Alexander Graham Bell and the Deaf community: A troubled history


True or False?  Manualism (sign language) and oralism (teaching individuals to speak and speech-read), have always been taught with equal regard in schools for the Deaf.


False.  In the 1800’s, Alexander Graham Bell sparked a debate between manualism and oralism which continues to this day.


Alexander Graham Bell is most famous for his legacy as the inventor of the telephone, the metal detector and countless other devices.  He is less known is his impact on Disability and Deaf history, as the father of oralism in American Deaf education. Since the progressive era in the United States, a debate has raged between proponents of oralism (teaching individuals to speak and speech-read) and manualism (teaching sign language) in schools for the Deaf. This debate has been at the center of Deaf education, and has moved many disability and Deaf advocates to call access to sign language for Deaf children a human rights issue. So how did the hearing inventor of the telephone become arguably one of the most influential people in Deaf history?

Alexander Graham Bell’s mother, Eliza Bell was Deaf. His father, Melville Bell was an orator and the creator of a program called Visible Speech, which used symbols to teach people how to speak languages they’d never heard. Alexander Graham Bell became interested in oral education for the Deaf when he began helping his father’s business by teaching his Visible Speech program at various schools for the Deaf. Interest in oral education was generated after American educators took a tour to German oral schools in the 1840’s, but they failed to overcome the network and influence of signing educators. However, oralism started gaining momentum in the 1870’s when Alexander Graham Bell started promoting oral education for the Deaf.

As Alexander Graham Bell gained fame, power and wealth from his successful inventions, he began promoting oral education as the superior educational option for Deaf children. He traveled around the country giving speeches on the benefits oralism, accompanied by Deaf students that had learned to use speech. Bell appealed to hearing parents, who longed for their Deaf children to speak and be like them. He argued that without speech, Deaf children would never be able to participate fully in society. Politicians, educators, doctors and wealthy, hearing individuals took notice, and the campaign against American Sign Language, and for the pure oralist method in Deaf schools took off.

Graham Bell’s support of oralism was tied to his belief in eugenics. In 1883, Alexander Graham Bell delivered an address to the National Academy of Sciences entitled Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race. In this presentation and publication, he discusses the high rates of Deaf-Deaf marriages, and how it increases the number of Deaf children through the passing on of generational Deafness. Alexander Graham Bell argues that this “phenomenon” was creating a Deaf race that shares a language and culture. He says:

Those who believe as I do, that the production of a defective race of human beings would be a great calamity to the world, will examine carefully the causes that lead to the intermarriages of the deaf with the object of applying a remedy.”

He goes on to argue that the use of American Sign Language in regional residential schools, the development of Deaf social clubs and programs, and the exposure of young Deaf children to Deaf adults and administrators were encouraging the pattern of Deaf-Deaf marriages. Bell believed that by eliminating these factors, and instead using local oral education schools, Deaf individuals would assimilate into mainstream hearing society, and have more Deaf-hearing marriages, which would decrease the number of Deaf children born. He also argued that oral education would give Deaf individuals greater access to more opportunities in education and employment.

At the Congress of Milan at the end of the nineteenth century, educators of the Deaf gathered from all over the world to discuss the future of Deaf education. Due to his influence and wealth, Alexander Graham Bell presented for three days at this conference on the benefits of oral education for the Deaf and the detriments of manualism, and signed language. By contrast, advocates of sign language were only given three hours to make counterarguments. At the end of the conference all of the attendees, none of them Deaf, voted to ban teaching in signed languages from schools, prohibit its use in dormitories, and endorsed oralism as the best educational method for the teaching of the Deaf.

This was the beginning of a one hundred year period in Deaf history where children weren’t allowed to use sign language in school or in the dorms. ASL was passed on secretly behind closed doors. Since then, the debate between oralism and ASL continues in medicine, education and politics. Bell continues to influence the debate through the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing whose mission is to “advance listening and talking, and early intervention” for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing children and adults.

Primary Sources:

Bell, A. G. (n.d.). Upon the formation of a deaf variety of the human race

Gallaudet, E. M. (1997 (reprint)). Must the sign-language go? American Annals of the Deaf,142(3), 31-4.

Secondary Sources:

Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing: <>, (n.d.).

Greenwald, B. H. (2009). The Real “Toll” of A. G. Bell: Lessons about Eugenics. Sign Language Studies9(3), 258-265,379.

Moores, D.F.  (2010). Partners in progress: The 21st International Congress on Education of the Deaf and the Repudiation of the 1880 Congress of Milan. American Annals of the Deaf155(3), 309-10.