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Deaf People: Laurent Clerc


Chris Blackwood
Monday, April 7, 2008


Laurent Clerc

Laurent Clerc was called "Apostle to the Deaf People of the New World" by generations of Americans. He co-founded the first school for the deaf in North America on April 15, 1817, with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. The Hartford Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb was located in the old Bennet's City Hotel in Hartford, Connecticut. The school was re-named The American School for the Deaf and in 1821, was moved to its present site. The school is the oldest existing school for the deaf in North America.

Clerc was born December 26, 1785 in La Balme-les-Grottes, département of Isère, France, a village on the northeastern edge of Lyon. His father was Joseph-François Clerc, the mayor of their small village, and Marie-Élisabeth Candy was his mother. Laurent Clerc's household was one of affluence. When he was about a year old, Clerc, fell from a chair into their fireplace, suffering a blow to the head and sustaining a permanent scar on the right side of his face just below his ear. Clerc's parents believed his deafness was caused by this accident. Clerc would later write that he was not certain and that he may have been born deaf. According to author Loida Canlas, "His name-sign derives from the scar that remained - the middle and index fingers brushed downward across the right cheek near the mouth" (Canlas). Laurent Clerc's name sign would become the best known and most recognizable name sign in American deaf history.

In 1797, at the age of twelve, Clerc was taken to the National Institution for the Deaf in Paris. Author Stanley L. Klos writes, "… under the direction of the Abbe Sicard who had succeeded it's founder, the Abbe de l'Epee … Clerc attained rapid proficiency, in 1805 was appointed tutor, and in 1806 a teacher (Klos). At the age of 30, Clerc would come to know Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. The two men met while Clerc was visiting England. He convinced Gallaudet to come back to Paris to examine other methods of deaf education. While Gallaudet was in Paris he persuaded Clerc to travel across the ocean to America with the concept of starting an educational facility for the deaf in the New World.

Clerc and Gallaudet set sail for America on June 18, 1816. The entire trip across the Atlantic Ocean lasted more than fifty days. The two men did not waste their time while aboard the ship. Clerc studied English, while Gallaudet studied sign language. They conferred with each other about the school for the deaf which they planned to begin. Once in Connecticut the real work began. Author Vivion Smith writes, "At the school, Clerc led a busy life. He taught signs to Principal Gallaudet; he taught the pupils; and he taught hearing men who came to the school to study deaf education" (Smith). While being a teacher at the American School for the Deaf, Clerc met and married Eliza Crocker Boardman, who was a pupil of his. Together they had six children.

Clerc was the most influential figure in deaf education in the world. According to his obituary in The New York Times, "Laurent Clerc, for more than fifty years prominently identified with the cause of deaf-mute instruction, died at his residence in Hartford, … aged 83 years …" (New York Times). The school survives to this day and it carries on the legacy of deaf education in America that was begun by Laurent Clerc.


Canlas, Loida. Who was Laurent Clerc. The Gallaudet University Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. March 26, 2008.

Klos, Stanley L. Laurent Clerc. Virtualology: A Virtual Education Project. March 26, 2008.

Smith, Vivion. Reading Exercise: Laurent Clerc. Gallaudet University March 26, 2008.

The New York Times. Obituary: Laurent Clerc, the Instructor of Deaf Mutes. July 19, 1869.


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