29 February 2012

Oralism and the Irony of Alexander Graham Bell

If you've been looking into deaf education, chances are you've come across an organization called the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.  The group takes its name after Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell, most famous for his work that lead to his (credited, then later disputed) invention of the telephone. But for the Deaf community, Bell's history is much more complicated.  While both his mother and wife were Deaf, Bell was noted for his development and support of strict oral communication methods for deaf students, and is associated with the founding of several schools known historically for their abuse of students, including tying deaf children's hands to their desks or behind their backs to prevent the use of sign language, even if they knew no other way to communicate.
Bell himself took a clear stance on deafness; in his famous lecture to the National Academy of Science, Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race, he advocated for the "eradication of the deaf race" and is quoted as saying "People do not understand the mental condition of a person who cannot speak and who thinks in gestures. He is sometimes looked upon as a sort of monstrosity, to be stared at and avoided….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."

As an active supporter of the scientific Eugenics movement, the same pseudo-science behind the Nazis' claims of Aryan racial superiority, Bell suggested that deaf people be forbidden to intermarry, since he believed this would increase the chances of producing a deaf child. (With the modern understanding of genetics, Bell's theory has since been disproved; in actuality ninety-percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents.) Unfortunately, his idea of banning sign language as part of his desire to keep Deaf people apart in order to discourage intermarrying has become a mainstay in the philosophy of oralist deaf education.

Today the AG Bell Association continues to have murky motivations with regard to deaf education and Deaf culture. While the group touts itself as a comprehensive resource for information about hearing loss-- indeed the website does contain a three-sentence reference to the use of ASL and the Bilingual-Bicultural education method--the balance or accuracy of information is far from even.  Like their namesake, the AG Bell Association supports oral education schools and blanket cochlear implantation of deaf babies outright, focusing on the fact that deaf people are broken and need to be "fixed" with therapy.

Of course any group has a right to hold and disperse their own specific opinion. Additionally, I think the acquisition of spoken language should be an important component in Deaf education; it is in fact an invaluable resource all deaf children should have access to as part of the Bilingual model.  I do not think an organization's opinion should be promoted under the guise of inaccuracies, though. The website, for example, lists early intervention as a crucial aspect of deaf children's development, then goes on to define early intervention as rigorous auditory-verbal therapy, ruling out the option of early introduction to language (rather than listening skills) through signed communication. The recent concern with the proposed funding cuts to Indiana School for the Deaf (see post on HB-1367) were brought to the legislature by a member of AG Bell, a blatant attack on one of the stronger Bilingual-Bicultural education programs in the country.

With the facts of such vile abuse of deaf schoolchildren and hateful speech about the deaf as "a defective race of human beings" on the historical record, the proliferation AG Bell in name and philosophy remains yet another example of the mistreatment of the deaf being accepted by society in a way that would not be acceptable in the case of any other minority group. Would we allow schools to be named after Nazi eugenicists or white supremacists? Not without a fight. And that's how it should be.
Below blogger Sarah Brown deconstructs some of the comments and tactics as presented by oralist educators: 
Check out Sarah's blog here: http://signstogether.blogspot.com/

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