For "Children Who Vary..."

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Notions of Educability: The Deaf and the Blind

In 1817 the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opened its doors in Hartford. The asylum was the first of a multitude of institutions opened during the 1800s in the United States that aimed to provide residence, treatment, and education to individuals with formally identified disabilities. Arising out of a complex mixture of reform movements in medicine, education, and humanitarianism, these institutions offered space and resources for individuals-mostly children and adolescents-whose families could not or would not keep them at home or who were deemed incapable of participating in or contributing to mainstream society. Such institutions hosted teachers, doctors, and intellectuals who believed strongly in the educability of the disabled; they supplied opportunities for research, observation, and experimentation that helped develop understanding of disability and constructions of educability for these particular populations. The work done within these institutions would later find its expression and modification in the education offered to children with disabilities in the public schools by the early twentieth century.

That the Connecticut Asylum initiated institution-based special education in the United States is no surprise. Education of the deaf had been discussed and carried out for generations in Europe, so the evidence that deaf students could benefit from carefully planned instruction-that they were, in fact, educable-had existed for generations as well. Since the seventeenth century the belief that deaf people could reason and learn even though they lacked speech had been posited and accepted by many. The work of Melchor de Yebra and Juan Pablo Bonet in Spain, Anthony Deusing in Holland, and Abb Charles Michel de l'Epee in France, to name only a few, had proposed methods of instruction and advanced the ideas of signing and of liberal education for the deaf. When Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet decided to establish a school for the deaf in the United States, he traveled to Europe to observe the teaching methods being used in schools for deaf children there. In France he enlisted the services of Laurent Clerc, a deaf individual who taught at the Royal Institute for the Deaf in Paris. Together with Gallaudet and Mason Fitch Cogswell, Clerc helped found the Connecticut Asylum using five thousand dollars in funds from the state of Connecticut.

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