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Deaf History and The Future for Gallaudet

On April 8, we celebrated the 154th year of the signing of Gallaudet University’s charter by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. We celebrated this moment because the founding of Gallaudet University through this charter was truly a seminal moment in our world’s history. This new idea, radically innovative for its time, would provide deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind people “a fair chance in the race of life,” as Lincoln would say.

As Gallaudet’s president, I believe it is important to honor and reflect upon just how far we have come in that race.

The inkling of this dream for higher education opportunities started as early as 1851. Hearing-ally teachers and administrators like W. W. Turner and Dr. Harvey P. Peet, and deaf leaders like John Carlin, began to develop a vision for students moving from elementary and secondary education to higher education based on the rapid success experienced from educating deaf children through sign language and English beginning in 1817. This year’s celebration concurs with our year-long celebration of 200 years of deaf education in the United States, which began with the opening of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, by Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Dr. Mason Cogswell, and Laurent Clerc on April 15, 1817.

For deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind people, hereinafter referred to as deaf people, the granting of this charter opened a new future of educational, employment, and business opportunities by teaching visually, relying on sign language as the key language of instruction and using English primarily through reading and writing.

For many years this method of instruction was referred to as “manual language instruction.” With the recognition of American Sign Language as a language in 1960, it’s now referred to as bilingual visual education.

In a short span of 154 years, granting access to collegiate-level bilingual visual learning at Gallaudet has contributed to producing unprecedented economic opportunity and wealth creation for the deaf people here and around the world. Our alumni are among some of our country’s and world’s distinguished leaders, innovators, and change-makers. Gallaudet’s unique niche, which is grounded in the experience of deaf people and the use of sign language, has built Gallaudet’s reputation as one of the leading and most innovative universities in the world because of our unique contributions.

In the past half-century, our innovations and discoveries have made significant contributions to our nation and our world. Like the founding of our University, our experience and discoveries are a result of the actions of a rich community of people with multiple and varied identities, all of whom have a shared commitment and belief in sign language and its power of learning, research and discovery, and who value and seek to incorporate the experience and culture of deaf people.

Given this rich history, the question about the context of Lincoln signing this charter becomes more poignant. Why was he willing to sign this unique charter in the midst of a raging Civil War?

Historians have indicated that there is no written record of his reasons. But throughout his life, Lincoln had numerous experiences that perhaps influenced his decision. In his public life, he took positions that clearly conveyed his affinity with and belief in the potential of deaf people. It is known, for instance, that he supported access for deaf people to elementary and secondary education. In 1839, while Lincoln was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, Senator Orville Browning shared his experience of meeting a deaf man on a steamboat ride on the Mississippi River. He was so impressed by how well educated the man was that he brought a bill to establish the Illinois Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. Lincoln supported this bill. Less than 10 days after the bill’s passage, it was signed by the governor.

As president, Lincoln met prominent deaf people, including Fielding Bradford Meek, a respected expert in fossils who was deaf and who resided at the Smithsonian Institution. Lincoln also encountered thousands of soldiers who became deaf in the Civil War. Deaf and hard of hearing people were also among the cadres of advocates he met who urged him to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.

More personally, he and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, were friends with a prominent war correspondent, Laura Redden Searing, who was better known by her pen name, Howard Glyndon. We know that they communicated with her through writing when visiting together. Recently, validating the relationship between the Lincolns and Searing, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (Springfield, Illinois) learned that Redden’s family has a book with a personal inscription from Lincoln.

Prior to 1864, Searing had inter-viewed Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, General James A. Garfield, and other prominent persons. These inter-views were featured in her first book, Notable Men in the House of Representatives, published in 1862. She was also one of a few women given the honor of accompanying General Grant to the front lines of the Union Army. Lincoln reviewed and read her book, Idyls of Battle and Poems of the Rebellion, before its release in 1864. In her book, she acknowledges Lincoln as one of “the gentlemen…I owe most cordial and grateful acknowledgments for friendly encouragement and active cooperation with me in the work…”

As president, Lincoln met Dr. Edward Miner Gallaudet several times. As Dr. Gallaudet reported to the Chicago Alumni Association of Gallaudet College regarding the context for Lincoln signing the charter, he said:

“I am sorry I can give you no reminiscences of Mr. Lincoln, except that he signed the Bill. He was too busy saving the Union to take note of the humble beginnings of our work here and I had not the “cheek” to ask for his attention. I met him, however, a number of times and he was always kind and cordial.”

The act of Congress passing this charter, and Lincoln’s decision to sign it, marked the first time in world history that a government-sanctioned the right of an educational institution to provide access to a collegiate education for deaf people through the use of sign language and written language. Sadly, this seminal event in ensuring access to higher education for deaf people in both American Sign Language and English continues to be largely overlooked in historical texts and biographies of Lincoln and our nation’s civil rights movements.

For deaf people, the granting of this charter opened a future of educational, employment, business and wealth creation opportunities by guaranteeing true access to higher education for generations to come here in the US and around the world.

Gallaudet University is one of the crown jewels of this nation. I write this with the hope that historians will mark the signing of this charter as one of Lincoln’s most unique and significant contributions to America and the world. It is time that this moment in American history takes its place among Lincoln’s significant accomplishments and among our nation’s significant civil rights achievements.

Since Lincoln’s Charter signing, contributions from Gallaudet and its alumni include:

Discovering of American Sign Language

Fifty-eight years ago, it was here at Gallaudet that American Sign Language (ASL) was validated as a language. In this remarkably short time since 1960, researchers here at Gallaudet and at other universities have recognized approximately 121 other sign languages throughout the world. It is estimated that there are more than 200 signed languages yet to be recorded and studied.

Affirming that the Deaf community has culture

Gallaudet was part of the building of our community of knowledge that framed and identified our signing community as a culture. We are a key producer of ASL teachers and have the country’s first Ph.D. program in Interpretation. ASL (and Deaf Culture) are now among the most popular languages taught in higher education in this country.

Declaring our political and civil rights

The student Deaf President Now protest that occurred in March 1988 was a critical juncture in our political history. This seminal event was one of the most public and effective declarations of the political and civil rights of deaf people in this country. Consequently, it transformed the landscape of opportunity and leadership of deaf people and people with disabilities throughout the world as well as Gallaudet University itself. It also strengthened the political will to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act two years later.

Discovering and altering our understanding of how the brain acquires language

Our Brain Learning and Language Laboratory (BL2) and our Visual Language and Learning Laboratory (VL2) have made new discoveries that advance our understanding of language acquisition, most notably that sign language and spoken/aural languages are processed in the same language center of the brain. This research has proven that deaf babies’ brains are biologically equivalent to all babies’ brains when they receive language inputs immediately. This National Science Foundation-funded research at Gallaudet University has led to a pioneering model for creating Educational Neuroscience Ph.D. researchers. Last year we had the first deaf graduate complete the program. Currently, five deaf Ph.D. candidates are working to complete their degrees. Other universities are modeling their cognitive educational neuroscience programs after Gallaudet’s.D

Patenting real-time texting technologyA Gallaudet research team created and patented technology to create real-time access to texting for smartphones. Following this, the University led an effort to have the Federal Communications Commission pass regulations to ensure access to this technology on all smartphones by 2019.

Developing captioning and advocating for expanding access to media through captioning

Gallaudet and its alumni were instrumental in creating access to movies and television. It began with captioning movies that were released in theaters and distributing them to deaf communities throughout our country, and evolved to passing policies and expanding access to movies and television nearly everywhere in this country.


Photos courtesy of Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives.

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