District of Columbia: Gallaudet University Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Gallaudet is the world’s only university for undergraduates with programs designed exclusively for hard-of-hearing and deaf people. Its national and international students are trained to become fully functional members of their respective societies. The graduate program accepts hard-of-hearing, deaf, and hearing students and conducts research in deafness and educating the deaf.

Site Office

Gallaudet University

800 Florida Avenue NE

Washington, DC 20002-3695

ph.: (202) 651-5000

fax: (202) 651-5467

Web site: www.gallaudet.edu

The partial or complete loss of hearing is a major disadvantage in any human society. The deaf have always devised ways of communicating with others and among themselves by signs. In some countries, even today, the rights of the deaf are limited and they are severely restricted from joining the workforce. The history of Gallaudet University is the history of educating the deaf, and instructing the hearing about the deaf, not only in the United States but globally as well.

Formal training, and therefore education, for the deaf to communicate with others began in Europe. In the seventeenth century, a Spanish monk started training the deaf in sign language that was probably derived from the signs used by monks sworn to silence. His method was popularized by countryman Juan Pablo Bonet (who, however, recommended that the deaf be taught to speak and understand speech rather than to perform sign language). These two mainstreams of deaf communication are still current, although there are a number of variations.

While the oralist tradition was centered in Scotland, the Abbé l’Epée started a sign language school in Paris in 1760. His successor at the school was the Abbé Sicard, who made the Paris Royal Institute for the Deaf the preeminent institution for teaching the deaf in the Western world. A most successful student of this institution was Laurent Clerc. In one of their many lecture tours, the Abbé Sicard and Clerc met Thomas Gallaudet, an American, in London.

Gallaudet and Deaf Education in the United States

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851), after whom Gallaudet University is named, had no direct relationship with the institution, as he died even before its the precursor was established in 1857. However, Gallaudet brought organized education for the deaf to the United States, and his family had a substantial, if not determinant, influence on the formation and development of the university.

Gallaudet was born in Philadelphia, although he moved to Hartford, Connecticut, with his family while quite young and spent most of his life there. A brilliant scholar, Gallaudet graduated, first in his class, from Yale in 1804 at the age of seventeen. He joined Andover Theological Seminary in 1812, graduating in 1814.

His interest in educating the deaf was initiated by an affluent neighbor, Dr. Mason Cogswell. Cogswell had a nine-year-old deaf daughter, Amy, whose education he wanted to entrust to Gallaudet. (A statue of Gallaudet teaching Amy Cogswell, by Daniel Chester French, can be found on the campus of Gallaudet University.) At the time, there were no suitable institutions in the country; in 1815, Cogswell and a number of other interested persons financed a trip to Europe for Gallaudet to study the methods of teaching the deaf. The Braidwood family of Scotland was well known at the time for having developed a method of educating the deaf to speak. Gallaudet first visited them but found that they were unwilling to share their secrets. Disappointed, he looked for other sources. Gallaudet met the Abbé Sicard, director of the Royal Institute for the Deaf in Paris, and his student Laurent Clerc in London. Impressed by their views and results, Gallaudet traveled to Paris to learn their techniques.

Having mastered their techniques, Gallaudet returned to Hartford in 1816 accompanied by Clerc. (Clerc spent the rest of his life in the United States helping Gallaudet and the cause of deaf education. The National Deaf Education Center at Gallaudet University is named for him.) They were able to raise some private and public money and in 1817 established the Connecticut Asylum for the Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons. This, the oldest institution of its kind, still exists as the American Institute for the Deaf in Hartford.

Gallaudet married one of his deaf students, Sophia Fowler. Both of their sons were actively involved in the cause of deaf education. The older son, Thomas Gallaudet, established churches for the deaf. The younger, Edward Miner Gallaudet, would become the first superintendent and his mother the first matron of the precursor institution. The education of the deaf was not the only interest of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. He helped establish public normal schools and was active in much less acceptable activities for the times, such as manual training in schools and the education and liberation of African Americans and women. Gallaudet is depicted on a green twenty-cent postage stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1983 in a series honoring Great Americans.

Origins of the Institution

The Gallaudet University of today started as the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind in 1857. The moving force behind this institution was Amos Kendall (1789-1869), a rich philanthropist with a large estate in northeastern Washington, D.C. Born on a Massachusetts farm, Kendall graduated at the head of his class at Dartmouth in 1811. By 1829, he was a well-known newspaper editor in Georgetown, Kentucky, and he became a powerful political supporter of Andrew Jackson. With Jackson’s election to the presidency, and the subsequent election of Martin Van Buren, Kendall became an important political figure in Washington, D.C. He was a principal member of Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet and held some consequential federal administrative jobs such as auditor of the Treasury and postmaster general. Later, he became very rich as the business manager of Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph. A man of great probity and sincere religiousness–he established the Calvary Baptist Church of Washington–Kendall was appalled by the condition of some deaf, mute, and blind children who had been brought to Washington, D.C., by a man named P. H. Skinner. Kendall adopted them, donated two acres of land from his own estate to house them, and started a school for their education.

Edward Miner Gallaudet, the First President

Thomas Gallaudet had died, so Kendall invited the twenty-year-old Edward Miner Gallaudet to take over the superintendence of the new institution, with his mother as the first matron. Born in 1837, Edward had known the deaf since his birth. In fact, while he was a student at Trinity College, he also taught at the Hartford Institute for the Deaf-Mute. In 1857, Kendall helped persuade Congress to incorporate the new institution. In 1858, there were seventeen students; two years later, the number had increased to thirty as Maryland funded some of its deaf and blind students to be educated there. Under Gallaudet’s leadership, the institution progressed well–by 1864, during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the institution, with Gallaudet as the president and Kendall as the chairman of the board of directors, was authorized to confer college degrees. The first college class had eight students. By 1865, the college was committed to educating only the deaf; the blind students were transferred and the institution changed its name to the more appropriate Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. The college section was now known as the National Deaf-Mute College.

In 1867, E. M. Gallaudet introduced speech training for suitable students; hitherto, only sign language had been taught. Kendall died in 1869, and eighty-one acres of his estate were sold to the college. The main campus and the primary school (moved to a new building in 1885) are named after him; a statue of Edward Miner Gallaudet can be seen on campus. Before his retirement in 1910, Gallaudet introduced many new activities. Women were admitted from 1887 to 1893, and Agatha Tiegel became the first woman to graduate with a bachelor of arts. A normal department was inaugurated in 1891 to educate hearing teachers of the deaf; in 2000, of a faculty of more than two hundred, about 34 percent were deaf or hard of hearing. In 1894, at the request of the alumni, the name of the graduate institution was changed to Gallaudet College.

The Years of Continued Expansion

Under the leadership of its presidents and faculty, Gallaudet College had a consistently progressive and expanding influence in global deaf education. During the first half of the twentieth century, technical courses were introduced so that students could take up manufacturing jobs. Many alumni and students participated in the war effort during World War II.

The curriculum was revised and expanded after the war. In 1954, the corporate name of the entire institution was changed to Gallaudet College, and the college sought and received full accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. Subsequent expansions have included the Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD), which researches and tests new, innovative, and improved courses for deaf and hard-of-hearing high school students (1969); the Center for Continuing Education of Deaf Adults (1970); the International Center on Deafness (1974); the Gallaudet Research Institute (1978); the Laurent Clerc National Information Center on Deafness (1980); and a doctoral degree program in special education administration (1975).

Increased funding from the government and the public have allowed expanded physical facilities, barrier-free access for the physically disabled, and a larger number of national and international students. Gallaudet College had been a leader in deaf education for many years, and the enactment of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) in 1973 increased its activities, which are now facilitated through seven regional information centers.

Gallaudet University

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Education of the Deaf Act (Public Law 99-371) was passed in 1986. Gallaudet College was simultaneously given university status and became a full member of the consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.

In 1988, a new, seventh president for the university had been selected. However, the alumni launched a strong movement called Deaf President Now (DPN). Their demands were met, and the eighth president was Dr. I. King Jordan, a graduate of the class of 1970 and the first deaf president of the institution. Philip Bravin, of the class of 1966, the chair of the board of trustees, is also deaf, and there is an ongoing effort to have 51 percent of the trustees to come from among the deaf or hard of hearing.

In 2000, Gallaudet University had more than two thousand students in more than fifty undergraduate and graduate programs in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Schools of Communication, Education, and Human Services and Management. The courses utilize the worldwide web and computer resources extensively. The University has an active and successful athletic program. It remains a leader in the education of the deaf and hard of hearing, allowing them to “mainstream” into society without losing their special identity nationally and globally. The university is one of the largest employers (and therefore an economic mainstay) of the region.

The extensive and beautifully landscaped physical plant is about two miles from the Capitol. Part of the campus (about seven acres of the original facilities) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2000, the university and the Laurent Clerc Deaf Education Center had 1,232 employees, of whom more than a third were partly or totally deaf. More than 750 were faculty members, and more than a tenth of this number were teachers. The university actively recruits deaf and hard-of-hearing students nationally and internationally. Staff and students regularly put out a number of publications, including the Gallaudet University Link for prospective students and Research at Gallaudet and American Annals of the Deaf, two specialist journals.

Housing for visitors is provided on campus, and there are many hotels and motels nearby. The visitors’ center on campus offers guided tours at 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. There are open house programs for prospective students and deaf awareness sessions that provide basic information about deafness and Gallaudet programs. Special tours of specific facilities can be arranged. Visitors are advised to call the visitors’ center two to three weeks in advance of a visit.

For Further Information
  • Cleve, John Van, ed. Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.
  • Hall, Percival. “Edward Minor Gallaudet.” In Dictionary of American Biography, edited by Allen Johnson, Dumas Malone, and Harris Elwood Starr. Vol 7. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1931.
  • _______. “Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.” in Dictionary of American Biography, edited by Allen Johnson, Dumas Malone, and Harris Elwood Starr. Vol 7. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1931.
  • Lane, Harlan. When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf. New York: Random House, 1984. An excellent and detailed history of deaf education seen through the eyes of Laurent Clerc. Well documented with an extensive bibliography.
Categories: History Content