Alexander Graham Bell is best known for the invention of the telephone. However, hanging in the foyer of Bell Hall at the Rochester Institute of Technology is a plaque with this quote: “Recognition of my work for and interest in the education of the deaf has always been more pleasing to me than even recognition of my work with the telephone.” In 1890, Bell helped organize the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf (AAPTSD) and served as its first president. In 1956, the AAPTSD changed its name to the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AG Bell).
AG Bell promotes their mission on their Twitter Webpage stating “AG Bell Advocates for Independence Through Listening and Talking for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing “. With 31 US Chapters and a network of International affiliates, AG Bell works with the parents of Deaf and Hard of Hearing children, educators, and health care professionals to advocate early detection of hearing loss. Once discovered, they then provide the children with advanced technology and an opportunity to “listen, talk, and thrive in mainstream society”. It is to this end that the Association focuses its resources. Their position is to help those who have chosen to pursue spoken language for themselves or for their child. If one does not want to pursue the goal of speech, AG Bell will refer them to other relevant organizations such as the National Association of the Deaf (NAD).
Teaching the Deaf to speak is not a new concept. In the 1500s Ponce de Leon found success in the oral method of teaching deaf children. In the late 1800’s International Deaf educators from Europe and America officially adopted oralism. As technology has advanced, the use of Hearing Aids and Cochlear Implants has given hope to many Deaf and Hard of Hearing people to be able to hear and speak. However, this philosophy of education is not without its controversy. Alexander Graham Bell was at the forefront of this controversy in his day and his namesake organization is still a part of the controversy.
Thomas Gallaudet, founder of Gallaudet College, and Alexander Graham Bell agreed on the point that deaf individuals should not be denied an education. However, the two disagreed strongly on how one should go about educating. While Gallaudet embraced deafness, Bell wanted to eradicate it. Bell’s position was that ASL should be avoided and was a proponent of the eugenics movement (believing deaf couples should not marry and that deaf people were appropriate candidates to be sterilized). Many in the Deaf-World believe oralism to be a threat to their culture. Signed Languages are the prominent communication device for their culture therefore learning to speak leads one away from the cultural identity.
In 2008, the difference in these philosophies came to light when PepsiCo created a commercial entitled “Bob’s House” and featured Deaf actors using ASL to communicate.
The National Association of the Deaf “applauded PepsiCo for its strong commitment to diversity” and referred to the commercial as “ground-breaking”. In contrast, AG Bell claimed the ad “perpetuates a common myth that all people who are deaf can only communicate using sign language” and encouraged PepsiCo to “promote appreciation for those individuals that go above and beyond to overcome the absence of something many of us take for granted – the miracle of sound.”
One year later, AG Bell became a target being accused of audism (discrimination against deaf and hard of hearing people by acting superior). Deaf members of Audism Free America (AFA) held a peaceful protest at AG Bell’s headquarters in Washington, DC. Among the AFA demands were that AG Bell stop excluding ASL from Deaf children and ‘misinforming’ the public about Deaf people. AG Bell denounced the demonstrations.
Despite the controversy, Alexander Graham Bell is still a man to be admired even by the Deaf community. Born in 1847 to a Deaf mother, he began teaching students with hearing loss in 1868. Bell started schools for Deaf students and educators of the Deaf and he gave lectures at the American School for the Deaf where ASL was ‘born’ by Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc. Bell married a Deaf woman in 1877 and he was also very successful in the creation of his company, Volta Laboratory, where he received patents for the telephone and photophone allowing sound to travel on a beam of light. He used the proceeds “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf.”
I chose to research the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing because I wanted to learn more about the controversy surrounding Bell in the Deaf-World. What I discovered is a respect for Mr. Bell and his accomplishments. I also believe he was a man who had a great heart to help the Deaf-World though went about it in a misguided way. As for the AG Bell Association, their mission is clear – they want give Deaf people, particularly children, the opportunity to hear and speak. If one does not want to pursue that path, AG Bell will refer them elsewhere. However, there are enough allegations in both the man and the association’s past that point to morally questionable motives such as audism and eugenics.
- Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
- Ask President Destler of RIT
- Twitter Webpage for AG Bell
- Wikipedia: Alexander Graham Bell, Volta Labs, Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf
- Hearing Loss Web