milan Conference took place. At this conference, Deaf educators from around the world gather to discuss oral versus signed education. At this conference, Alexander Graham Bell was allowed to speak for three days while his opponents were only allowed to advocate for ASL for three hours. Ultimately, congress endorsed oralism and banned the use of sign language in schools. (Harvard University, n.d.).

Deaf Communication

The Deaf history timeline is pretty quiet until the TTY was invented in 1960. A teletypewriter (TTY) is a typewriter paired with a communication channel that allows people to communicate through typed messages. There must be a TTY at each end of the conversation, but it can be used with a landline or a cell phone. This invention IMMENSELY expanded the long-distant communication for the deaf. (Harvard University, n.d.).

For the first time in 1960, ASL was recognized as its own language. Before then, ASL was not recognized as having its own sentence structure, grammar, or word-formation. So, ASL has only been an officially recognized language for 60 years!

Only four years later, in 1964, Video Relay Service was invented. This service enables people who use ASL to communicate with voice telephone users through video, rather than through a typed message. (Harvard University, n.d.).

A MASSIVE Turning Point

In 1988, Gallaudet University President's Council on Deafness (PCD) was searching for a new president of the college. In February, they had three finalists: a hearing woman and two Deaf men. The PCD, led by Jane Spilman, decided to elect Dr. Elizabeth Zinser as the seventh president on March 6. Spilman publicly announced her recommendation of Dr. Zinser to the board was made on the decision that the ‘Deaf are not able to function in the hearing world’.

As you can imagine, the students at Gallaudet were livid. The next morning (March 7) the students responded by locking down campus. They blocked the gates with cars and busses and followed by deflating the tires. They formed human chains and refused to let an administration on campus.

By the next day (March 8), the gates were reopened, but the students boycotted and began a protest rally. Their rally cry became Deaf President NOW. The council they formed consisted of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and advocacy groups from around the area. Through this council formation, they formed four demands:

  1. Dr. Zinser must resign and a Deaf president must be selected

  2. Jane Spilman must resign.

  3. 51% of the PCD board must be Deaf.

  4. There will be no reprisals against the protesters.

The following day, March 9, Dr. Zinser arrived in Washington D.C. She attempted reasoning with protesters but the students still urged her to step down. At this time, she continued refusing to do so. March 10 started just like their first day of protest. However, the students blocked the gates because a rumor was spread that Dr. Zinser and Spilman were going to force their way inside. Ultimately, it was just a rumor and Dr. Zinser resigned that day.

The students were proud of their victory and began marching to the capitol on March 11. But, they still had three and a half demands to be met. By March 12, the board had flown back to Washington and held an emergency meeting to discuss the recent events. It was not until the following day that the Board of Trustees had five announcements for the students and community:

  1. Jane Spilman had resigned as chair of the Board and from the Board.

  2. Phillip Bravin was named the next chair.

  3. A task force was being set up to determine the best way to achieve the 51% Deaf board.

  4. There would be no reprisals against the protesters.

  5. Dr. I King Jordan was named the 8th (first Deaf) president of Gallaudet University.

The Deaf President Now protest had a huge impact on sign language. The media paid attention to the protest from start to end, but ASL also gained popularity around this time. It also became popularly accepted as a language credit in high school and college. Many people started to recognize the use of sign language to teach Deaf children instead of forcing oralism as well. This protest spurred social and legislative change for years. (Chapman, 2021d).


The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990. This prohibits discrimination based on disability. (Harvard University, n.d.).

21st Century

In 2012, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act was passed. This mandates that all televised material must be captioned, even its online distribution. (Harvard University, n.d.).

Well, that is our last highlight of Deaf history. More Deaf history information can be found on Gallaudet’s website. They offer so many archives and documents. For some fun facts in honor of Deaf History Month, check out our Facebook page and Instagram profile! To wrap everything up and bring perspective, a reporter from the Deaf President Now Protest said, “If all hearing knew how to sign, Deaf people’s disability wouldn’t exist.” (Chapman, 2021a).


Chapman, B. (2021a, January 12). Impact –. Gallaudet University.

Chapman, B. (2021b, January 12). The Influence Of Alexander Graham Bell –. Gallaudet University.

Chapman, B. (2021c, January 12). Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet –. Gallaudet University.

Chapman, B. (2021d, January 12). What’s In A Name –. Gallaudet University.

Harvard University. (n.d.). Deaf history Timeline. Retrieved from

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