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Language: Necessity and Choice

Early 19th Century Deaf Education

The First Permanent School

The Formation of a Community

Oral Education and Women in the Classroom

Signing, Alexander Graham Bell and the NAD

Technology as a Cultural Force

Community Self-Determination and Civil Rights

Signing, Alexander Graham Bell and the NAD

Alexander Graham Bell and a group of school children

Photo: Alexander Graham Bell and a group of school children

Most Americans know Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone, but few are aware that the central interest of his life was deaf education or that he was one of the most prominent proponents of oralism in the United States. Like his father before him, Bell spent his life studying the physiology of speech, once said that “to ask the value of speech is like asking the value of life.” After emigrating from England to Canada in 1870 and to the United States a year later, Bell began to teach speech to deaf students using a universal alphabet invented by his father called “Visible Speech.” In 1872 he opened a school in Boston to train teachers of deaf children.

Bell’s second chief interest was the study of heredity and animal breeding, and he became an early supporter of the eugenics movement to improve human breeding. Bell did not go so far as to advocate social controls on reproduction, as many eugenicists did. He did, however, decry the immigration into the United States of what he termed “undesirable ethnical elements,” calling for legislation to prevent their entry in order to encourage the “evolution of a higher and nobler type of man in America.” His views on immigration, deaf education, and eugenics overlapped and intertwined. He described sign language as “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 maintained that the use of sign language “in our public schools is contrary to the spirit and practice of American Institutions (as foreign immigrants have found out).”

“I think Alexander Graham Bell’s greatest crime was keeping deaf people apart from each other.  It wasn’t so much that he thought speech was important.  Worse than that was that he didn’t want deaf people to marry each other.  He didn’t want them to be near each other.  He wanted them to be apart.” 

Gina Oliva

In 1884, Bell published a paper “Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race,” in which he warned of a “great calamity” facing the nation: deaf people were forming clubs, socializing with one another and, consequently, marrying other deaf people. The creation of a “deaf race” that yearly would grow larger and more insular was underway. Bell noted that “a special language adapted for the use of such a race” already was in existence, “a language as different from English as French or German or Russian.” Some eugenicists called for legislation outlawing intermarriage by deaf people, but Bell rejected such a ban as impractical. Instead he proposed the following steps: “(1) Determine the causes that promote intermarriages among the deaf and dumb; and (2) remove them. The causes he sought to remove were sign language, deaf teachers, and residential schools. His solution was the creation of special day schools taught by hearing teachers who would enforce a ban on sign language.

As oralism became the dominant method of instruction in schools for deaf students, the National Association of the Deaf and other community organizations rose to the defense of sign language in the classroom. They called it the “natural language of the deaf” and argued that a reliance on oral communication alone would be educationally disastrous for most deaf students. They took the debate to Deaf community newspapers, to journals of education, to teachers’ conventions, to any forum accessible to them. The National Association of the Deaf began production of a series of films, in 1910, under the direction of its president, George Veditz. The NAD raised $5,000 to make eighteen films. The fear and the hope that animated the project was that the elimination of sign language and deaf teachers in the schools would lead to the deterioration of their beloved language and the hope was that the new technology of film could preserve examples of the “masters of our sign language” for future generations. Veditz’s own contribution to the film series, an impassioned call for “The Preservation of the Sign Language” denounced the damage caused by the “false prophets.” These films provide us with an early glimpse of the language Deaf Americans created.

“Society in general views Alexander Graham Bell as an American hero, as the inventor of the telephone. He was famous, wealthy, and influential. His own Mother was deaf. He was always associating with the Deaf community and he was a teacher of deaf children. He had his own day school in Boston. He was very familiar with the Deaf world.”

Brian Greenwald

“We American deaf are now facing bad times for our schools. False prophets are now appearing, announcing to the public that our American means of teaching the deaf are all wrong. These men have tried to educate the public and make them believe that the oral method is really the one best means of educating the deaf. But we American deaf know, the French deaf know, the German deaf know that in truth, the oral method is the worst. A new race of pharaohs that knew not Joseph is taking over the land and many of our American schools. They do not understand signs for they cannot sign. They proclaim that signs are worthless and of no help to the deaf. Enemies of the sign language, they are enemies of the true welfare of the deaf. We must use our films to pass on the beauty of the signs we have now. As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs. And as long as we have our films, we can preserve signs in their old purity. It is my hope that we will all love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.”George W. Veditz, “The Preservation of the Sign Language,” 1913, (translated from ASL by Carol Padden and Eric Malzkuhn)