By Ryan Hutchison
In 1806 the Dowager Empress Maria Fedoronova (Wife of Tsar Alexander III) was walking in Pavlosk Park outside St. Petersburg, Russia. A young boy, Aleksandre Moeller, and his escort passed her without word. The Empress stopped the escort and inquired why the boy did not greet her; she was told he was Deaf and unable to communicate. After a restless night considering the boy and his inability to communicate and learn, the Empress began inquiring about deafness and education, and how the Russian empire could ensure that Deaf students like Aleksandre learn and succeed. She sent missives across Europe seeking the best educators of the Deaf, and soon received Jean-Baptiste Jauffret from the then-named Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets de Paris. With Empress Maria’s funding and Monsieur Jauffret’s knowledge, the first Russian school for the Deaf opened on December 2nd, 1806.
On the 25th of May, 1814, Thomas Gallaudet first met the daughter of a neighbor, Alice Cogswell. He asked her father, Dr. Mason Cogswell, why she wasn’t playing with the other children and learned she was Deaf and unable to communicate. His interest was piqued, and he sat beside her drawing and writing the names of objects with a stick in the dirt – and she understood. It was a eureka moment for Alice’s father, who promptly sent Thomas to Europe to find better ways to educate Deaf children in the United States. Thomas came upon the director of the very same school for the Deaf (Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets) and brought Laurent Clerc, a successful graduate of the school, back with him to America. Together they established the American School for the Deaf in 1817.
Incredible, right? I knew the story about Thomas Gallaudet and the founding of the American School for the Deaf, but had no idea of the similarities of the founding of both schools. It’s quite amazing to recognize the thought of providing sign language to Deaf children was a revolutionary concept, and a single school in Paris was a catalyst for what was to become a golden age for Deaf education in both Russia and America. That both Empress Maria & Dr. Cogswell recognized the need for new ideas & fresh approaches for Deaf education and sponsored cultural exchange to spark those ideas is similar to the opportunity that brought CSD to Russia. The US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange project recognizes the need for invigoration within the Persons With Disabilities (PWD) community and is linking our countries together to focus on abilities, foster inclusion, and spark positive change.
The need for innovation and cultural exchange of new ideas for the education of Deaf children today is as great as it was 200 years ago. Despite the clear benefits Deaf children receive from sign language use and bilingual education, a growing focus on oralism and “fixing” Deaf children have dropped a new generation of children into the world without deep foundations of any language in either Russia or the United States. Outcomes for our Deaf children continue to decline, and more and more students are falling behind. We must create a new wave of innovation and invigoration of bilingual education – and do it with technology and through leadership.
Two hundred and ten years after the first Russian Deaf school was founded in St. Petersburg, a group of four and five-year old Deaf children gathered in a classroom to experience our bilingual storybook app, created through a collaboration with our American colleagues and Russian partners at Ya Tebya Slyshu. I’m so excited to continue to share this storybook app. We’re already receiving great feedback on how we can make it even better.
I’m even more excited to exchange knowledge and create a network of partners & friends who believe like we do that bilingual education provides transformative impact on students. The power of collaboration is real – we at CSD have seen it through our Who Will Answer campaign and it is at the heart of our Unites program. I look forward to continuing to create relationships and coalitions through this project in both Russia and the US so we can march unified towards a better future for our children, linked arm to arm.