Compared to names like Helen Keller or actress Marlee Matlin, Laurent Clerc may not be the first person that springs to mind when you think of prominent Deaf figures in American culture. This National Deaf History Month we want to shine a light on the immense contributions of this immigrant often cited as the most important individual in American Deaf history.
Born in France in the late eighteenth-century, Clerc became Deaf as an infant due to a childhood accident. After learning and later teaching French Sign Language in Paris, he was approached by Thomas Gallaudet who encouraged him to move to the United States where together they co-founded the American School for the Deaf in Connecticut, the oldest permanent school for the Deaf in the country.
Prior to Clerc’s arrival in America, there was no formal sign language in the country, and generations of Deaf children, Gallaudet included, had no means of communication and were often cast aside by families and schools. This meant Clerc’s introduction of French Sign Language to New England was revolutionary, and the man who gave many people a voice gained the nickname “The Apostle of the Deaf.”
The influence of this Deaf, French immigrant is still felt very strongly today. Although it’s now known as American Sign Language (ASL), it remains French at its core, and would doubtless not exist without Clerc. What’s more, the Deaf schools and universities that were founded thanks to his impact have made America an attractive place for Deaf immigrants even today.
Many countries around the world don’t have adequate support structure in place for their Deaf citizens, and sometimes even violently persecute them, so America is viewed as a safe haven by many Deaf refugees. In places like Kansas City, there are even specific programs for Deaf immigrants to learn ASL and become integrated with the native Deaf community. If one thing is for sure, it’s that this gift of communication could not have happened without trailblazers like Clerc: one immigrant paying it forward for generations of others.