ASL, oralism and Alexander Graham Bell

A diagram by Alexander Graham Bell is painted on the wall of a museum in his honour in Baddeck, N.S.
A diagram by Alexander Graham Bell is painted on the wall of a museum in his honour in Baddeck, N.S.

BADDECK, N.S. — There’s a lot more to this Alexander Graham Bell fellow than telephones.

He was a lover of science who laid a fatherly hand on the shoulders of flight in Canada with the Silver Dart and broke the hydrofoil speed record in 1919.

From his summer retreat in Baddeck, far from the bustle of his home in Washington, D.C., he conducted scientific experiments and became an integral part of the region’s society and history.

But perhaps the most fascinating part of the life of Bell—arguably the most famous communicator—is his work with the deaf and his attempts, while educating them, to keep them from forming any sort of community of their own.

Alexander Graham Bell at work in Baddeck, N.S.
Alexander Graham Bell at work in Baddeck, N.S.

The crusade started with Melville Bell, who was married to a deaf woman. He invented Visible Speech, a series of diagrams to show the deaf which muscles to contract and how to position their tongue and throat. The theory was that, using Visible Speech, a person could learn to speak any language, whether they had heard it spoken or not. Asked to lecture on and teach Visible Speech in his new home in the U.S. in the early 1800s, Melville sent his son, Alexander Graham, in his stead.

The younger Bell considered sign language an abomination and devoted his life to its removal from society. According to PBS.org, Bell called ASL “essentially a foreign language” and argued that “in an English-speaking country like the United States, the English language, and the English language alone, should be used as the means of communication and instruction at least in schools supported at public expense.”

He also showed great concern that deaf people were forming societies outside the mainstream and feared their numbers would grow. Unlike many believers in eugenics, he stopped short of demanding a ban on intermarriage of deaf people, but he clearly thought it was not a good idea. There were three things he did fight to do away with: sign language, deaf teachers, and residential schools where community and fellowship formed among deaf people. Bell “mainstreamed” children by separating them from their deaf peers to assimilate them into hearing society.

Alexander Graham Bell married one of his oralism students, Mabel.
Alexander Graham Bell married one of his oralism students, Mabel.

The point is not to demonize Bell. While his ways appear backwards now, his intention was to forward mankind through science and education. He encouraged his wife, Mabel—a deaf woman—in her work to establish a public library in Baddeck, a home and school association and, most importantly for the modern feminist, a “club for young women to promote the acquisition of general knowledge.”

Considered the most important American in the history of oralism, he used the profits he made on that other little invention, the telephone, to further the promotion of speech and lip reading over sign language. The deaf community fought back with a series of films in the early 1900s distributed by the National Association of the Deaf. In one of them, association president George Veditz says, “As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs.”

The Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada in Baddeck, N.S., is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. through Oct. 20. Entrance ranges from $3.90 for a youth to $19.60 for a family. The site is free with an annual national parks pass.

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