Deaf in America

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DEAF IN AMERICA. An estimated 28.8 million people comprise the American deaf community. Deaf culture has traditionally centered around residential schools for the deaf, where language, primarily American Sign Language (ASL), conveys culture. Values and self-identity are passed from peer to peer, rather than through families. The history of the deaf community stems largely from the educational experiences of generations of deaf Americans.

In early eighteenth-century America, deaf education consisted of private tutoring or schooling in Europe. European schools used either the oral method, utilizing speech, lip-reading, and written language to stimulate learning, or the manual method, which relied on signs and writing. In 1815, educator and reformer Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet visited the Royal Institute for the Deaf in Paris where he met a deaf teacher, Laurent Clerc. Returning to the United States in 1817, they founded the American Asylum for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. This school communicated in a mixture of French Sign Language and indigenous signs, which the deaf gradually synthesized to form ASL.

As a result of early nineteenth-century educational reforms and growth, many states established their own schools, most utilizing ASL. While many educators and deaf citizens supported manualism, others, including Samuel Gridley Howe and Horace Mann, advocated oralism. Few early schools incorporated articulation and speech training into their curricula, but by the late nineteenth century, numerous schools were promoting oralism, including the prominent Clarke School in Northampton, Massachusetts.

While the average American achieved, at best, an elementary-level education, many deaf students graduated from their institutions ready to enter numerous trades, with some achieving white-collar status. Yet they continued to socialize largely with their fellow deaf, and lived near a sizeable deaf population or near the schools. Journalists Edmund Booth and Laura Redden Searing and architect Olof Hansen were part of a burgeoning deaf middle class in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In 1857 Gallaudet's son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, became superintendent of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Washington, D.C. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln chartered that institution as the National Deaf-Mute College, later renamed Gallaudet University. At the close of the Civil War, most states operated at least one school for the deaf, and a college existed in Washington, D.C. But the educational conflict between proponents of oralism and manualism heightened after 1865. Social Darwinism, cultural imperialism, and the rise of scientific "answers," including eugenics, led to the gradual displacement of ASL by oralism. Edward Miner Gallaudet and Alexander Graham Bell, respectively, personified the debate between manualism and oralism. In 1880 an international congress on deaf education in Milan, Italy, endorsed oralism. The conference influenced American educators, and by the early 1900s, most state schools had opted for voiced speech in education and communication.

Deaf Americans experienced a nadir during the first half of the twentieth century, as did blacks and other minorities. Undereducated and underemployed, many deaf people existed on the fringes of society. The reemergence of the deaf community and ASL began during World War II, when many companies hired deaf employees in the absence of hearing males. In the 1960s, civil rights and other social movements sparked changes within the deaf community.

In the early 1970s, ASL and signed systems reemerged in deaf education. In succeeding decades, schools and colleges began to offer classes in ASL and deaf culture. Theater, television, and movies increasingly showcased the deaf community and ASL. A burgeoning civil rights movement among the deaf and other disabled groups instigated changes in education and employment, most notably with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Protests included the successful Deaf President Now! movement at Gallaudet University in 1988.

New laws, cultural consciousness, and technological advances continue to reshape both deafness and the deaf. Where once most deaf people hid their language and culture and worked in marginal jobs, ASL at the end of the twentieth century was taught nationwide. A deaf middle class continues to make strides and awareness of deafness and other disabilities contributes to a multicultural society.


Benderly, Beryl Lieff. Dancing without Music: Deafness in America. New York: Anchor Press, 1980.

Buchanan, Robert. Illusions of Equality: Deaf Americans in School and Factory, 1850–1950. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1999.

Van Cleve, John Vickrey, and Barry A. Crouch. A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1989.

David S.Evans

See alsoAmericans with Disabilities Act ; Gallaudet University ; Sign Language, American .