History of the Rochester School for the Deaf

Rochester School for the Deaf (RSD) was founded on February 3, 1876, and opened to students on October 4, 1876. It was originally named the Western New York Institution for Deaf Mutes. The school’s name was changed to Rochester School for the Deaf in April 1920.

The story of RSD starts with the Perkins family. Mr. and Mrs. Gilman Perkins were among the outstanding citizens of Rochester. It was through their generosity, and their loving concern for their deaf daughter Carolyn, that a school for children with hearing loss was established in Rochester. RSD was one of the nation’s first schools dedicated to the education of children who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Zenas Westervelt, a teacher at the Maryland School for the Deaf, had been gathering names of deaf and hard of hearing children in Western, New York who were not in school. Mrs. Perkins became aware of Mr. Westervelt's project and suggested that he move to Rochester to open a private school supported by Mr. and Mrs. Perkins, and other members of the community, for Carolyn and other children in the community with hearing loss.

By the end of his second year in Rochester, Mr. Westervelt, worried about his students’ ability to make proper use of the English language, discouraged students to sign. He urged them instead to use the manual alphabet with speech. This method of teaching became known as the "Rochester Method."

Edmund Lyon, a friend of the Perkins family, became interested in the formation of the school and in teaching deaf and hard of hearing children. Mr. Lyon invented a system of communication to depict the sounds made in speech that could be indicated by the hand...a manual, phonetic finger alphabet. In July 1891, the Lyon Phonetic System was unveiled at the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf (now called the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing).

Since its very beginning, RSD has been an international leader in the innovative education of children who are deaf and hard of hearing. Today, RSD is a private state-supported school under section 4201 legislation. The school serves a 21-county region of New York and has an average enrollment of 140 students. It serves deaf and hard of hearing children up to age three and their families in their homes and in school on the RSD campus from age three to twenty-one. RSD programs provide for the diverse educational needs of students with hearing loss and varying capabilities.
A History of the
Rochester School
for the Deaf
View and download a PDF of a
24-page historical overview by
Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck.