Oralism and Alexander Graham Bell

Thanks to the Memphis Oral school article I’m learning lots and lots of hearing people have no idea about the prevalence of AG Bell’s ideas and how he was one of the strongest proponents of oralism in the United States – his theories are still evident in deaf education today. 

“Oralism” which was the pedagogical approach of suppressing sign language in favor of speaking & lipreading. Oral instruction existed in the U.S. as early as 1840, with establishment of Lexington School and Clarke School in 1867, oralism established deep roots in the nation. Bell applied his study of eugenics to his goal of preventing the creation of a deaf race and presented his paper Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race to the National Academy of Sciences in 1883. 

In this paper, he proposed to reduce the number of deaf people by discouraging deaf people from marrying others who are also deaf or who have multiple deaf family members. He suggested presenting legislation to prevent this as well. AG Bell also advocated for speech reading and articulation training (oralism) and removed the use of deaf teachers and sign language from the classroom – this is something we see impacting the community today as a number of teachers of the deaf are not deaf themselves. 

These strategies for assimilation into the hearing society presented by Bell still impact all areas of early intervention for deaf children today – seeing as 90 to 95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. And the first deaf person these people ever meet is their child. Also, the first person to tell them about their child and deafness is usually a doctor or a audiologist, or possibly an educator, all professions that still see deaf people in ways impacted by Bell and his ideas. 

I’m sure I could go on… but let’s just say that sign language is not often brought up first by these professionals and many parents do not learn sign language for their children in spite of ALL the people I see saying of course they would and how abusive that is. 

Finally, I am just a Deaf person. My degrees are in social studies and history with a legal bent. I am not an expert by any means. Just wanted to say that this is what it is. 

(Also, I have linked the article in my comments but TW for audism and ableism).

Memphis Oral School Article.

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