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American Sign Language: Deaf History

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American Sign Language History

By Nicole Dominguez
April 6, 2009


Ever since I was a young child I have been fascinated with sign language. I had an uncle that is hard of hearing who then married a deaf woman. I loved to watch them when I got to see them I always thought it was an amazing way to communicate. I unfortunately never got the chance to learn the language until now in college. I have always had a small interest in where languages come from, and now with this new language in my life, I have a similar interest in wanting to know where ASL came from.

In doing some research on the topic I have found out that in the 5th century Greek philosopher Socrates believed that it was perfectly logical that the deaf would use hand and head movements and facial expressions to get their point across, especially since they had no other way of communicating. Unfortunately in the 4th century Aristotle came to believe that the deaf were dumb because they could not hear or speak, sadly this assumption lasted for many centuries. (

In the year of 1690 200 immigrants settled in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts from Kent County, England. In the Mid 1700's the birthrate for deaf children was 1 in 25. Almost all of the inhabitants signed and the public meeting were conducted in sign language. ( After some time the deaf began to be accepted as normal people. They created special deaf only schools for them, so that they would be able to excel in life like a normal person. The deaf were not given the chance to excel prior to this; they couldn't function normally as long as nobody would accept them. In 1817 the first deaf school was developed. It was called the American School for the Deaf. The development of this school helped influence French sign language to evolve into American Sign Language.

Some deaf have learned that they can read peoples lips and figure out what they are saying. The down side to this is that if you have to read lips you still need a way to communicate with the person whose lips you are reading. You cannot always have an interpreter with you. In 1778 Samuel Leipzig established the fist public school for the deaf that achieved government recognition. Samuel was interested in teaching manual and oral communications. (

American Sign Language has defiantly evolved over time just like English has. People often get into arguments about how they sign different signs all because over time the sign has evolved into something easier. Just as hearing come up with slang words, the deaf have "slang" signs. If you ever have time just watch deaf people communicate, its an amazing and beautiful language and maybe you will want to learn, and somehow find a small interest as I have. I hope I never have to go though the trauma of losing my hearing but if something happened and I did at least I know that centuries ago someone had the same problem and came up with a solution.

American Sign Language
By Lindsey Allen

Throughout the centuries, many attempts have been made to bridge the gap between the hearing world and the deaf world. There have been many contributions from various people who aided in the development communication between deaf people and hearing people. This method of communication that evolved over time is known as Sign language.

Sign language makes it possible for deaf and hearing people to communicate their feelings, thoughts, intensions, and so forth. Sign language can be used to discuss all types of matters including family, friends, politics, work, or anything that could be communicated through spoken word. This visual language composed of a series of hand gestures, and specific
movements of the arms, face, head, and body posture is known as Sign language. More than 50% of the language is not words, but gestures and movements.

There are many forms of Sign language that have been developed by many people in different areas. One of the most common forms of this primary means of communication for deaf people in America and Canada is known as American Sign Language. It is not clear exactly when American Sign Language (ASL) began developing. It is sure that deaf people had a natural way of
communicating with each other even before ASL developed.

One example is the unique community with a high ratio of deaf to hearing individuals. This community, Martha's Vineyard, was located just off the southeastern shore of Massachusetts. Martha's Vineyard had a high rate of the genetic deafness. In the 19th century America had a population of 1 out
of 5700 individuals that were deaf, in Martha's Vineyard the population was 1 out of 155. In a certain town in Martha's Vineyard the population exceeded that with a ratio of 1:4!

In 1692, a deaf man moved with his family to Martha's Vineyard. He was already fluent in some form of Sign language. The language began spreading throughout the island as the community of deaf people began to grow. Much of the island was bilingual in Sign language and English, which caused deafness to no longer be viewed as a handicap. Although this island is an excellent
example of the way deaf people can communicate in a community, it played a minor role in the development of American Sign Language.

One of the men primarily responsible for the development of education for the deaf was Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Gallaudet first showed interest in deaf people when his neighbor, Dr. Mason Cogswell, whose daughter, Alice, was deaf, approached him. Gallaudet was so impressed by this 12-year-old girl that he traveled to Europe to study methods to teach the deaf. While in
Europe he met a man who was also studying a method for deaf education. Gallaudet went with Sicard to Paris to continue his study. After studying in Paris for a few months, Gallaudet returned to America with a teacher by the name of Lauret Clerc. In 1817 Gallaudet and Clerc started the first school for the deaf in the United States, the American Asylum for the Deaf. After
this school many other schools in the U.S. began opening. In 1864, the Gallaudet College, the first and only college for deaf students was opened in Washington, D.C.

In the mid 1700's two men contributed to American Sign Language. In 1775, Abbe Charles Michel de L'Epee taught that deaf people could communicate through the conventional gestures, hand signs, and finger-spelling. Another educator, Samuel Heinicke did not use the manual method, but taught speech and speech reading. These two methods contributed to the method of total communication that we use today. Total communication uses every way of communication such as sign language, gesturing, speech, speech reading, finger-spelling, pictures, hearing aids, reading, and writing.

Current statistics in the USA show that more than 24 million people have a significant loss of hearing. The incidence of hearing loss increases with age. Approximately 60% of hearing impaired people is over 65 years old, leaving only 2 million of the hearing impaired under the age of 18. However, 60% of hearing loss is genetic.

Over time the development of American Sign Language has evolved. Today we have the most complete and comprehensive ways of communication between deaf and hearing individuals known as American Sign Language. We are fortunate to
have so many resources available for education of American Sign Language. We owe it all to the contributions made by the individuals named in this brief history as well as many others that have sacrificed their time and efforts to develop this system of communication.


Butterworth, R & Flodin, M (1995). "The Perigee Visual Dictionary of Signing" Revised Edition. New York, N.Y: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1955

Wilcox, S & Wilcox, P (1997). "Learning to See: American Sign Language as a Second Language" Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press

Nakamura, Karen. (July 13, 1995) About American Sign Language, Deaf Resource Library, Deaf Library. Retrieved May 10, 2005: <>



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