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'Those who remembered the forgotten': Hartford's early role in special education

Commemorative plaque located at the corner of Main St. and Gold St.
Patrick J. Mahoney

According to the official website of the National Association of the Deaf, the period of March 13-April 15, which was first recognized by the American Library Association in 2006 as National Deaf History Month, is a time to reflect and celebrate the achievements of those who have ‘advanced the civil, human, and linguistic rights throughout our country’s history’. The specificity of the date range aims to encompass the anniversaries of what the National Association of the Deaf refer to as the pivotal moments in American history for the advancement of the deaf community.

Hartford’s part in the education of the deaf

To find the root of these crucial moments of history that helped bring about equality for the deaf community in the United States, one needn’t look any further than the capital city of the Nutmeg state. On the corner of Main and Gold St., an unassuming bronze plaque lying in the foreground of the Bushnell Towers plaza marks the former location of the first school for deaf students in the country. Known as the 'Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb Persons', the school opened its doors to three students in the Old City Hotel on April 15, 1817.

Interest in a school for the deaf

In 1807, a number of prominent Hartford men, led by Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell whose infant daughter had become deaf following an illness, began considering the availability of education for deaf residents in the state. In their findings, they concluded that of the 84 individuals across Connecticut who had significant hearing impairments, none had been given access to any form of education. After researching the issue further, the men concluded that a school should be established to meet the educational needs of the nearly 2,000 individuals across the U.S. at that time who were considered to be significantly hearing impaired. Fundraising efforts were immediately put into place, and the position of director of the proposed school was offered to Yale graduate Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who upon acceptance was sent to Europe to learn the most innovative methods of the time for teaching the deaf.

Gallaudet in Europe

After an unsuccessful visit to England’s Braidwood School, Gallaudet left for Paris’s French school for the deaf, at the invitation of the school’s head master, the renowned Abbé Sicard. In addition to the months of valuable training and insight gained by Gallaudet at the institution, one of their finest young educators, Laurent Clerc, would journey back to the United States with him. Together the two traveled around New England spreading awareness for their cause. In what was the first example of state aid to special education in the history of the U.S., the Connecticut General Assembly allocated $5,000 to help defray initial costs.


From its founding in 1817, the school met with great success, drawing a diverse student populace from around the country. After three years, school officials recognized the need to expand their facilities in order to meet the growing student population. In a historic act, Congress granted the school public lands in the area now known as ‘Asylum Hill’ in Hartford. This is recognized as the first instance of federal support for special education in the United States. In 1921, the school, now known as the American School for the Deaf, moved to its present location at 139 North Main Street in West Hartford. Every year, the school reflects upon its rich history, particularly the efforts put forth by Cogswell, Gallaudet, and Clerc on their Founders Day of April 15.

Gallaudet University

Gallaudet's educational legacy would be commemorated by another institution, Gallaudet University, recognized as the only higher education institution in the world dedicated solely to the education of deaf and hard of hearing students. The original name of the institution, the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind, was changed to Gallaudet University in honor of his contributions to deaf education in America. Additionally, his son, Edward Miner Galladet, a Hartford High School and Trinity College graduate, acted as university president for 46 years.

Presidential support for deaf education

On April 8, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional bill allowing the the institution to confer college degrees. According to the University website, this historic act by Lincoln began a practice whereby each subsequent U.S. President has been considered to be the Patron of the University. Beginning with President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869, every diploma issued by the University has been signed by the presiding U.S. president, in recognition of both Lincoln’s historic act, and their continued patronage. This year, the University celebrates its 150th anniversary.

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