Dedicated to the Deaf, Did Alexander Graham Bell Do Extra Hurt Than Good?

Bell was born in Scotland in 1847 and was the son and grandson of speakers. His driving passion was understanding how people create the sounds that make up language. He made a speaking machine that, when properly ventilated, replicated a range of phonemes, and continued to work on ways to produce spoken words where such words had not been heard before. He even tried to teach his dog to speak. His father had designed a universal alphabet to represent the mechanics of articulation and Alexander Graham Bell gave numerous lectures on its meaning, making sure that everyone would be able to verbalize any language transliterated into these symbols.

That someone locked in deaf people. Bell believed that with the right methods, they could learn to speak and integrate into larger society. When he tried to understand hearing and sound, he stumbled upon inventions. Although the phone made him rich, he had relatively little emotional attachment to it and saw it as a distraction from his desire to reform the education of deaf people. (Even so, he devoted years to defending his patents, which some critics believe were wrongly granted. When Bell invented the telephone, he stood on the shoulders of giants.)

Mabel had lost her hearing as a child, a result of scarlet fever, after learning some language, and she was able to regain control of verbal communication. Bell believed that if properly taught, others would share her talent. But he did nothing to remove the stigma that even she associated with her condition; For a long time Mabel refused to come into contact with other deaf people because this “immediately brought the barely hidden fact [of my own deafness] in evidence. “

Bell appears to have been separated from most human dramas; The man Booth describes sounds as if he were on the mild end of the autism spectrum, as many great inventors are. She believes he was lonely in his later life, more of a sad man, but the evidence she presents suggests that he was just a loner in his intellectual adventures and, despite Mabel, wasn’t much attracted to intimacy. His mind was fixated on the human voice, and everything else came second, including his own family. This distancing may explain the failure of empathy that poisoned his relationship with the people he sought to serve. Mabel said: “Your business with deaf and dumb people is hardly human for you. They are very affectionate and gentle with deaf children, but their interest in you is that they are deaf, not their humanity. “

Bell was immune to the beauty of sign language and never saw deafness as anything other than a deficit, even though deaf people organized themselves in his day to defend their language and society. The oralism that Bell advocated was a disaster for the deaf. While there are many examples of deaf people proficient in speaking, they do not represent the larger deaf community. A sharpness in the generation of sounds is a splinter talent. Furthermore, training deaf people on the mechanisms of language is terribly time consuming, and those who aspire to this skill can only do so by ignoring all other areas of education. Deaf people in a signing setting are likely to learn math, science, and literature, while oral educated people learn pronunciation and little else. Finally, oralism implicitly teaches a kind of self-denial – that deaf people are of value only in so far as they can approach another type of person. Devoted oralists believed that sign language should be banned in oral settings, which meant that language acquisition in oral schools was painfully gradual. Without early language development, Booth notes, the human mind cannot fully develop, and many children who are taught orally acquire little or no language during the crucial window of brain plasticity.

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