Exercises of the Pupils of the NY Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb
Caption: Samuel Akerly describes methods of teaching Deaf people, including the progression of communicating more complex ideas and words through sign language. A chart of illustrations demonstrates how to make letters of the alphabet through signs.Read plain text of document
Sign language is believed to have been in use by different peoples, including Native Americans, for many centuries.1 Systems for signing the alphabet were used by monks in the Middle Ages2, and formal Deaf education started in Europe as early as the 16th century, when the first hearing aids were invented.3 The first private school for the Deaf was founded by a British man, Thomas Braidwood, in the late 1700s. Braidwood is believed to have used a combination of sign language and oral techniques like lip reading and training in “articulation”—working on making speech sounds, even if they are difficult or impossible for a deaf person to hear.4 An early American educator of the deaf, Thomas Gallaudet, wanted to learn these teaching methods to bring them back to the US, but Braidwood was secretive about his techniques.5 Gallaudet learned “manualism” from French educators and became an advocate for educating Deaf people only in sign language. Because there are many causes and varying degrees of deafness or hearing loss, different students needed different educational methods.
Braidwood’s grandson, John, came to the US in 1812 to open a school for the deaf. Although he was not successful, some of the methods were observed by Dr. Samuel Akerly, who later helped to found the New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb. It was the second school for the deaf in the United States, located in Manhattan. As a physician, Akerly was interested in the causes and prevention of deafness, and also sought to correct common misconceptions about deafness:
“In ordinary language, these persons are denominated Deaf and Dumb, and the common acceptation of the meaning of Dumbness, is, that a person so afflicted is Dumb, like the beasts of the field. But the exercises of this evening, it is believed, will convince every beholder to the contrary.
The French express their condition with more propriety by calling them Deaf Mutes, they are Mute because they are Deaf.”6
While the school employed both manual and oral methods for most of the 19th century, cultural attitudes towards deaf people began to shift. Some people saw sign language as isolating deaf people from their hearing communities as they formed clubs and similar social organizations where deaf people gathered together. Alexander Graham Bell and others led a national push towards purely oral teaching methods starting in the 1860s. Bell wanted to assimilate Deaf people into hearing culture. He feared that if Deaf people were to have children, have separate schools, and possess their own language, that a Deaf race would emerge as a result.7
In 1867, the Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf-Mutes (now the Lexington School for the Deaf) opened and taught only with oral methods, and other schools as well taught only lip reading and articulation rather than sign language.8
American sign language was kept alive through Deaf social clubs, but it did not start to become part of a formal deaf education again until the late 1960s. Educators of the Deaf were still opposed to teaching sign language until the 1980s.9 At PS47, a public school for the Deaf, sign language was finally reintroduced in 1998 after growing advocacy by Deaf students, including a push for a Deaf CEO in 1994.10
Susan Wurtzburg and Lyle Campbell, “North American Indian Sign Language: Evidence of Its Existence before European Contact,” International Journal of American Linguistics 61, no. 2 (1995): 153–67. ↩︎
Carol A. Padden and Darline Clark Gunsauls, “How the Alphabet Came to Be Used in a Sign Language,” Sign Language Studies (2003): 10–33. ↩︎
Mara Mills, 2009. “When Mobile Communication Technologies Were New.” Endeavour 33 (4): 141–47. ↩︎
Gallaudet University. “Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet Meets Alice Cogswell - History.” https://gallaudet.edu/museum/history/thomas-hopkins-gallaudet-meets-alice-cogswell/. Accessed July 25, 2023. ↩︎
Jan Branson and Don Miller. Damned for Their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as" Disabled": A Sociological History. (Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2002), 121. ↩︎
Samuel Akerly. Address Delivered at Washington Hall: In the City of New-York, on the 30th May, 1826, as Introductory to the Exercises of the Pupils of the New-York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, with an Account of the Exercises, and Notes and Documents, in Relation to the Subject. E. Conrad, 1826. ↩︎
Baynton, Douglas C. Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). ↩︎
Currier, Enoch Henry, The History of Articulation Teaching: In the New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, the First Oral School Established in America, 1894. ↩︎
Gallaudet University. “American Sign Language, a Language Recognized - Awareness, Access and Change.” https://gallaudet.edu/museum/exhibits/history-through-deaf-eyes/awareness-access-and-change/american-sign-language-a-language-recognized/. Accessed July 27, 2023. ↩︎
Felicia R. Lee, “New York to Teach Deaf in Sign Language, Then English.” The New York Times, March 5, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/05/nyregion/new-york-to-teach-deaf-in-sign-language-then-english.html. ↩︎
Date: May 30, 1826
Creator: National Library of Medicine
Source: National Library of Medicine
Copyright: Public Domain
How to cite: “Exercises of the Pupils of the NY Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb” in New York City Civil Rights History Project, Accessed: [Month Day, Year], https://nyccivilrightshistory.org/gallery/ny-institute-for-deaf.
- What were the common misconceptions about deafness in the 19th century?
- Why did hearing people object to deaf people using sign language?
- What are your preferred ways of communicating? Do you feel free to use them, or do you face restrictions in how you would like to communicate?
- Who should decide how people communicate with each other?