Alexander_Graham_Bell_Biography 180px-Alexander_Graham_Bell_and_family 225px-Alexander_Graham_Bell

ASLIt happens with every American icon, the fathers of progress, the day you realize that they weren’t perfect, that they had troubles in life too.  Some of them you also realize weren’t exactly good people either.  Walt Disney hired a lot of women specifically so he could pay them less, Henry Ford was anti-Semitic, and Alexander Graham Bell was heavily into Eugenics, to name a few.  I grew up hearing about all the wonderful things Alexander Graham Bell did for society, and it can’t be denied that he was a brilliant inventor who gave us the Telephone, among other things.  He looks like such a benevolent friend in his old black and white photos, his eyes twinkling, his bushy beard lying Santa-like on his collar with his smiling family surrounding him.  Add all this up with the fact that he started a Deaf school and you start to think he was a truly great man who was a wonderful advocate for the Deaf, however  the reality lies burried deeper in the facade of his perfect-on-paper existence.  Most Deaf people today think of Alexander Graham Bell as the less evil, American version of Hitler who decimated the cultural advances of Deaf people for decades.  So, which version is true?  A little of both.

At first glance, Alec (as his family called him) looks like he should be a great Deaf advocate.  Alec’s mother was deaf, and this made a huge impression on him.  He would sit near her when they had company and fingerspell to her so she knew what was going on, and he started his experiments in sound after he realized that she could feel the vibrations of his speech when he talked into her forehead.  Speech and sound was also the family business: Alec’s uncles and father were all Elocutionists, and his father had invented Bell’s Visible Speech, a set of phonetic characters by which it was thought that Deaf people would be able to learn to speak quickly and easily.  The family toured Europe, America, and Canada promoting Bell’s Visible Speech, which was later found to not work very well.  Still, Alec capitalized on his family’s association with Deaf people and founded a Deaf school in Boston which focused only on the Oral method.  He took private pupils as well and married one of them, Mabel Hubbard, with whom he had 2 gorgeous little girls, both hearing.  A well known figure in the Deaf community, Alec even had a book dedicated to him by Helen Keller.  Doesn’t he seem like the perfect Deaf advocate?

The truth is a little more complicated.  In reality, Alec’s mother was a woman who couldn’t admit to being deaf.  She insisted on being called Hard of Hearing, carried around an ear trumpet, and painstakingly learned to play a piano she couldn’t hear in denial of her deafness. This unfortunate attitude probably colored Alec’s perspective of deaf ideas, making him think that all deaf people felt badly about being that way and wanted to be hearing, a false idea still perpetuated today.  By insisting on using the oral method only in his school Alec created a situation in which the Deaf were as isolated from each other as they were from the hearing world.  He would sometimes have children’s hands tied behind their backs for hours if they continued to communicate in the only way they knew how, by signing.  Worse still, his foray into Eugenics produced a heap of debilitating ideas about Deafness that are still in widespread use 100 years later.  Alec railed against America letting in “undesirable foreigners” to procreate with the perfect American race, and insisted that English be made the national language, even at the expense of Sign Language which he claimed was not a real language anyway.  Though Alec didn’t promote forced sterilization himself, he belonged to plenty of organizations that did.  Instead, he  advocated for Deaf people being kept completely apart from one another.  He reasoned that if they could never meet, they would never marry, and would not have Deaf children.  The myth that most Deaf people have Deaf children is another one of the misconceptions still being refuted today.  I always feel a little melancholy for Alec’s deaf wife Mabel.  She must have lived a completely solitary existence, ensconced in her hearing family, denying her deafness.  Alec’s invention of the Telephone only made things worse for Deaf people.  He suddenly had an enormous pulpit of fame and influence from which to shout his damaging ideas, and he made sure to do it.  His ideas ushered in an era in which sign language was almost lost, Deaf people were isolated from each other, and many were denied employment. 

If you asked Alexander Graham Bell if he was a friend or a foe, undoubtedly he would have said friend.  He thought that he was providing deaf people with an important opportunity to be more like hearing people, even though it was something they didn’t want.  I’m sure he also would argue that his Eugenic ideas, if not popular, were at least creating a stronger human race.  While his intentions may have been harmless, there is no denying the damage he did to deaf equality for more than 100 years.  The ideas that deaf people can be easily taught to speak, that they almost always have deaf children, that they don’t want to be deaf, and that American Sign Language isn’t really a language, are all myths that were started by Bell and are still believed by a vast amount of hearing people.  The myths he perpetuated and the quest he started to keep deaf people from each other clearly place Alexander Graham Bell in the foe category.  I personally think deaf people are right to abhor everything Bell stands for, and I think if more hearing people knew about the negative impact he had on deaf society, they would abhor that too.  Perhaps being raised in the family business of Elocution made it inevitable that Bell would be on the wrong side of the issue.  It’s sad he couldn’t put aside his preconceived notions and listen to the deaf community all around him.