Alexander Graham Bell – Helpful or Harmful?

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell

We all know Alexander Graham Bell (known as AGB in the Deaf community) 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 usually discussed.

His Helpful Side

Alexander Graham Bell’s “helpful 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.

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 the same year.

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 Harmful Side

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

First, while Bell was the first to patent the telephone, he was not the first to come up with the idea for the telephone. There is a lot of controversy around who actually invented the first telephone. Some even say that Bell stole the idea from Elisha Gray, who was a professor at Oberlin College, and beat him to the patent office.

But even worse – 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.

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, it’s not hard to see 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.

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.

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.

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.

Were Alexander Graham Bell’s contributions to society more helpful or harmful?

Alexander Graham Bell Papers Submitted by Students

Who is your favorite person from Deaf history?

Alexander Graham Bell

by Erika (Salt Lake City, Utah) | February 2, 2014

My favorite person from Deaf History is Alexander Graham Bell because he gave the deaf population something to fight for.

Every story needs a great villain and quite often the villain does not seem so villainous on the surface. Every great story where good triumphs over evil the villain makes the hero stand up and fight for something, anything.

While I will readily admit that Bell was most likely a villain out of ignorance he was still a villain nonetheless. The push he made to force oralism gave the deaf community a reason to remember how proud they were of a language they had created. Had Bell not pushed for oralism it is quite possible that ASL would never have seen the realization that it has today.

Now recognized as its own language and taught in most colleges, including hearing schools, ASL has become a force to be reckoned with. It is always nice to see a group stand together to defend something they are proud of.

Alexander Graham Bell

by Kathleen Sweeney | December 7, 2016

My favorite contributor to the deaf community is Alexander Graham Bell. Bell’s work was highly influenced by his wife and mother being deaf. He is most known for his invention of the telephone.  Bell’s central interest lied in deaf education and teaching.

His father was a researcher of speech and he too took interest in the physiology of speech. Bell utilized his fathers method called “visible speech” to teach deaf students.

Bell also published a paper analyzing the culture of the deaf community. He expressed that deaf people often socialized together, within the community. He was an extreme supporter of oralism and believed the speech was the superior way for dead individuals to thrive.

Later on, Graham expressed the universal language for the deaf community was established and should be recognized. Later on the use of sign in the classroom became more prevalent and was known as the “natural language” for individuals who are deaf.

Alexander Graham Bell

by Audrey Jacobs | January 11, 2017

Alexander Graham Bell was an educator, a scientist and an inventor during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Born in Edinburgh Scotland, on March third, 1847, he did all his studies in Europe going to a private high school, Edinburgh Royal High School. His first portion of college was at Edinburgh University, later transferring to The University of London, where he completed his studies in visible speech. His father and grandfather both studied communication for the deaf, his mother was almost completely deaf, this rooted his inspiration to find forms of speech. Shortly after establishing a practice in London, his two brothers became sick with tuberculosis and the whole family moved to America to become healthier. Though he wasn’t happy about his transportation, he continued studying the human voice.

In 1871, he started working on telegraph transmissions for several messages using different frequencies on wires. He later gained support from people who found promises in his products to fund his experiments. Thomas Sanders was a wealthy businessman and also offered Bell a place to stay, and Gardiner Hubbard was an American lawyer, financier, and philanthropist. After many failed attempts in 1876, he succeeded and invents the first telephone. This wasn’t his first invention, from the time he was twelve, while working the the wheat factory he invented a way to use paddles to turn over the grains. When he was sixteen, he started working with his dad and sparked his interest in deaf communications.

After furthering his inventions he went back to his original passion of helping the deaf. He pushed towards Oralism, where the deaf learn to speak instead or Manualism, that supports the use of ASL. In 1890, where he established the American Association to promote the teaching of speech to the deaf. He believed that oral education would decrease deaf marriages, decreasing the possibility for deaf children. Increase the opportunity for the deaf community for education and employment.

My Least Favorite

by Dianna Hudson (Ohio) | March 8, 2013

I have to say the Alexander Graham Bell is my least favorite historical figure in the Deaf community. I saw details of his work in the documentary film, “Through Deaf Eyes”. It also stated that he didn’t feel deaf people should marry another deaf person, as this may produce a deaf child and he was against that. I don’t know how he could take this form of thought, I believe his mother and/or wife were deaf as well. I don’t agree with the oralism argument in educating the Deaf, and I think it hinders and is a waste of time more than it helps.

Abbe de ‘Epee is a favorite for taking the time to learn to communicate with the deaf to teach them.

Last but not least would have to be Heather Whitestone. I think I remember when she won the pageant, and I think that she made a positive influence in the history of the Deaf and the history of America as a whole.

William Stokoe is another one you have to love. I wonder if he had any idea what his dissertation would do for the Deaf community. I think ASL is a beautiful language. I’m so glad that it has successfully evolved for the Deaf culture, and I appreciate each and every person who has a positive influence in Deaf history, giving the Deaf something to be proud of.

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