It was during the eighteenth century that sign language began to take a recorded shape in history. Beginning in France in the 1700s, Abbé Charles Michel de l'Epee opened the first free school that served as a shelter for the deaf. The school supplied food, housing, and most importantly, education. Abbé de l'Epee studied and mastered the natural French signs of the deaf, called Old French Sign Language (OFSL). However, he believed these French signs were lacking in grammar.
Abbé Charles Michel de l'Epee
Abbé de l'Epee, being creative and with charitable intentions, modified the grammar of these signs. This resulted in a methodical signed version of spoken French called Old Sign French (OSF). What l'Epee perhaps failed to realize was that, in all probability, OFSL had its own grammar, just as ASL has its own grammar. The impact of l'Epee's grammar modifications was later debated with regard to sign language in America.
Later, Abbé de l'Epee trained Abbé Roch Sicard in Old Sign French. Sicard became a teacher of the deaf and a school director. A significant contribution to sign language was made by Abbé Sicard in 1782, with his writing of an elaborate dictionary of signs, Theory of Signs.
During the French Revolution, Abbé Roch Sicard was imprisoned and nearly executed. He spent two years in hiding, and it was during this time he wrote his dictionary of signs.
Thomas Gallaudet, an American Congregational minister, met Abbé Sicard in 1816 while in search of methods to educate deaf children. He also met a deaf man by the name of Laurent Clerc. Clerc was Sicard's protégé and chief assistant and was considered a master teacher. So impressed was Gallaudet with Clerc — who was fluent in OSF, OFSL, and French — that he invited him to America to establish the first school for the deaf.
In 1816, Clerc and Gallaudet set sail on a fifty-five-day voyage to America. During this time, Clerc taught Gallaudet Old Sign French, and Gallaudet tutored Clerc in English. On April 15, 1817, they opened the first school for the deaf. The school was located in Connecticut, and had seven students enrolled. Gallaudet served as principal and Clerc the head teacher.
What is CODA?
CODA is the acronym meaning “Children of Deaf Adults.” Today, CODA is a nonprofit organization for the hearing sons and daughters of deaf parents. The organization began in 1983 and presently includes people from many different countries. Further information on this subject can be found in Chapter 1.
Gallaudet advocated and lectured for the education of the deaf. He married deaf alumna Sophia Fowler and started a large family of CODAs. Gal-laudet retired from the Hartford school in 1830 and devoted his time to his ministries and writings supporting deaf education and sign language. He also devoted time to writing children's books. He died in 1851, at the age of sixty-four, leaving behind a remarkable legacy in deaf education.
Laurent Clerc taught and advocated for the deaf in America for forty-one years. During that time, he trained future hearing and deaf teachers. These future teachers spread out across America, teaching and establishing schools using Clerc's teaching methods.
The first established school for the deaf was called the Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons. Today, this school is known as The American School for the Deaf, with more than 4,000 alumni over its long history.
In 1818, Laurent Clerc successfully went before the U.S. Congress to gain support for deaf education. He was the first deaf person to address Congress. Thirty residential schools were established during Clerc's lifetime, a credit to his great influence on deaf education of that period. Clerc's Old Sign French blended with the modified and indigenous signs of the students. Today, it is believed that this melding eventually evolved into what is now known as American Sign Language.