AG Bell – Phone and Deafness

Almost everyone knows about Alexander Graham Bell as an inventor of phone. Some may know that he had a deaf mother and a deaf wife, was a speech therapist, and a deaf educator in the USA. What most people don’t know and may be very surprised about him are his attitudes to deaf people that now are considered atrocious by some.

First, we focus on phone. According to some sources, there were also other inventors of phone who lived during his time. What set AG Bell apart is that he was just the first person to file a patent. He even had a fight with Elisha Gray, one of phone inventors, over the patent.

Originally, Alexander was “trying to perfect a method for carrying multiple messages on a single wire,” but as soon as he found out that he could transmit voice over wire, telegraph became the thing of the past. Another source from the American Inventors website states that his phone evolved from his invention, a phonautograph, “a device that draws vibrations from the human voice, to help deaf students visualize sound.” Ironically, Bell was inspired by deaf people to invent phone that did not help them.

Would communication over distances have leveled the playing field for both deaf and hearing people if telegraph was improved to the point that texting would become popular before phone was invented and stayed as one of communication options along with phone – especially that text is lighter and faster to be transmitted than voice? Maybe. If Bell and other inventors of that time were also focusing on improving texting over the wire.

Unfortunately, Bell was interested only in sound and speech because his father was a speech therapist and a teacher of elocution – he also invented Visible Speech that would later be used by his son in oral education of deaf people.

Bell was not only an inventor, but also an educator of deaf people. He is credited for helping deaf people to speak and lipread. Among his students were Mabel Hubbard (who became his wife) and Helen Keller (who became his good friend). Alexander also trained teachers of speech to the deaf and was a professor of vocal physiology and the mechanics of speech at Boston University. In 1890, he used the profits from his inventions and businesses to help organize the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf (AAPTSD), of which he was the first president and that in 1956 changed its name to the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

When hearing those credentials, you may wonder what Bell did wrong to deaf people. While his efforts to help deaf people to speak are applauded, he was not the first to do that. Also, there’s another side of the coin – his strong opposition to manual languages and his involvement in eugenics to reduce the rate of deafness.

Bell is famous in the Deaf community for his arguments with Edward Miner Gallaudet, a son of Thomas Gallaudet, the founder of the first American School for the Deaf and Gallaudet College. While both leading figures in deaf education agreed that deaf people should not be denied an education, both had opposing views on how they should be educated. Until the 1860s, deaf education in the United States was predominantly in sign language. However, Bell was opposed against the use of sign language and joined some educators who run some oral schools such as Clark schools – where deaf students were forced to use spoken languages only and were severely punished if they attempted to use any gestures. The controversy in deaf education has been ongoing since then.

Teaching deaf people to speak and lipread was not a problem, but the problem was that they were forced to use one and the only method without consideration of their unique needs and abilities – especially that it was long before cochlear implants and hearing aids were available.

Even now, people who use hearing devices still benefit from visual cues like captioning, sign language, cued speech – not something to be embarrassed about. AGBell organization advocates for “independence” through listening and speaking, and their communication preference is understandable. However, it is very ironic because there are many oral deaf/hoh hearing aid and cochlear implant users who rely on captioning, oral interpreters, teacher aides, FM systems, hearing loops, etc. It is not a bad thing, but oralists seem to contradict themselves about oral deaf people being “independent” even using those services while looking down on signers who are “dependent” on interpreters.

Last, but not least, AG Bell did a terrible thing for BOTH oral and signing deaf people.

Bell’s another interest was the study of heredity and animal breeding, and he “became an early supporter of the eugenics movement to improve human breeding.” He even wrote the “Memoir upon the formation of a deaf variety of the human race” and presented it to the National Academy of Sciences in 1883. Alexander “noted that congenitally deaf parents were more likely to produce deaf children and tentatively suggested that couples where both parties were deaf should not marry.” He fought against the deaf people meeting each other, forming deaf clubs, attending deaf schools, intermarrying each other in fear of producing more deaf babies – no matter if they were oral or used sign language.

Bell’s preference of speech to sign language was not as bad as his greatest crime which was to try to keep deaf people apart from each other. His fears were unfounded because over 95% of deaf and hard of hearing people come from hearing families.

Was AG Bell a hero or a villain?

One source says: “Although he supported what many would consider harsh policies today, he was not unkind to deaf individuals. He was a personal and longtime friend of Helen Keller, and his wife Mabel, a former student of his, was deaf. Together they had children, none of whom were deaf. Bell was well known as a kindly father and loving family man who took great pleasure playing with his many grandchildren.”

A blog writer and an ASL user says that “the truth is more complicated”:

  • “In reality, Alec’s mother was a woman who couldn’t admit to being deaf. This unfortunate attitude probably colored Alec’s perspective of deaf ideas, making him think that all deaf people felt badly about being that way and wanted to be hearing, a false idea still perpetuated today.”
  • “If you asked Alexander Graham Bell if he was a friend or a foe, undoubtedly he would have said friend. He thought that he was providing deaf people with an important opportunity to be more like hearing people, even though it was something they didn’t want. I’m sure he also would argue that his Eugenic ideas, if not popular, were at least creating a stronger human race. While his intentions may have been harmless, there is no denying the damage he did to deaf equality for more than 100 years.”
  • “Perhaps being raised in the family business of Elocution made it inevitable that Bell would be on the wrong side of the issue. It’s sad he couldn’t put aside his preconceived notions and listen to the deaf community all around him.”

Alexander is said to know some sign language and have used it with his mother before deciding to communicate with her by speaking in low, sonorous tones very close to her forehead. He was also discouraged by his father to use sign language in order to promote his Visual Speech philosophy. Just before Bell died, he could not speak and signed “No” when his wife pleaded him not to leave her.

Regardless of whether he meant well, Bell did a significant damage to deaf people:

  • His phone invention was not accessible to them for almost a century until others invented TTYs (text telephones) and the Internet. “Can you talk on phone?” has been an annoying question to many deaf people for many years.
  • His oralism only focus led to decisions to lay off qualified deaf teachers (who would make better models for deaf students) and to issues in quality of deaf education and literacy. It’s having good brains and a proper access to language (spoken or signed or both) that is more important in education than spending time on just drilling and perfecting speech.
  • His eugenic ideas increased paternalistic attitudes to deaf people based on the idea that if they cannot adapt to the hearing world by speaking and lipreading, they are not good enough to be able to participate and contribute to the community at large.

Below is a 23-minute documentary video about AG Bell’s visit to England to lecture about oralism at an all-signing church. It’s not embedded here – when you click an image, you would be directed to the original page to watch the video. It’s captioned in English and signed in BSL (British Sign Language).