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The History of American Sign Language

Instructor: Monica Gragg

Monica has taught college-level courses in Tourism, HR and Adult Education. She has a Master's in Education and is three years into a PhD.

This lesson details the history of American Sign Language. We look at why and how it was formed, why it was partially banned for 90 years, and what it looks like today.

It's amazing what inspires people. Today, there are over 100 deaf schools in the U.S. thanks to the passion of a little girl's neighbor. Back in 1814, the United States of America was just 38 years old. There were no states, just thirteen colonies. A man by the name of Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was intrigued by his neighbor's daughter who was deaf. He tried to teach her how to read and write but was not making any progress. So, he raised funds, travelled to Paris, France (at that time, it took around eight weeks to sail between America and Europe) to learn from Educator Abbe Sicard and his deaf students, Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc.

The 1800s - The Evolution of ASL

Dr. Gallaudet eventually returned to the U.S. with a new language, American Sign Language (ASL). We'll talk more about this later on, but sign language is incorrectly described as a universal language. That's right, there is American Sign Language, British Sign Language, and so on. Dr. Gallaudet also brought back Laurent Clerc, and, in 1817, they opened the first school for deaf children, the American School for the Deaf . Clerc and Gallaudet's son, Edward Gallaudet, continued to expand deaf education well after Gallaudet retired and after he died. Nearly fifty-years later, there were 22 schools and the first deaf college, the National Deaf-Mute College in Washington D.C. Later, they would change the name to Gallaudet University.

The 1800s - The Setback of ASL

Do you remember learning about Alexander Graham Bell when you were a kid? Well before he invented the telephone, Bell, a teacher and scientist, moved to Boston, MA to teach Deaf students in 1871. That same year he invented the Visible Speech teaching method because he believed the Deaf should speak and not sign. Where did his interest in the Deaf come from? Well, his mother was Deaf and he fell in love and married a Deaf student, Mabel Hubbard in 1877. A year before that, he invented the telephone. Coincidence?

Bell was such a strong believer in speech and lip reading that at a Deaf Education conference in Italy, he convinced Deaf school leaders to ban sign language in 1880. At first, educators in Italy banned sign language and later, some schools in America banned it. Deaf people, on the other hand, did not agree. So they started the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) to fight the ban. This fight would last for 90 years. NAD is still an active civil rights organization today. You can follow one of their awareness programs #NADHandwave that recognizes game changers in Deaf education and development.

90 years of Oral Education and the Hidden ASL

ASL was steadily banned from schools, and oral education became the new norm. However, many schools taught ASL secretly to their students.

1960s - 1990s - The Restoration of ASL

In the 1960s, Deaf educator, William Stokoe tried to debunk the belief that ASL was bad English or not a real language. He started out by transcribing movies of Deaf people signing to prove that the Deaf had rules of grammar and word creation. Stokoe believed that ASL could be recognized as an official language through scholarly research. So he established a Linguistic Research Laboratory at Gallaudet University that published several books and articles on the linguistic nature of ASL, and he eventually published an ASL dictionary.

During Stokoe's development, innovation in oral education thrived. Teletypewriters (telephone for the Deaf) were invented, close captioning was now on national television, and the biggest invention, in 1984, was cochlear implants. So now it's the 1980s and 1990s, and together oral education and ASL were transforming Deaf culture through awareness and development. For example, actress Marlee Matlin became the first Deaf woman to win an Academy Award. In 1994, Heather Whitestone became the first Deaf woman crowned as Miss America.

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