Education: Essay

Alexander Graham Bell and His Role in Oral Education

by Brian H. Greenwald, Ph.D., Gallaudet University

Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847, the second of 3 children, in Edinburgh, Scotland to Melville and Eliza Bell. Bell’s mother was deaf, and
Bell’s father and grandfather, also named Alexander Bell, were elocutionists specializing in voice presentation, delivery, and other aspects of speech teaching. Bell’s two siblings succumbed to tuberculosis causing Melville Bell in 1870 to relocate the family to Brantford, Ontario, a supposedly more healthful climate to protect his sole surviving child.

Melville Bell devised what he called Visible Speech as a source of income for his family. Visible Speech was a system of symbols to aid people in speaking words in any language even if they had not heard it. By 1864, Melville Bell had created a chart of symbols that corresponded, he claimed, to all sounds human could make. These symbols included an inverted cursive “f”, “y-“ shaped letters, and the omega. Omegas were for consonants and lines through the horseshoe signified vowels. Other symbols in visible speech corresponded with tone, pitch, and suction. Deaf pupils would be trained to move their tongues in certain positions and follow the chart to produce sounds. These symbols were arranged in a pattern that flowed like a sentence and students would follow these symbols to produce sounds, even if they were not completely intelligible. This, then, was known as “Visible Speech” and Bell’s father hoped to use this as a profit making enterprise teaching deaf pupils how to speak. In 1868, it was used at a London private school for deaf children run by Susanna E. Hull, who asked Melville Bell for help. He sent Alexander Graham Bell to teach the system he had learned from his father. Melville Bell toured the United States in 1868 touting the virtues and successes of visible speech. This captured the attention of Sarah Fuller, who ran a deaf school in Boston.

In 1870, Fuller asked Melville Bell to apply Visible Speech at her Boston School for Deaf-Mutes, but he sent Alexander Graham instead. The younger Bell was successful enough that in the spring of 1872, he was invited to Clarke School, located in Northampton, Massachusetts, to demonstrate Visible Speech. In the fall of 1872, Bell returned to Boston and opened his own private school to teach articulation to deaf people. Among his first pupils was George Sanders, the deaf son of Thomas and Sarah Sanders. Thomas Sanders would become one of the investors in Bell’s phone company and Bell forged a close personal relationship with George for the remainder of Bell’s life. In 1873, a young deaf woman named Mabel Hubbard became another of Bell’s students. She was a daughter of Gardiner Greene Hubbard, a prominent Boston attorney and President of Clarke School. Eventually, he would be intimately involved in the formation of the Bell Telephone Company. Bell married Mabel Hubbard in 1877.

By this time, Bell had largely abandoned Visible Speech and embarked on his own methods of teaching speech and lipreading to deaf children. Bell believed that these oral skills were essential to deaf Americans’ social integration and to their personal and professional advancement. Bell used his fame and wealth from the telephone to advocate these beliefs. His name became synonymous with “oralism” which was the pedagogical approach of suppressing sign language in favor of speaking and lipreading. Oral instruction existed in the United States as early as the 1840s, but with the establishment of Lexington School and Clarke School in 1867, and Bell’s support soon after, oralism established deep roots in the nation. Bell, more than any other American, was the most important figure in the movement to teach deaf children speaking and lipreading in ongoing efforts to integrate them with society at large.

Bell’s 1883 speech to the National Academy of Sciences, published as Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race, was another call to promote oralism. Bell noted that deaf people tended to marry each other, and he argued that if they continued this pattern, a deaf variety of the human race would form at a critical period in American history. Bell identified signing residential schools, deaf newspapers, clubs, and associations as factors that encouraged the use of sign language and deaf intermarriage. He suggested preventive measures to dissuade the transmission of hereditary deafness. These included removing sign language from the residential schools, replacing deaf faculty with hearing teachers and staff, and establishing non-residential day schools or schools that would partially integrate deaf and hearing students. Many school boards and state legislatures heeded Bell and other oralists in their campaign to remove sign language from schools. This attempt at assimilation found a receptive audience in Progressive Era America, which was already anxious about the integration of immigrants.

Bell’s endorsement of oralism was one factor that made the assimilation strategy of oralist educators palatable to important groups of hearing people, including parents of deaf children. The promise of a more homogenous society allowed oralism to emerge as the most attractive option to educate deaf people. Such strategies paralleled the general assimilation movement through the supposed uplifting of the deaf community by halting sign language use, reducing the importance of residential schools, and decreasing intermarriage among deaf partners. Bell and other oralists further strengthened their argument by declaring sign language backwards, using Darwinian terminology to insist that it had lost to spoken language in the struggle of the fittest, and pointing out that American Sign Language was to a great extent based on a sign language that originated in France. Thus, oralism came to be viewed as a model of social progress in deaf education, contributing to a homogenous society.

Day schools promised a means of integrating deaf pupils to society at large, and Bell was a forceful proponent. First established in Wisconsin after Bell personally held discussions and exhibitions with state legislators, day schools were begun in neighboring states, including Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois. Day schools were particularly attractive for parents since their deaf children could remain at home and not be sent away at boarding schools, while still receiving an education that Bell and others claimed was appropriate. Wisconsin, despite having a residential school in Delavan, emerged as a pioneer in the day school movement. Bell sought to further separate deaf children from other deaf children educationally and socially. By separating, or what he termed “decentralizing,” Bell sought to integrate – or mainstream – deaf children with hearing children in their communities.

In 1880, the French government awarded Bell the Volta Prize which came with 50,000 francs. Bell used those funds to establish the Volta Fund and the Volta Laboratory Association. In 1887, the latter was renamed the Volta Bureau and located in Washington, D.C. The Volta Bureau quickly amassed a collection of books and other publications related to deafness. In 1893, Bell constructed a building in northwest DC to house the expanding collection and established a peer reviewed journal today known as the Volta Review to advance the cause of oral education. While Bell was working on relocating the Volta Bureau to its present location in northwest DC, in 1890, he became the first President of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf (AAPTSD).

Bell continued his lifelong work of promoting oralism through publications, conferences, and other meetings until his death in August 1922. Bell often recollected that his greatest contribution was not the invention of the telephone, but his work in behalf of oral education. He liked to say that he was foremost a teacher of deaf children, as his father was. His enormous influence on deaf education can be traced in the trajectory of oralism and the rise of day schools. By the early twentieth century, oral methods dominated deaf education in the United States. It was a remarkable transformation, since oralism was not seriously considered in the mid-nineteenth century. Bell’s success in promoting oralism has generated much hostility from the signing deaf community for its deleterious impact on their culture that continues today.

Selected bibliography

Douglas C. Baynton, Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Robert V. Bruce, Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude (Boston: Little & Brown, 1973).

Richard Winefield, Never the Twain Shall Meet: The Communications Debate (Washington, D.C. Gallaudet University Press, 1987).

John Vickrey Van Cleve, “The Academic Integration of Deaf Children: A Historical Perspective” in The Deaf History Reader (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2007).