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Through Deaf Eyes - Prominent Figures in Deaf History

Laurent Clerc (1785-1869)

Louis Laurent Marie Clerc was a pivotal figure in the education of the deaf, and has been called “the apostle to the Deaf people of the New World.” Clerc’s influence cannot be overestimated, and reverberates within the Deaf community to this day.

Clerc was born in 1785, in Balme-les-Gottes, in southeastern France. It is unclear whether Clerc was born deaf or became so after a childhood accident. Regardless, he did not attend school in his early years, finally being enrolled at age 12 in the Institut National des Jeune Sourds-Muets in Paris, the first public school for the deaf in the world. Clerc excelled in his studies, mastering the signing methods employed by the institute. In 1806, he became a teacher at the school.

In 1815, Clerc and his teacher were sent to London to lecture on their teaching methods. There Clerc met Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet; the two would form a collaboration that would last decades and have a monumental impct on deaf education. Gallaudet later convinced Clerc to come to America to help establish the first school for the deaf in the U.S., in Hartford, CT, in 1817.

Clerc’s teaching career spanned 50 years, 41 of them in the U.S, during which he inspired innumerable teachers and administrators. The sign language he taught was a melding of French Sign Language and the signs being used in America. This melded system was later adapted and refined by he and his American students to eventually become the American Sign Language we know today.

Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851)

A pioneer in deaf education, Gallaudet was the impetus behind the creation of the first school for the deaf in America – now the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, CT – and was for many years its principal.

Gallaudet was born in Philadelphia in 1787, and attended Yale where earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. A man of immense and varied interests, he considered studying law, engaging in business, or becoming a clergyman, eventually choosing the latter.

Gallaudet found his life’s calling, however, when he met Alice Cogswell, the deaf daughter of one of his congregants. Rev. Gallaudet considered Deaf people outside the reach of the Word of God. Motivated to educate deaf people and funded by Alice’s father, Gallaudet traveled to Europe to learn the deaf education methods employed there. In London he was introduced to the French signing method of manual communication. There he also met one of the method’s premier teachers, Laurent Clerc, with whom he would forge a decades-long educational partnership.

Gallaudet convinced Clerc to return with him to America to found, in 1817, the American School for the Deaf, the first formal school for the deaf in the United States. Gallaudet served as the school principal and Clerc as its head teacher. The success of the school led Gallaudet to lead the movement to establish similar schools throughout the United States, utilizing signing as the means of communication.

Gallaudet’s devotion to bridging the communication gap between the hearing and deaf people was unflagging. One of his sons, Edward Miner Gallaudet, helped to found the first college for deaf students, which would become Gallaudet
University.

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)

To most Americans, Alexander Graham Bell is a true inventor-hero. The telephone is only the most significant in a series of telecommunications and scientific breakthroughs from Bell that continue to impact civilization to this day. However, Bell’s thinking and influence among the Deaf community is not so universally acclaimed.

Bell was an important, if controversial, figure in the field of deaf education. His ancestors had been prominent in the field, and with his mother and wife both deaf, the discipline was of primary interest to Bell throughout his life.

Bell and his father before him studied the physiology of speech. Through articles, papers, speeches and teaching, Bell's support of oral education profoundly changed the way deaf children were taught. Bell was a pragmatist who signed or used other means to communicate with deaf adults. With children he advocated a strictly oral education, without any signing.

Bell studied eugenics, the science of improving a species. When he published "Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race" in 1884, Bell issued a warning that deaf people were forming clubs, socializing with one another, and marrying other deaf people. He concluded that the creation of a "deaf race" was underway. Though other researchers soon countered Bell's empirical evidence, his claims were widely repeated for years to come.

George W. Veditz (1861-1937)

George Veditz was a pivotal fugure in Deaf history. Born in Baltimore, Veditz was deafened by scarlet fever at age eight. He studied at the Maryland School for the Deaf, eventually earning admission to Gallaudet College (where his entrance was delayed due to financial hardship). Veditz graduated from Gallaudet as valedictorian in 1884.

As a teacher at the Colorado School for the Deaf – where he taught for 17 years – Veditz became one of the nation’s most prominent deaf educators. He also founded the Maryland School for the Deaf Alumni Association and the Gallaudet College Alumni Association.

In 1904, Veditz was elected the seventh president of the National Association of the Deaf, serving two terms (1904-1910). Veditz was NAD leader in a turbulent time, when many were challenging the legitimacy of sign language and were advocating for “oralism,” which utilized spoken communication only in deaf education.

The visionary Veditz saw the need to preserve sign language, and spearheaded the “Preservation of Sign Language” project of the NAD. Largely through his efforts, funds were raised to record sign language presentations on film.

William C. Stokoe (1919-2000)

William Stokoe (pronounced STOW-key) was head of the English department and an English professor at Gallaudet University for 15 years (1955-1970). A Chaucer scholar, he had been educated in the languages of Old and Middle English. It was this learning that may have led him to one of the most significant findings in the annals of Deaf education.

Upon coming to Gallaudet in 1955, Stokoe was struck by the richness and depth of the American Sign Language used by his students. Stokoe did a comprehensive study of ASL. The result was, in the words of one colleague, “like cracking the Rosetta Stone” of deaf communication.

Stokoe, along with his colleagues, published his work in Sign Language Structure and A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, the latter having not only a profound impact on the appreciation of ASL but also influencing the core strictures of the study of linguistics itself.

Stokoe also invented a written notation for sign language (now called Stokoe notation), the first of its kind, which drew heavily on the Latin alphabet.

Dr. I. King Jordan (b. 1943)

Educator, administrator and visionary leader of the Deaf community, Dr. I. King Jordan made history in 1988 when he was appointed the first deaf president of Gallaudet University. Jordan was a finalist for the presidency that year, and was ultimately appointed following a week-long student protest over a decision by the school’s Board of Trustees to appoint a hearing president. The “Deaf President Now” movement succeeded in forcing the Board to rescind its decision and to appoint Jordan as head of the university.

Jordan grew up in suburban Philadelphia, joining the Navy following his graduation from high school. A motorcycle accident at the age of 21 was the cause of his deafness.

Jordan earned his B.A. from Gallaudet in psychology in 1970. He earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Tennessee. He joined Gallaudet’s faculty in the department of psychology in 1973, becoming department chair in 1983. Three years later he was appointed dean of the college of arts and sciences. In all of these positions, he made numerous scholarly contributions to his field, and has been a fellow and visiting scholar at instutions all over the world.

Jordan’s tenure as president of Gallaudet was characterized by growth and a heightened awareness of Deaf culture. In 1990, President Bush appointed Jordan as Vice Chair of the Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. President Clinton re-appointed Jordan to the post in 1993. Dr. Jordan holds 11 honorary degrees.

Jordan retired as president of Gallaudet in December 2006.

Marlee Matlin (b. 1965)

Marlee Matlin’s talent and power as an actress have made her one of the most significant – and influential – people in the Deaf community.

Matlin’s Academy Award-winning performance in the 1986 film Children of a Lesser God not only earned her great acclaim, but also did as much as any event in popular culture to raise awareness of Deaf culture and Deaf issues.

Matlin was born in Morton Grove, Illinois. She lost almost all of her hearing at age 18 months due to an illness. She made her stage debut at age 7, as Dorothy in a children’s theater production of The Wizard of Oz.

Matlin’s film debut set a high standard, as her performance in Children of a Lesser God earned both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Actress (at age 20, she was the youngest actress to ever win that honor at the Academy Awards).

Matlin has had successful roles on television since her intial screen triumph. She played the lead female role in the series Reasonable Doubts (1991-93) and was nominated for an Emmy for a guest appearance on Picket Fences. She had recurring roles in The West Wing and Blue’s Clues. Other television appearances include Seinfeld, Desperate Housewives and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit; she was nominated for an Emmy for the latter in 2004. She is currently appearing as a member of the cast of Showtime’s The L Word. Matlin also published her first novel, Deaf Child Crossing, in 2002.

Matlin and her husband, Kevin Grandalski, have four children.

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