Alexander Graham Bell's oralist mission still harms deaf and hard of hearing people, say critics | CBC Radio (2023)

* This episode originally aired on May 10, 2021.

The great project of Alexander Graham Bell's life was, perhaps surprisingly, not the telephone.

He focused much of his life on the education of deaf people, funded by his earnings from his famous invention.

He was an early pioneer of oralism, a belief that all deaf people should learn to communicate by lip-reading and speaking, rather than with sign language. "To ask the value of speech is like asking the value of life," he is credited as saying.

But not all deaf people can learn to speak, or believe they should be compelled to do so. According to author Katie Booth, the harm of oralism still reverberates.

"I can't even begin to express the deep, deep, deep trauma that so many deaf people still carry from those educations," Booth, author of The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power and Alexander Graham Bell's Quest to End Deafness, told Ideas.Booth's book, released earlier this spring, compiles years of her research into Bell's letters and other archival material,according to publisher Simon & Schuster.

While Bell's precise methods are no longer in use, critics say the philosophy oforalism— that speech is inherently better than sign language — still has a harmful ripple effect to this day.

Teaching or 'assimilation'

Bell's mother Eliza was born with hearing, but became deaf later in her life.

"I think Bell saw the way she was able to operate in the world. And just first of all assumed all deaf people should be able to do that. And I think maybe he glamorized it a little," Booth said.

Alexander Graham Bell's oralist mission still harms deaf and hard of hearing people, say critics | CBC Radio (1)

Bell developed a method of teaching speech to deaf people, and particularly deaf children, called visible speech. It was based on a phonetic representation of the alphabet developed by his father, who was an elocutionist — something akin to a speech therapist.

"He would start by just teaching them about their mouths: This is your tongue. This is your soft palate. This is how you say 'puh,'' said Booth, who has normal hearing.

"He basically sought to make all of these invisible sounds visible, or felt in some way."

Bell would work at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes, teaching visible speech to students as well as teachers to promote and spread the practice. At the same time, oralism was growing in popularity among deaf educators.

"The goal was that deaf people could move through the hearing world without anyone knowing they were deaf. And by doing that, ideally, they would be able to have access to all sorts of hearing privilege," said Booth.

"Of course, today we would call that assimilation."

  • Transcript | Unsound: The Legacy of Alexander Graham Bell
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Bell was also interested in the genealogy of deaf people. In a1884paper titled Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race, he raised concerns about deaf people intermarrying lest it lead to increased prevalence of deafness, or what he referred to as "a defective race of human beings."

Alexander Graham Bell's oralist mission still harms deaf and hard of hearing people, say critics | CBC Radio (2)

Jim Grosvenor Watson, Bell's great-great-grandson and auditory-verbal therapist who works in the field of deaf education today, accused Booth of "cherry picking" from historical documents to reinforce theories that have been circulated about Bell for years.

"What she's done in this book is she's created a portrait of somebody that's based on all of these opinions that are based on myths that have been propagated by the deaf community that are not true," he told CBC Radio.

He pointed to an FAQ page by the Alexander and Mabel Bell Legacy Foundation specifically dedicated to refuting "myths and rumours," including whether Bell was opposed to sign language or deaf people intermarrying.

Watchthis ASL video ofVeronica Simmonds' documentary,Unsound: The Legacy of Alexander Graham Bell,listen above orread the transcript.

American Sign Language interpretation of Unsound, a radio documentary from IDEAS exploring the legacy of Alexander Graham Bell and his role in a movement called oralism, and the harmful legacy that still reverberates today.

'They thought he was the devil'

One "unspoken part" of oralism, according to Booth, was that while deaf and hard of hearingstudents were learning spoken language, the use of sign language was to be discouraged — even punished.

"It was the Victorian era. The body was something to be controlled and restrained. And so sign language just seemed, well, just out of control," she said.

Dan Foley, who attended an oralism school in Massachusetts as a child, says he experienced that bias.

"They'd make me sit on my hands. I'd be forced to try to speak. And if I did try to sign, I would be punished — [if I was] just waving like, 'Hello' or something like that, or pointing like, 'Over there' or 'What's that?' or something," he told Ideas, speaking in ASL through an interpreter.

Alexander Graham Bell's oralist mission still harms deaf and hard of hearing people, say critics | CBC Radio (4)

While most of his peers had hearing impairments, he was fully deaf — and found it difficult to learn while teachers spoke aloud to the class, sometimes with their backs facing the students.

Foley described feeling "culture shocked" after he transferred to a school that allowed signing and had deaf teachers among the staff. Where his education stalled at the oralism school, it flourished in a signing environment.

But the change also sparked a "genuine anger" in him at the difficulty he endured in the oralism school.

"At the deaf school in the sign language environment, they hated him," he said of Bell.

"They thought he was the devil."

Watson says modern speech-oriented deaf education practices, such as auditory verbal therapy, are a far cry from the visible speech methods Bell used in the 19th century.

He doesn't teach sign language, but also doesn't discourage or punish the use of signing.

"We're offering the parents a choice … of using listening and spoken language, teaching your children through their hearing how to talk — or you can teach them through sign language," he said.

"If you want the choice for signing, go get that. But we're not the ones to do that for you."

'A terrible legacy'

Early into his career, Bell's star student was a girl named Mabel Hubbard,who would later become his wife. Thanks to Bell's teaching method, Booth says, Hubbard was able to "function quite well" in society.

"He [Bell] kind of thought that since she did it, anyone could do it," said Booth, who points out that Mabel was not born deaf, but lost her hearing after scarlet fever as a child.

The problem, however, was that not every deaf person can learn to lip read, and not every deaf person can learn to speak.

"What A.G. Bell did not understand or realize was that he hadn't met enough deaf people," said Joanne Weber, a researcher at the University of Alberta and Canada Research Chair in deaf education.

Alexander Graham Bell's oralist mission still harms deaf and hard of hearing people, say critics | CBC Radio (5)

"But because he invented the telephone, and because he was a brilliant man, and because hearing people are so audio-centric, of course they supported A.G. Bell in his push toward oralism."

Weber has hearing loss in both her ears. But with the help of a hearing aid, she's able to understand language fairly well in her left ear.

"But the problem is not everybody has the one ear that I have. And no matter what you do with them, they cannot learn to speak. And so, with this population, there's always been an attitude of, oh well, they're just the unfortunate. They just didn't work hard enough. They didn't have enough intelligence….

"That's the legacy that A.G. Bell left us with. And it's a terrible legacy."

Deaf education today

Decisions about whether to teach a deafchild spoken or signing language can be made much earlier in the child's life than in Bell's era. Babies have their hearing tested within their first month. Parents may then choose whether to pursue cochlear implants, a type of hearing aid installed in the inner ear.

These implants do not guarantee a child will hear. Sometimes, at best, they can allow the child to understand 80 per cent of the sounds around them — and even then, it will take extensive training to help them interpret spoken language.

Watson said speech therapy aided by these implants are a better first option over sign language in early life, pointing to a 2017study in the journal Pediatrics that followed two groups of deaf and hard of hearingyoung children with cochlear implants.

The group that learned spoken language with the aid of the implants, he said, had not only greater speech recognition and skill with spoken language, but also reading, compared to the group who solely used sign language.

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Weber dismisses arguments for an either/or approach, arguing that both spoken and sign language can be important tools in helping deaf children's "cognition, emotional and social development."

"The brain does not care, 'Is the language coming through the tongue?' or, 'Is the language coming through the hand?'" she said.

Booth says that Bell's legacy of deaf education instead left deaf people to advocate for themselves in a hearing society that too often leaves them behind.

"Our world would be different for deaf people if he redirected his energy towards changing hearing people instead of deaf people," she said.

"What's even more important is to not put a burden on deaf people in terms of them getting into the hearing world."

Written by Jonathan Ore. The documentaryUnsound: The Legacy of Alexander Graham Bell was produced by Veronica Simmonds.


What did Alexander Graham Bell say about deaf people? ›

Bell was also interested in the genealogy of deaf people. In a 1884 paper titled Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race, he raised concerns about deaf people intermarrying lest it lead to increased prevalence of deafness, or what he referred to as "a defective race of human beings."

What was Alexander Graham Bell's theory? ›

Bell first demonstrated his most famous invention on June 25, 1876 at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. There, he showed that the sound of the human voice could be reproduced, which confirmed his theory that speech patterns can be made to change the intensity of an electrical current.

How did Alexander Graham Bell hurt the deaf community? ›

Alexander Graham Bell has long been a polarizing figure, admired as the brilliant inventor of the telephone and other extraordinary devices, but also despised as the leading exponent of oralism, the movement that pressured deaf people to learn speech and, more important, not to learn sign language.

What did Alexander Graham Bell want people to say when they answered the telephone? ›

A (Shockingly) Short History Of 'Hello' : Krulwich Wonders... Alexander Graham Bell hoped people would answer the phone with the word "ahoy." His rival, Thomas Edison favored another greeting — we all know who prevailed.

What was Alexander Graham Bell's first message? ›

The First Telephone Call. What were the first words ever spoken on the telephone? They were spoken by Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, when he made the first call on March 10, 1876, to his assistant, Thomas Watson: "Mr. Watson--come here--I want to see you." What would you have said?

What was Alexander Graham Bell famous for saying? ›

Some famous quotes attributed to Bell include: “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

Why was Graham Bell interested in sound? ›

He first became interested in the science of sound because both his mother and wife were deaf. His experiments in sound eventually let him to want to send voice signals down a telegraph wire.

What was the problem Alexander Graham Bell was trying to solve? ›

Hearing the sound, Bell believed that he could solve the problem of sending a human voice over a wire. He figured out how to transmit a simple current first, and received a patent for that invention on March 7, 1876.

How have deaf people been treated in the past? ›

Deaf people were given some rights as citizens but they were not allowed to hold property, which was a major disadvantage. In Greek times, Socrates assumed that the deaf had to use gesture and pantomime. Aristotle said that deaf people were also dumb, but they could make sounds (not speech).

How were deaf people perceived in the past? ›

355 B.C. Aristotle said "Those who are born deaf all become senseless and incapable of reason.” 360 B.C. Socrates mentioned the use of signs by the deaf Plato's Cratylus. Socrates discusses innate intelligence, and claims that Deaf people are incapable of language and ideas.

How did people react when the first telephone came out? ›

When telephones first became available to the public, many people were afraid that other people could listen in on their conversations. This actually did happen on party lines where more than one household shared a line with other households.

Who was the first person to say hello on the telephone? ›

The use of hello as a telephone greeting has been credited to Thomas Edison; according to one source, he expressed his surprise with a misheard Hullo. Alexander Graham Bell initially used Ahoy (as used on ships) as a telephone greeting.

What did people say on the phone before hello? ›

After Bell patented the telephone in 1876 and the technology began to spread, he recommended that users begin a call by saying “ahoy,” a common nautical greeting for more than a century; he answered his phone like that for the rest of his life. Thomas Edison, on the other hand, thought “hello” was a better choice.

What were the first words said on the first telephone? ›

In the March 10, 1876, notebook entry, Bell recounts his utterance of the famous words—"Mr. Watson – Come here – I want to see you"— as well as his reaction when his assistant arrived: "To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said."

What were the first words spoken on a cell phone? ›

Watson, come here, I want to see you"), or even the first text message ("Merry Christmas"). Cooper's inaugural mobile conversation is remembered as, "I'm ringing you just to see if my call sounds good at your end,' or something to that effect."

Why do we say hello on phone? ›

Why do we answer the phone with hello? When the telephone was invented, Alexander Graham Bell wanted people to use the word ahoy as a greeting. Supposedly his rival Thomas Edison suggested hello, while Bell stubbornly clung to ahoy, and well—you know which one stuck around.

What is the best reason Alexander Graham Bell is recognized as the inventor of the telephone? ›

His research on hearing and speech further led him to experiment with hearing devices which eventually culminated in Bell being awarded the first U.S. patent for the telephone, on March 7, 1876.

What did Mr Bell say to Mr Watson during the first telephone conversation? ›

“Mr. Watson,” Alexander Graham Bell said into the mouthpiece, “come here — I want to see you.” Thomas Watson, Bell's collaborator, heard the words in another room over the receiver. And the world's first telephone call was complete.

How did the telephone impact society? ›

Telephones allowed people to talk business and negotiate contracts more quickly and efficiently. Phones made it possible to conduct business without being in the same room, which reduced both travel time and costs. It also allowed businesses to expand beyond their local area by attracting customers from anywhere.

How did Graham Bell change the world? ›

Most notably, Bell is credited for his invention of the telephone, which grew out of his research on the telegraph. Thanks to his contributions, communications continue to expand and improve across the globe, allowing people to stay connected from virtually anywhere.

Who discovered we hear? ›

Alexander Graham Bell's Contributions to the Science of Hearing.

Who invented the Bell sound? ›

The earliest archaeological evidence of bells dates from the 3rd millennium BC, and is traced to the Yangshao culture of Neolithic China.

What did Aristotle say about deaf people? ›

Ancient Greeks denied deaf people education; Aristotle believed that "Deaf people can not be educated without hearing, people can not learn," and those "born deaf become senseless and incapable of reason."

What did Socrates think of deaf people? ›

355 B.C. Aristotle said "Those who are born deaf all become senseless and incapable of reason.” 360 B.C. Socrates mentioned the use of signs by the deaf Plato's Cratylus. Socrates discusses innate intelligence, and claims that Deaf people are incapable of language and ideas.

What did Alexander Graham Bell invent for the deaf? ›

Alexander Graham Bell is most well known for inventing the telephone. He came to the U.S as a teacher of the deaf, and conceived the idea of "electronic speech" while visiting his hearing-impaired mother in Canada.

What is eugenics and how did Alexander Graham Bell apply it to the deaf? ›

Bell was a firm believer in eugenics, which has been defined as the science of better breeding to improve the human race. [1] He studied the physiology of speech, and believed in oralism. His prejudice targeted Deaf individuals and the close knit communities they had created nationally by the 1900s.

What is considered rude to a deaf person? ›

Similarly, it is considered incredibly rude to grab a deaf person's hands while they are signing. In the deaf community, this is the equivalent of holding your hand over someone's mouth to prevent them from speaking.

What should you not say to a deaf person? ›

Nine things not to say to a deaf person
  • You don't look deaf? No, because what should a deaf person "look like"? ...
  • You speak very well for a deaf person. Thank you… ...
  • But you can't hear music? ...
  • Never mind. ...
  • You're deaf and dumb, right? ...
  • Can you lipread me? ...
  • I'm sorry you're deaf. ...
  • I know a bit of sign language….

How does a deaf person have thoughts? ›

Deaf people think in terms of their “inner voice”. Some of them think in ASL (American Sign Language), while others think in the vocal language they learned, with their brains coming up with how the vocal language sounds.

Who was the first deaf person? ›

c. 44 B.C.: Quintus Pedius is the earliest deaf person in recorded history known by name.

Who was the first deaf and blind person? ›

Helen Keller

What invention originally allowed deaf people to talk over the phone? ›

The TTY came into being because of a deaf man named Robert Weitbrecht, the device's inventor. Weitbrecht was born in 1920 and died in 1983. Born deaf, he had difficulty learning to talk and was teased for his disability.

What is the connection between deaf education and the invention of the telephone? ›

Another source from the American Inventors website states that his phone evolved from his invention, a phonautograph, “a device that draws vibrations from the human voice, to help deaf students visualize sound.” Ironically, Bell was inspired by deaf people to invent phone that did not help them.

What invention was made to help hearing impaired people? ›

The first hearing aid was designed thanks to Alexander Graham Bell's 1876 invention of the telephone, which included technology that could control the loudness, frequency and distortion of sounds. The first electric hearing aid was invented in 1898 by Miller Reese Hutchison.

How were deaf people treated in concentration camps? ›

Along with deaf Germans, they were further targeted under Nazi policy. Some were forcibly sterilized and many were unable to emigrate because of their perceived disability. The Museum's Deaf Victims of Nazi Persecution and the Holocaust Initiative is committed to preserving and telling the stories of deaf survivors.

What historical event significantly changed the lives of deaf people? ›

1960: ASL Begins Recognition as a Language

In the early to mid-1900s, people by and large did not recognize American Sign Language (ASL) as a true language but considered it a “code” for English. William Stokoe helped change this perception.

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