Laurent Clerc is known as “The Apostle of the Deaf People of the New World”. He was one of the most prominent deaf personalities, who spent more than 50 years of his life for promoting education and teaching deaf people in America. In 1817, together with his friend and associate Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Clerc founded the first permanent school for the deaf in our country. Despite of his being deaf and unable to use his voice, he was one of the most talented and devoted educators in the whole history of America, who pioneered some innovative teaching techniques and trained a great number of teachers, managers and other specialists, both deaf and hearing.
Louis Laurent Marie Clerc was born in 1785 in a village near Lyons, France, to a family of lawyers. At the age of one, he fell down from the chair into a fireplace in his house. As a result of this accident, Clerc lost his senses of hearing and smell, as well as burned the right side of his face. When the boy was 12 years old, he was sent to the Paris School for the Deaf, where he earned a reputation of a diligent and very talented student. His mentor’s assistant, the Abbe Margaron, tried to teach Laurent pronounce sounds, but all these attempts failed and Clerc decided to use only sign language in the future. After finishing the Paris School, Clerc was invited to stay there and develop his career as a teacher.
In 1815 during his trip to England, Clerc met Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a young American layer and theologian, who was interested in the problems of education and the methods for teaching the deaf. He was a personal friend of a deaf girl Alice Cogswell and was aware about the difficulties of the deaf who wanted to study in America. A year later, Clerc and Gallaudet met again in Paris, and Gallaudet asked Clerc to go with him to America and open a school for the deaf. Clerc could not reject this offer, and in June 1816 they headed to America together. During the 52-day trip, Gallaudet studied the sign language with the help of Clerc, in return helping the French to learn more about reading and writing in English.
Immediately upon the arrival, Clerc and Gallaudet started their promoting activities in order to raise the funds for the school. For seven months they were traveling around the country with lectures and speeches about deaf people and deaf education. They visited a great deal of cities, including New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston, where they were looking for financial support for their idea, as well as trying to select potential students for their school. Finally, in April 1817 they gathered around $12,000 from American public and received $5,000 from the Government. That money was enough for renting the premises of the American Asylum at Hartford, Connecticut, and opening the first school for the deaf.
In the first year there were only seven students in the school, and Alice Cogswell was one of those. But year by year, the number of students was increasing. Clerc continued his vivid public activities directed on popularization of his school and looking for sponsors. In January 1818, he appeared in American Congress, and in summer of that year he was introduced to American President Monroe, who expressed his sincere appreciation of the noble mission of the school. In 1820, the school received 23,000 acres of land from the government of Connecticut. This land was sold for $300,000 and the money was spent for constructing new buildings for the school, as well as for investments.
Laurent Clerc worked as a teacher in his school for forty-one year. During his life he helped to found a number of new educational establishments for the deaf in Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and other states of our country. After his retirement in 1858, he continued the activities on advocating schooling for the deaf. He was an honorable guest and member of many educational organizations and foundations. In June 1869, Laurent Clerc passed away at the age of 83. His contribution in the development of deaf education and supporting deaf people is not limited by his teachings and advocacy. It also includes a series of innovations and modifications of the American Sign Language he created, using his knowledge of French language and great experience in deaf communication.