Alexander Graham Bell's oralist mission still harms deaf and hard of hearing people, say critics

Alexander Graham Bell's true passion, and the project he focused on his entire life and funded with his earnings from the telephone, was the education of deaf people. But according to author Katie Booth, the harm of oralism still reverberates today.

The oralism movement championed speech, undermined sign language resulting in ‘deep trauma’ says Katie Booth

In 1872, Alexander Graham Bell opened a school for the deaf in Boston called 'Vocal physiology and Mechanics of speech for deaf students,' where he insisted on methods that he believed would teach deaf people to speak. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

* 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 of oralism — 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.

Katie Booth is the author of The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to end Deafness. She also teaches part time at the University of Pittsburgh. (Submitted by Katie Booth)

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."

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."

Alexander Graham Bell, right, and Mabel Hubbard Bell, left, in their motorboat Ranzo at Beinn Bhreagh manor in Baddeck, N.S., on Aug. 20, 1914. (National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)

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.

Watch this ASL video of Veronica Simmonds' documentary, Unsound: The Legacy of Alexander Graham Bell, listen above or read the transcript.

Unsound: The Legacy of Alexander Graham Bell [ASL]

2 years ago
Duration 54:00
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 hearing students 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.

Dan Foley, who is deaf, attended an oralism school that taught spoken language and punished the use of sign language, he says. He flourished academically when he moved to another school with deaf educators that taught and encouraged the use of signing. (Matthew Kolashi)

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.

Joanne Webber is a researcher with the University of Alberta, and a Canada Research Chair in the area of deaf education. (Allison Bertoial)

"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 deaf child 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 2017 study in the journal Pediatrics that followed two groups of deaf and hard of hearing young 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.

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 documentary Unsound: The Legacy of Alexander Graham Bell was produced by Veronica Simmonds.

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