Alexander Graham Bell – Friend or Foe?

October 1, 2010
Category: Deaf History

We all know Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone.

That makes him a good guy, right? Creating a way for man to effectively communicate across long distances? Not so much.

Bell was an innovator and educator. However, he was also an oppressor, and this side of him isn’t discussed much.

Alexander Graham Bell

His Friend Side

Alexander Graham Bell’s “friend side” is what is usually written in his biographies.

He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847. Ever since he was young, he always had an interest in hearing and speech.

Alexander Melville Bell, his father, was the creator of a series of symbols that that showed speech-the position and movement of the lips, throat, and tongue when making sounds. This was called “Visible Speech” and was used to teach deaf people how to speak.

Bell helped his father with public demonstrations of Visible Speech in 1862 until 1869 when he became his father’s partner.

Alexander Graham Bell had been experimenting with acoustics and wanted to find a way to improve the telegraph so that it can transmit sounds. Many inventors before Bell had unsuccessfully attempted this.

In 1870, Bell’s brothers died of tuberculosis, and his family moved to Brantford, Ontario, Canada. In Boston, he opened a school for teachers of the deaf in 1872. During his work there, he became friends with attorney Gardiner Green Hubbard. Hubbard’s daughter, Mabel, had been struck with scarlet fever as a child and became deaf.

Bell began to write specifications to patent a device that could carry speech by wire. This was the telephone. He was issued the patent for the telephone on March 7, 1876. He transmitted speech successfully for the first time only three days later. He married Mabel Hubbard in that same year.

Alexander Graham Bell founded the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf in 1890. This is now known as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf.

Bell died in 1922 at the age of seventy-five.

His Foe Side

Alexander Graham Bell’s “foe side” is very surprising, but is not usually discussed.

Bell believed that deafness was a horrible curse to the person who suffered from it.

That is a pretty awful thing to think, and for someone with so much influence, a terrible thought to spread.

I guess there are several reasons why Bell would have this thought about deafness. One is that he grew up with a value for speech, and as an educator of the deaf, he saw how difficult it is for a deaf child to acquire knowledge through spoken and written language. He also did not come in contact with those Deaf people who were part of the Deaf community and who had successfully found happiness within it. So, therefore, without this exposure, I can understand how Bell would have seen deafness as only a handicap.

However, Bell also saw deafness as a threat to the social order. He thought that deaf people weakened society. In the 1880s, when Bell was rather wealthy and had a lot of time on his hands, he became worried about the numbers of deaf people in America and how they were increasing. He thought this was weakening the country and was determined to find a way to stop it.

Because deafness seemed as though it were incurable, Bell wanted to find a way to prevent the birth of deaf children. He examined data from many American schools for the deaf and wrote a paper entitled Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race.

Alexander Graham Bell read his paper at the American Academy of Sciences at New Haven, Connecticut in 1883. Then, in 1884, he read it to the Conference of Principals of American Schools for the Deaf.

Bell’s thought and conclusions were shocking. To justify his findings, he documented three significant facts about deaf Americans:

  1. The tendency of deaf people to marry other deaf people
  2. The numbers of deaf people marrying other deaf people increased during the nineteenth century
  3. This increase would continue into the future unless drastic steps are taken to stop it

Bell stated that this tendency of deaf people marrying deaf people would eventually lead to a creation of a deaf race and “would be a great calamity to the world.”

His reasons for the tendency of deaf people marrying other deaf people were as follows:

  1. Residential schools for the deaf
  2. deaf associations and organizations
  3. deaf newspapers
  4. education in sign language
  5. writing in sign language
  6. erroneous ideas about deaf people
  7. deaf people’s desire to create a deaf state

Numbers 5-7 were of no importance and made no sense. Sign language writing doesn’t really exist, his erroneous ideas were that deaf people could not be taught to speak well enough to carry a conversation, and a deaf state would never be established because of lack of support for the deaf community.

His first four reasons, though, were very valid and true. If he successfully eliminated these things, the American deaf community would be non-existent. And that is what he wanted to do. Without the cultural links and socializations of deaf people, they would be isolated and more integrated into the hearing society.

Bell had two ideas for keeping deaf people from marrying. One was to enact laws that would forbid the congenitally deaf people from intermarrying. This, however, Bell though, would lead to immoral actions and illegitimate children. It is also difficult to tell when a deaf person became deaf.

His second idea was to eliminate residential schools, prohibit sign language use in deaf education, and forbid deaf teachers from teaching deaf students. Bell thought these measures would encourage deaf people to use their oral skills and become more integrated into the hearing society. These measures could be “hidden” and seen as education reforms.

Alexander Graham Bell’s thoughts and findings did not lead to the end of deaf marriage, but it did instill fear and anger in many deaf people and spark debates.

To gain support, Bell printed his Memoir and sent it to members of Congress, the principals of schools for the deaf, and other people involved in deaf education. They were not impressed. The truth came out. Those involved in deaf education knew that most of their students had hearing parents. Deaf children are rarely born to deaf parents.

Bell wanted to take away everything Deaf people had-their schools, their organizations, their newspapers, and even their language. Thankfully, he was unsuccessful. Deaf people are still people. There is nothing wrong with them, and they most definitely do not pose a threat to the human race.

I know this information may come as a shock to you, and it should. There are two sides to every story, and this is one side that most people do not know about-Bell and his fight for eugenics against the deaf.

Is Alexander Graham Bell a friend or foe? Or both?

…the world may never know…


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