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Laurent Clerc

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  • Category: Education

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Perhaps one of the most notable and widely known members in Deaf society is Laurent Clerc, who was a teacher for the deaf. Born on December 26, 1785 in La Balme-les-Grottes, in southeastern France to hearing parents, it is unknown for sure whether Clerc was born deaf or was deafened later on in life. It is believed that Clerc became deaf at the age of one when he had fallen from his high chair into a fire, badly burning his cheek. He developed a fever from the burn, and was later found out to have lost his sense of smell and hearing. As far as it is known, Clerc was non-speaking and relied on pen and paper to those who could not communicate using sign language.

For the first eleven years of his life, Clerc was not sent to school. At the age of twelve, he was sent to study at the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Paris, France. Until that time, Clerc had received no formal type of education, nor did he have a form of communication. It was at the Institute that he meant his mentor, fellow deaf person Jean Massieu. The two went on to become lifelong friends. At the school, Clerc excelled in his studies. In 1806, he was appointed to teach for the school and was given command of one of the highest classes.

Clerc, his mentor Massieu, and the director of the school, Abbe Sicard, traveled to England in 1815 to give lectures and demonstrations on their teaching methods for the deaf. It was there that they were introduced to Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who had journeyed from Hartford, Connecticut in the United States. Gallaudet was invited to study their teaching methods at the school in France, and spent three months there learning how to converse in sign language by Clerc. He persuaded Clerc to accompany him back to the United States in order to teach his methods to the deaf of the United States. Clerc agreed to come with Gallaudet in order to help advance the education of deaf people in the United States.

It is important to know that Clerc came to the United States with little to no knowledge of the English language. He brought with him only the knowledge of Old French Sign Language. However, during the 52-day journey he made it a point to master the use of the English language. This knowledge paired with the use of French Sign Language contributed greatly to evolution of American sign language.

Together, Clerc and Gallaudet founded the first deaf school in the United States, what is now known as the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. The school opened on April 15, 1817 with Gallaudet serving as the principal and Clerc as the head teacher. Aside from teaching the students, Clerc was responsible to training the future teachers and administrators of the School. He was sent to other schools throughout the United States to continue to teach his methods to both students and prospective teachers, and his influence on teaching the deaf spread widely throughout the United States.

Though Laurent Clerc had originally planned of staying the United States for only three years and then returning to his native France, Clerc married a former student of his and decided to settle in the states. He did, however, return to his homeland to visit. After 50 years of teaching for the deaf, Clerc retired from teaching in 1858. He died at the age of 84 on July 18, 1869.

The legacy of Laurent Clerc is long withstanding. As the first teacher for deaf individuals, he pioneered a system of teaching the deaf that carries on today. Without him, the American School for the Deaf may not have come to fruition. By offering classes in sign language, Clerc provided a bridge for the success of deaf people today. Aside from his teachings, Clerc was an advocate for the deaf. He supported deaf people having the right to marry and have access to fundamental rights.

Personally, I feel that Laurent Clerc is one of the most important and influential people in deaf ancestry. His work in paving the way for deaf education is the reason that I am able to take this class today. More importantly, his work in pioneering deaf education is the reason that so many deaf individuals have access to higher education. His contribution to the evolution of American Sign Language is a large factor in the identity of Deaf culture and community. After all, the most prominent feature in a culture is the sense of uniformity that comes from a common language.

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