Alexander Graham Bell and Deafness

Everyone knows about Alexander Graham Bell and his invention of the telephone. Many people do not know that he was also a deaf educator and advocate, with an association named after him. His methods (and reasons behind those methods) continue to cause controversy in the Deaf community.

Alexander Graham Bell
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Bell's father, Alexander Melville Bell, was a teacher of the deaf. His method of teaching the deaf was coined "Visible Speech."Bell's grandfather was a famous elocution teacher and is thought to be the model for George Bernard Shaw's character Prof. Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. The younger Bell taught deaf students at schools for the deaf (a school in London, Boston School for Deaf Mutes, the Clarke School for the Deaf, and at the American Asylum for the Deaf) using this method. Bell's mother was deaf/hearing impaired and he would often speak to her by placing his mouth close to her forehead, believing the vibrations from his voice would help her distinguish speech more clearly than using an ear trumpet.

Although he married a deaf woman, a former speech pupil, Mabel Hubbard, Bell strongly opposed intermarriage among congenitally deaf people. Bell feared "contamination" of the human race by the propagation of deaf people even though most deaf people statistically are born to hearing parents.

Bell's Legacy

Bell applied his study of eugenics to his goal of preventing the creation of a deaf race and presented his paper Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race to the National Academy of Sciences in 1883.

Bell stated, "Those who believe as I do, that the production of a defective race of human beings would be a great calamity to the world, will examine carefully the causes that will lead to the intermarriage of the deaf with the object of applying a remedy." In this paper, he proposed to reduce the number of the deaf by discouraging deaf-mute to deaf-mute marriages, advocating speech reading and articulation training for an oral-only method of education, removing the use of deaf teachers and sign language from the classroom.

Suggestions were made to enact legislation to prevent the intermarriage of deaf-mute people or forbidding marriage between families that have more than one deaf-mute member. His preventative strategies for deaf marriage included removing barriers to communication and interaction with the hearing world.

In some respects, Alexander Graham Bell changed the way we look at education for the deaf for the better. Oral methods, the desegregation of education, and facilitating communication between deaf and hearing persons are a positive outcome. Some historians point to this as his legacy just as much as his inventions. However, his reasons behind those suggestions have an origin in a darker agenda and his view of the deaf ushered in an era of seeing that population as less capable and stigmatized a valid method of communication and education.

4 Sources
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  1. National Institute of Deafness and Other Communicaiton Disorders. Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AG Bell).

  2. Platt JH. The bell reduced visible symbol method for teaching speech to the deaf. J Speech Disord. 1947;12(4):381-386. doi: 10.1044/jshd.1204.381

  3. Buckley J. Talking machines. Shaw. 2015;35(1):21-45. doi: 10.5325/shaw.35.1.0021

  4. Bell, Alexander Graham. Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race. Presented to the National Academy of Sciences November 13, 1883.  

By Jamie Berke
 Jamie Berke is a deafness and hard of hearing expert.