Deaf History Timeline


Deaf history in America is intertwined with all American history, but it is often ignored in historical perspectives. This list is not an exhaustive list of all historical events that affected the Deaf Community and ASL, but it is a brief overview of some of the most important events that impacted the growth and evolution of ASL. Some of the most recent events focus on ASL at Harvard.


1714 MVSL start

  • Martha’s Vineyard had a very high population of Deaf individuals (as high as 1 in 4 in some areas), so residents created and learned Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language. Because of this, there was no communication barrier between deaf and hearing residents.

1760 LSF start

  • French Sign Language was founded in 1760, which led to education for the deaf in France.

1816 Clerc came from France

  • Laurent Clerc, a Deaf man from France, was brought to the US by Thomas Gallaudet to help set up an educational institute for the deaf in America.

1817 Hartford Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb established

  • The first School for the Deaf using sign language was founded by Gallaudet and Clerc. LSF and MVSL were combined to make American Sign Language

1864 Gallaudet University founded

  • President Lincoln signed off on an act that allowed for the establishment of a school of the Deaf, which remains the world’s only liberal arts university for deaf and hard of hearing students.

1872 Alexander Graham Bell founds oralist school

  • During his lifetime, Alexander Graham Bell widely promoted both eugenics and oralism, the belief that Deaf individuals should be taught speech and lip-reading over sign language. While his mother was Deaf, his father, Melville Bell, created ‘Visible Speech,’ a system of symbols meant to assist people in speaking languages they could not hear, and in 1872, Alexander Graham Bell was invited to the Clarke School to present on Visible Speech. Soon after, he returned to Massachusetts to open his own private school for the Deaf in Boston. Later, Bell abandoned the Visible Speech method but maintained his insistence that Deaf individuals needed to learn to speak in order to be professionally and socially integrated. Eventually, Bell’s name became synonymous with oralism in the Deaf community.

1880 Milan conference - stresses Oralism, bans sign language

  • At the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf, Deaf educators from around the world gathered to discuss oral versus manual (signed) education. After deliberation, the congress endorsed oralism and passed a resolution banning the use of sign language in schools. At the congress, Alexander Graham Bell spoke for three days while advocates of American Sign Language were only given three hours to argue against oralism.

1890 National Association of the Deaf founded

  • NAD is an organization that promotes the civil rights of deaf individuals in the United States, created to defend the ability of the American deaf community to use sign language and organize around important issues.

1952 MVSL end

  • The last deaf individual from Martha’s Vineyard that knew MVSL, Katie West, passed away, effectively making MVSL an extinct language.

1960 TTY invented by Robert Weitbrecht

  • A teletypewriter is an electromechanical typewriter paired with a communication channel that allows people to communicate through typed messages. A TTY is required at both ends of the conversation and can be used with either a landline or a cell phone. Its creation greatly expanded the means of long-distance communication for the deaf.

1964 Video Relay Service invented by Robert Weitbrecht

  • Expands means of communication for the deaf. Video Relay Service is a form of Telecommunications Relay Service that enables people who use American Sign Language to communicate with voice telephone users through video equipment, rather than through typed text

1965 William Stokoe finishes ASL Dictionary

  • Stokoe was a linguist who worked to show the general public that ASL was a fully-formed language with its own grammatical structure and rich vocabulary, rather than a visual form of English or mere pantomime. He created the first ASL dictionary along with two Deaf colleagues at Gallaudet, Carl Croneberg and Dorothy Casterline.

1973 Rehabilitation Act

  • The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment and in the employment practices of federal contractors.

1975 PL 94-142 passed allowing disabled children free, appropriate public education

  • This legislation started the mainstreaming of deaf children in public schools.

1988 Deaf President Now at Gallaudet

  • Gallaudet had yet to have a Deaf president since its induction in 1864, and students demanded a Deaf president to represent them. The week-long protest not only led to the inauguration of a Deaf president at Gallaudet, I. King Jordan, but also spurred legislative and social change for years to come.

1990 Americans with Disabilities Act

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, prohibiting discrimination based on disability.

1994 Harvard stops offering ASL

  • Linguistics department cites lack of funding as reason for eliminating beginning ASL courses that were taught by Marie Phillip.

1998 Clayton Valli performs at Harvard

  • In the late 90s, renowned Deaf linguist and ASL poet Clayton Valli came to Harvard to perform poetry at the Phillips Brooks House.

2012 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act

  • This act mandates that all televised material be captioned, including its online distribution.  

2016 ASL begins at Harvard again

  • For the first time in over 20 years, Harvard began offering for credit American Sign Language courses under the instruction of Andrew Bottoms.