Alexander Graham Bell: A legend in the history of deafness

August 29th, 2008 by | Tags: , | 14 Comments »

I’m currently traveling throughout Europe and am taking a long break from blogging on CI Online, but I need to pop in to talk about a book that I read while relaxing on the beach and riding on trains.  Lea Watson, an Auditory-Verbal therapist in Glouchester, Massachusetts, recommended a book to me called, Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell by Charlotte Gray. This one big heavy book, which has over 400 pages, is packed full of incredible information about this man and the history when Bell lived.  The sources are very well cited by the author, and, thus, the information is very accurate.  It was very important for me to read some books on Bell because I’d like to understand why the organization, Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing {AGBell} was named after this man, and also, I’ve been hearing throughout the internet that Bell believed in eugenics of the deaf community which did not make sense to me because AGBell would not have named its organization after him. From my reading, I could not find any evidence that he was an eugenecist in a harmful way.

I’d like to point out some fascinating facts that I’ve learned about him:

  • Bell’s mother was deaf.  He communicated with her using the two-handed manual alphabet.
  • Bell was very unsure if the oral language was appropriate for all deaf children: Here is a quote by Bell enclosed in the book: “It makes my very heart ache to see the difficulties the little children have to contend with on account of the prejudice of their teachers.  You know that here all communication is strictly with the mouth…and just fancy little children who have no idea of speech being made dependent on lip-reading for almost every idea that enters their heads.  Of course their mental development is slow.  It is a wonder to me that they progress at all.”
  • Bell invented the “glove alphabet”, another visual communication method.
  • Bell’s father was the one who was against the idea of sign language simply because he wanted to promote Visible Speech, an oral method to teach the deaf.  Here’s the excerpt from the book:

“At Hartford, Alec began to see the potential of sign language, alongside lip-reading, as a teaching tool.  He mentioned to his father, in a letter that he was learning sign language.  Melville was furious, and the next letter that Alec received from Brantford included a scolding Melville wanted Alec to promote the Visible Speech gospel, and its use in deaf education was, in its inventor’s view, only one of its many applications.”

  • Mabel Hubbard, Bell’s wife, was deaf and raised with the oral approach.  Hubbard’s father advocated for the oral approach to be included as ANOTHER OPTION for deaf people.  In the early 1800′s, when Hubbard was growing up, the oral approach did NOT exist in the United States.  Thus, Hubbard and her family had to live in Europe for a few years so that she could go to a school that specialized in teaching her lip-reading.  Because her father did not want other families to have to move to Europe, he advocated to add the oral approach in the United States.
  • Bell felt that the lip-reading method was a valuable option because deaf children who were able to learn to lip-read could participate fully in the hearing world.  He did not want deaf people to be isolated.
  • Bell was against sending deaf children to RESIDENTIAL schools.  He wanted to HELP deaf children to be part of mainstream society.
  • When Bell first met Helen Keller when she was a little girl, he contacted Edward Gallaudet to figure out TOGETHER how to help with Keller’s issues.  Bell and Gallaudet had a very respectful and friendly relationship when they were younger.
  • Bell was awarded an honorary degree from Columbia Institution of the Deaf and Dumb, an old name for Gallaudet University.
  • In the late 1890′s, Bell’s relationship with Gallaudet deteriorated due to their differing viewpoints on deaf education.  Bell did not like Gallaudet’s idea, which was to teach deaf children sign language, send them to residential schools, and be taught by deaf teachers.  He felt that this idea was isolating the deaf children from mainstream society.  He wanted deaf children to learn how to be part of mainstream society.  He basically wanted to give all of them the opportunity to be PART of the “hearing circle.”


Europe! La! La! La!

August 31, 2008 at 1:16 pm

Glad you are having a very enjoyable European journey. I saw
your pictures in Jodi’s vlog. You looked marvelous and happy.

Sorry for being off the point, but I would like to know your take on the latest blog (Aug. 31, 2008) about CI by Jared, a co-founder of DeafRead.

Happy journeying!

August 31, 2008 at 6:30 pm

The biography presents a very different view of Bell than is held by those who knew him, worked with (or against) him, and shows that for every issue there will be at least two different takes. History is full of examples of this.

Recently the National Technical Institute of the Deaf voted and the administration agreed to remove Alexander Grahamn Bell’s name from a dormitory and to remove/reword the plaque that honors him. This is because the college recognized that Bell held views that do not coincide with views held today by educators and professionals with the deaf. Similarly, the U.S. Congress voted to credit another scientist with invention of the telephone in view of reportedly unethical actions by Bell to patent the phone.

Ideals that Bell held were probably more popular in his day than they are today; many of them would be considered eugenicist and isolationist, such as removing deaf children from schools for the deaf and placing them in mainstream society, and discouraging interaction with other deaf people to avoid marriages with other deaf people.

Taking the long view in history and weighing all benefits versus the damages will show which have been the more beneficial paths.


August 31, 2008 at 6:46 pm

In my personal opinion, I strongly believe that Bell’s views on deafness fit perfectly very well today thanks to the technology, cochlear implants, that allows deaf people to integrate into mainstream society. I believe that Bell did not mean to remove deaf children from deaf schools in a negative manner. He was trying to help deaf children be part of the mainstream society which is what I would prefer as a deaf person. As a deaf person, I feel that attending deaf schools and mingling with deaf people all the time is isolating. I’d rather be in a mainstream school so that I can be exposed to a variety of cultures.

When I read about Edward Gallaudet’s views on deafness, which was that he believed that deaf children should be in deaf schools, be part of the deaf culture, etc, my blood was steaming because I felt that he was telling deaf people like me that I should be excluded from the mainstream society, which is what I would not want.

So, I really do think that Bell’s ideals that were held back then are still quite popular or even more popular as more and more deaf children are attending mainstream schools and participating in mainstream society. Enrollment at deaf schools is dwindling today.


August 31, 2008 at 6:55 pm

Europe! La! La! La! -

Can you please post the link to the blog.



September 1, 2008 at 8:48 am

If you can find no evidence that Bell was a “eugenecist” then I don’t think you looked very hard. And if your book doesn’t mention it once in 400 pages then the book’s accuracy is highly suspect.

While Wikipedia is not a primary, authoritative source, Bell’s involvement in the American eugenics movement is mentioned: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Graham_Bell

This is one of Bell’s papers: http://blog.deafread.com/pote/2008/05/30/bells-upon-the-formation-of-a-deaf-variety-of-the-human-race-paper/

Many scientists and notables of the time were involved in the eugenics movement, Bell included.


September 1, 2008 at 9:42 am

Yes, the book did mention that Bell did discourage deaf people to marry other deaf people. I don’t think Bell intentionally did it in a negative manner. In other words, I don’t think he wanted to destroy deafness as if he didn’t like deaf people. I think he was trying to help prevent people from going through the hardships that deaf people have to go through. As a deaf person, I feel that growing up as a deaf person is not easy as I had to attend therapies and work harder in school to catch up my slight language delay. While I didn’t mind overcoming the obstacles, it would have been nice not to go through them. To be honest, I’d prefer not to marry someone who is deaf by genetics as I wouldn’t want my kids to be deaf and have them go through the obstacles that I went through; HOWEVER, they would definitely at least have an easier life than I had as they would be implanted much earlier. Plus, in those days, in the 1800′s when hearing aids and cochlear implants didn’t exist, it was even HARDER to overcome deafness, and so I can see why Bell discouraged the idea of deaf people marrying each other. I know that Bell was not prejudiced against deaf people as he married a deaf woman whom he adored, and he enjoyed helping other deaf people like Helen Keller. He was just simply trying to find ways to make the lives of people EASIER.

September 4, 2008 at 12:56 am

Thanks to auditory verbal we lead normal lives!!We don’t feel isolated and are HAPPY!!

a friend to Bell

September 4, 2008 at 3:15 pm

I have a large stack of books about Bell, including the one Rachel refers to. It is CLEAR– Bell was highly appreciated and revered by most folks in his day, and continues to be to this day (except in the Deaf cult minorities). He invented many things, assisted many people and yes, he was involved in the Eugenics movement which was extremely common for most scientists of his day. This does not in any way equate him with evil! It was the beginnings of our basic understanding of genetics today. While some of their ideas began to trail off and become used by stranger people, the idea that deaf people marrying would produce more deaf children is not novel or incorrect. It is based on genetics, and for those causes of deafness which are genetic, this would often be the case (though he did not yet have an understanding of recessive vs. dominant genes). Most genetics today would agree that it is important for those with genetic disorders to be fully aware of what they carry so that they can choose to either start a family biologically or adopt. Very simple premise, commonly used today, and what Bell was advocating. Then, they could not prevent pregnancy, so to simply avoid marrying those who are suspected of carrying a gene would make sense.

It is simply untenable by anyone to claim that Bell is evil or meant deaf people harm. Only Deafhood activists who are living in revisionist history of their own making can really believe this.


September 10, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Hi Rachel, Thank you for the sharing. I used to be in deaf school but I didn’t like it. I decided to stay away from Deaf Culture for my new life with hearing husband. I didn’t want to be marry with Deaf man and have a Deaf children either. Because I has a retinitis pigmentosa, my concerned about my children would be deaf and usher syndrome if I married to Deaf man. My choice for hearing man for my life and have a hearing son. My husband is support AGBell because of inventor of telephone, typewriter, braille, hearing aids, cochlear implants and everything. We can’t live without technology in the present time. I was alike grateful to AGBell’s inventor of hearing aids and cochlear implants. My husband and I would like to go Hear Indiana of AGBell for tour someday. I don’t believe that AGBell is evil, and not understand why is Deaf culture’s against AGBell for long times. I explained to my husband about Deaf culture. He said, “We can’t live without AGBell’s inventor of technology, The Deaf culture do not support oral and cochlear implants then they need go back to Amish because not wanted to be fixed.” He called them a Luddite. I was alike that’s hilarious and have to agree with him. :-D I have no longer support residential school because I had bad experience when I was at deaf school. I’m support for all deaf and hard of hearing children go to mainstreaming school.


June 11, 2012 at 6:49 pm

Anon, you realize by making the blanket statement that ALL D/HH should be mainstreamed, you’re doing the same thing as the Deafhood activists saying that all deaf kids should be bi-bi?


October 28, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Rachel – do you have any references that Bell worked “together” with Gallaudet and was “honored” by Gallaudet, etc.? And how is “glove alphabet” “better” than sign language or even cued speech (that is based on phonetics)?


October 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm

“It makes my very heart ache to see the difficulties the little children have to contend with on account of the prejudice of their teachers. You know that here all communication is strictly with the mouth…and just fancy little children who have no idea of speech being made dependent on lip-reading for almost every idea that enters their heads. Of course their mental development is slow. It is a wonder to me that they progress at all.”

“Mental development is slow”?? Wow – it’s not because they are “mentally slow”, but because they were restricted from accessing language via sign language! Keep in mind that it was in the era before hearing aids and cochlear implants were available! Bell should not have listened to his father and followed his gut to promote both oralism and sign language.


October 28, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Also, Bell invented phone that was not available even to many oral deaf people for almost a century. Was it a good thing?

November 26, 2012 at 11:53 am

Hi im i have a question cuz im doing a project of Alexander Graham Bell and I Don’t Know where to find Citations?