The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Signs of the Times

By Juliana Daugherty, with Audio by Nina Earnest



Alexander Graham Bell, 1904 (Library of Congress).

Alexander Graham Bell, 1904 (Library of Congress).

Alexander Graham Bell has long been praised as an icon of American industry. A Scottish-born immigrant with an innovative spirit and a dogged work ethic, he is famously credited with the invention of the first telephone. Less famously, he invented the graphophone, the photophone, and an early version of the metal detector. In all, he held 18 patents in his own name and shared another 12 with collaborators. In photographs, he looks the part: well-dressed and dignified, with a serious expression and a white, grandfatherly beard. But the tireless spirit for which we praise him was also put to another, more controversial use. Today, the American Deaf community remembers Bell very differently: as the “father of oralism” and a leading crusader in the fight to stamp out sign language.

Bell was involved with the deaf for his entire life. His mother, Eliza, had been deaf, or largely deaf, since childhood. His father, Alexander Melville, made his living as a professional elocutionist and purveyor of “Visible Speech,” a “physiological alphabet” of Melville’s own invention, which—although he had conceived it for other purposes—he marketed as a system for teaching deaf children to speak. With the aid of Visible Speech, Melville claimed, a deaf child could grasp the mechanics involved in producing any speech sound, in any language—tongue placement, lip shape, pitch, etc.—and so learn to speak fluently, or at least intelligibly.

It was Visible Speech that first brought Alexander Graham Bell to the United States. In 1870, Melville Bell was invited to apply the system as a teacher at the Boston School for Deaf-Mutes. Melville declined the offer, but Alexander accepted. In Boston, Bell found success as a teacher, so much so that by 1872, he had established his own school—the School of Vocal Physiology and Speech Mechanics—and expanded his offerings to include training for teachers of the deaf. The school was quickly incorporated into Boston University, and Bell was appointed professor of vocal physiology.

It’s clear that Bell cared deeply for his students—he was so fond of one of them, in fact, that he went on to marry her. But Bell was also an outspoken proponent of eugenics. He believed that congenital deafness had the potential to be “a great calamity to the world,” and saw his work as essential in preventing the rise of a “defective race” of deaf people. Ultimately, Bell sought to prevent the deaf from marrying one another, and, by extension, from having children together. Having concluded that “…a law forbidding congenitally deaf persons from intermarrying”—although it would “go a long way towards checking the evil”—would be impractical and difficult to enforce, Bell advocated instead for “preventive measures.” By enabling the deaf to “communicate readily and easily with hearing persons,” and by discouraging them from engaging in “social intercourse” with one another, they could be “restored” to society, where they would presumably marry hearing people and give birth to hearing children, as opposed to “defective” deaf ones.

Line engraving of the sign language alphabet (Wellcome Library).

Line engraving of an early sign language alphabet (Wellcome Library).

It was eugenicist doctrine, more than anything else, that led Bell to promote “oralism,” a pedagogical approach that called for teachers of the deaf to eliminate sign language altogether (apart from fingerspelling and informal gestures for very young children), and focus instead on training their pupils to speak and read lips. Although Bell thought sign language was aesthetically beautiful, he condemned it as “an artificial and conventional language derived from pantomime” and argued that allowing students to use it would hinder their ability to learn English. “The deaf-mutes think in the gesture language,” wrote Bell in 1883, “and English is apt to remain a foreign tongue.” As Bell saw it, formalized sign language was a barrier to assimilation and therefore a great danger, not only to the deaf themselves, but to the entire human race.

While Alexander Graham Bell was not the first to endorse oral education for the deaf, it was his support that allowed the oralist movement to gain traction in America. His success as an inventor and “man of science” had afforded him not only financial freedom, but also the high esteem and trust of the public, and he made use of his privileged position in the fight against sign language. In 1883, he presented a paper entitled “The Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race,” which warned against the dangers of sign language, at the National Academy of Sciences. The following year, he presented the same paper to the National Conference of Principals and Superintendents of Institutions for Deaf-Mutes. In 1890, using $25,000 from the sale of several patents, he founded the American Association for the Promotion of the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf. He lobbied extensively—and in many cases successfully—for the establishment of special day schools for deaf children, which would be staffed by hearing teachers, and at which the use of sign language would be forbidden. By the early 20th century, the “pure oral method” was dominant in schools for the deaf around the country.

Children practicing speech while holding mirrors, Detroit, c. 1910 (Library of Congress.)

Children in Detroit, MI practicing speech by speaking into mirrors, c. 1910 (Library of Congress.)

For the Deaf community, oralism was devastating. In 1817, the Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet had founded the nation’s first free public school for the deaf, drawing students from around the nation. In bringing the students together, the school had sparked a newfound blossoming of Deaf culture and language. But oralism rejected the new language and the communities that sustained it as rudimentary and backwards. In the eyes of oralists, deafness was an affliction; sign language a pathology.

Resistance was widespread: deaf students signed to each other when teachers’ backs were turned, and deaf adults formed their own communities, where sign language flourished. In 1880, a group of deaf leaders established the National Association of the Deaf to defend the Deaf community’s right to linguistic and cultural autonomy. Between 1910 and 1920, the NAD produced a series of films as a way to document the language and culture they feared losing. In one such video, “The Preservation of the Sign Language,” NAD’s then-president George W. Veditz decries the efforts of the oralists, in sign. “Teachers would much rather listen to the worthless, cruel-hearted demands of people that think they know all about educating the deaf but know nothing about their thoughts and souls, their feelings, desires and needs,” Veditz signs. “Enemies of this language, they are the enemies of the true welfare of the American deaf.”

Neither Veditz’s nor Bell’s fears were ever realized. We know today that Bell’s theory of heredity was wrong: the vast majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Sign language survived in spite of the efforts of oralists, and its existence failed to produce the “calamity” that Bell had warned of. But the effects of the oralist movement were far-reaching and significant. American Sign Language would not be widely recognized as a fully-formed, legitimate language until the 1970s, and the Deaf community’s struggle for agency and self-determination has continued into the 21st century.

For all his talk of  “defect” and “calamity,” it’s clear that Bell saw himself as benevolent. He believed he was doing the Deaf community a great service. But in calling for the abolishment of sign language, he had not consulted with Deaf adults. He had never considered that the Deaf could be autonomous. In demanding that Deaf people learn to speak, Bell and other oralists had denied them their voices. It was only through Deaf acts of resistance that sign language survived.


Bibliography and Further Reading

Richard Winefield. Never the Twain Shall Meet: Bell, Gallaudet, and the Communications Debate. Gallaudet University Press, 1987.

Douglas C. Baynton. Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Brian Greenwald. “Alexander Graham Bell and His Role in Oral Education.” Disability History Museum, online.

Alexander Graham Bell. “Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race.” National Academy of Sciences, 1884.

George W. Veditz. “The Preservation of the Sign Language” (and a translation by Carol A. Padden). National Association of the Deaf, 1913.

Online readings at the website of the PBS film “Through Deaf Eyes.”

The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress.

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