Paper Matters Blog
Celebrating Deaf History Through Paper

How do you record a language that’s wholly physical? By cataloging it through paper. The birth of American Sign Language or ASL began in 1814, when the future father of ASL diagrammed words and images for a young deaf girl using a patch of dirt in her front yard and stick he found nearby. Their lessons transitioned to paper soon after, and the journals, schoolbooks and pages that were born from the first school for the Deaf in the United States have lasted for hundreds of years, giving us an insight into just how the language began and evolved. Now, paper and pen are invaluable tools to the Deaf community, as people who are beginning to learn the language often have to rely on a notepad to communicate their thoughts appropriately. With the commencement of Deaf History Month on March 13, we wanted to take a look how paper has helped us learn how Deaf education came to be and how it continues to help ASL evolve.

Establishing the American School for the Deaf

On December 10, 1787, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was born in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Over the course of his life, he would graduate from Yale University with both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, graduate from the Andover Theological Seminary, earn an honorary law degree from Western Reserve College and father eight children who would go on to accomplish incredible feats of their own, including serving as a personal secretary to President George Washington. Gallaudet achieved many things over the course of his 63 years, but his greatest feat was his establishment of the first permanent educational institution for the deaf in 1817, now known as the American School for the Deaf (ASD).

In 1814, Gallaudet, recently graduated and ordained, met the Cogswell family and their deaf daughter, Alice. After observing her playing apart from the other children, Gallaudet was inspired to teach her and began by using sticks to draw and pair words and images in dirt. While the creation of the ASD would not happen for several more years, the idea that deaf men, women and children could learn through the written form instead of orally would be monumental to the school’s success. When Dr. Mason Cogswell, Alice’s father, witnessed Gallaudet’s efforts with his daughter, he invited the educator on a voyage to Europe to learn the art of educating deaf children. There, Gallaudet discovered the exciting work of l’Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris (school for the deaf in Paris, France) and enlisted Laurent Clerc, a gifted deaf teacher to join him on his journey to establish the first permanent school for the deaf back in the United States. Once home, Gallaudet, Clerc and Dr. Cogswell toured New England, raised the funds and established the school in Hartford.

The Role of Paper in Deaf History

Because the men recorded their efforts on paper, we have access to thousands of their items from throughout their history through the Cogswell Heritage House. Centuries of personal notes, documents and artifacts are still on their original pages, including:

  • The oldest book on sign language in English from 1644
  • Numerous books in multiple languages on deaf education from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries
  • The personal papers of those involved in opening ASD, including Dr. Cogswell, Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, the school’s earliest pupils, notably Alice Cogswell and one of Alice’s early tutors, a woman named Lydia Sigourney who later became a famous American poet
  • Complete collection of the school’s Annual Reports, as well as many from other schools for the deaf.
  • Complete collection of the American Annals of the Deaf, oldest professional journal in the field, begun in 1847 by ASD staff

While there are even more historically significant items than we can include on our list, the importance of the artifacts we didn’t name is not lost upon us. One of our favorite benefits of paper is its longevity and our ability to see the penstrokes and minutiae of establishing and maintaining the American School for the Deaf that we otherwise would have lost. American Sign Language grows and changes everyday, like any language, and seeing its early growth helps us better understand how it evolves now.

Living History: How Paper Plays a Role in ASL

Have you ever tried to learn a language? What were your early days like? Most of us struggle when picking up a new language, but by communicating with our teachers we leap over our stumbling blocks and steadily make progress. We often take our bilingual peers—when you have a question that you can’t express in your new language, the two of you simply revert to whatever you’re both comfortable communicating in and discuss the issue. But what about Deaf persons? As a student of ASL, if you don’t know how to sign your question, how do you communicate when you reach a conversational roadblock? The answer is simple, with a pencil and some paper. The National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) created a study sheet, for those who wish to communicate with the Deaf community respectfully and more effectively as they study ASL. In their list guidelines for communication, the RIT emphasizes that “It’s okay to write to a Deaf person” and that “The Deaf person will appreciate your effort even more if you use a combination of gestures, facial expressions, body language, and written communication.” ASL is a visual language, and this impacts the rules of the language. Writing down what you want to communicate is a vastly more acceptable way to communicate than improvising signs.” Writing down what you wish to say isn’t a faux pas, it’s the right thing to do.

It’s difficult to celebrate Deaf History Month without acknowledging paper’s role in preserving it, or to practice effective communication with Deaf persons and not incorporate paper as a medium. To see artifacts from through Deaf history, visit the Cogswell Heritage House and, for more articles like this, subscribe to Paper Matters Magazine.

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