Deaf America: A Portrait of the Deaf Community, 1917
The impetus for Gaillard’s visit began not in France but the United States. In the fall of 1916, Jay Cook Howard, the eighth president of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), eagerly invited representatives of the “deaf of France” to journey to Hartford, Connecticut, the following summer to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the American School for the Deaf (ASD), the first permanent school for deaf students in the United States.
French and American deaf citizens, Howard understood, shared a common history. In the United States, ASD’s centennial symbolized a century of educational and cultural progress for deaf citizens. In France, deaf citizens took special pride in the advanced status and education of American deaf adults. One century before, France’s brilliant deaf teacher Laurent Clerc, gave up a teaching career in Paris and sailed to the United States, where he assisted the Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, an eager but inexperienced evangelical, in founding ASD. Over the next forty years, they worked with unparalleled success to establish and expand the impact of the venerable institution. In their efforts, these men advanced forever the standing of America’s deaf citizens.
France’s Henri Gaillard, the recipient of Howard’s invitation, also understood this vital legacy. Having come of age during France’s Third Republic, with its progressive emphasis on universal suffrage for men and the rights of man, he had worked steadily to advance the position of the country’s marginalized deaf citizens. Born in 1866 and deafened by an explosion at age five, he attended schools for hearing students, later transferring to the National Institute for the Deaf in Paris. By age twenty he was a skilled printer, and by twenty-seven he was editor of the Gazette des Sourds-Muets, or Deaf Gazette, the nation’s only independent newspaper by and about France’s deaf community. Troubled that the vast majority of France’s deaf adults had no access to advanced schooling and often faced discrimination by employers, Gaillard had worked to improve conditions for his peers. In an era when few leaders, deaf or hearing, had the opportunity to travel, Gaillard had journeyed widely as a representative for French deaf adults. Prior to 1900, he attended and delivered papers at some half dozen international convocations in the United States and Europe.
If historical trends guaranteed French enthusiasm for the NAD’s invitation, securing funds for the proposed journey depended upon gaining support from both deaf and hearing citizens—no simple undertaking for the dispersed deaf community. By April 1917, Gaillard and others based in Paris had organized a committee to raise money and select a group to make the transatlantic crossing. The group circulated a letter throughout Paris’s deaf community that emphasized the journey’s historic significance, underscoring the “duty” of the French deaf to sustain Clerc’s tradition of activity, which had brought “intellectual liberation to the deaf of the whole world.”
Ongoing concern regarding the educational status of French deaf students impelled other deaf adults to lend a hand. In particular, “oralist” French educators, by the early twentieth century, had broken with the longstanding tradition of sign-based education advocated by Clerc and others. Instead, these hearing administrators had moved to minimize if not eliminate sign language in favor of methods that emphasized articulation and lipreading. Angry French deaf adults countered that these changes imperiled the education and vocational standing of students. Instead, most, including Gaillard, promoted “combined” practices that supported both sign language and oral training. Gaillard and his peers understood that a visit to the United States would be a timely opportunity to galvanize transatlantic opposition to “pure” oralism.