Alexander Graham Bell
From Deacon Gene Some Thoughts from a Deaf Ministry Student
What does faith say about children of God . . . what does science say? We should consider both and judge from the perspective of a loving God and through the lens of Jesus.
The professor asked, “What ironies do you find in Alexander Graham Bell's work with the Deaf?”
A. G. Bell's mother was mostly deaf and reliant on an ear trumpet to hear anything. His wife, Mabel Hubbard, a student 10 years his junior who had completely lost her hearing from a bout of scarlet fever, was also deaf. The paradox here is that while Bell's wife reported had very good speechreading skills (she was a native speaker of English), and despite her reported superior intellect and the fact that she was born hearing, she was mostly a failure at articulation training and failed at 'visible speech' instruction. How sadly ironic that Bell would advocate for methods which did not succeed within his own family.
Irony is perhaps not a strong enough term for Bell's invention of the telephone. “So deep and constant was Bell's preoccupation with voice from childhood on, that his invention of the telephone seems its logical and almost necessary culmination; he once said, indeed, that it seemed he had spent his life making things talk” (Lane, 1984, loc. 7459). While the invention was in part related to Bell's efforts to improve the hearing of people, the social and economic impact to people who are Deaf would be felt for many decades. The inability of Deaf people to use the telephone would be a barrier to employment, education, and social mobility for nearly a century until the widespread use of TTYs happened.
A. G. Bell was an enthusiastic student and advocate of eugenics, the flawed science of the nineteenth century that would see its zenith in the horrors of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s when d/Deaf people would be imprisoned or sterilized as defectives (Stiles & Krishnan, 2012).
Although we can suspect the insincerity of his efforts, because as a scientist he must have been aware of concepts like regression to the mean refuted finding of a 'deaf race,' Lane report that Bell wrote, “Sign language and the residential schools were creating a deaf community, he warned, in which the deaf intermarried and reproduced, a situation fraught with danger to the rest of the society. He sounded the alarm in A Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race . . .” (Lane, loc. 7741). One of the most-base components of eugenics was a strong anti-immigrant stance. Irony abounds when one considered that Bell was an immigrant, born in 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Only the inherent racism of eugenics could account for his stance against allowing people to come to the USA as he did.
On March 6, 1891, 44-year-old Alexander Graham Bell gave a speech at the National Deaf-Mute College in Washington, DC, in which he essentially told an audience of deaf students they shouldn't procreate. “I am sure that there is no one among the deaf who desires to have his affliction handed down to his children,” the Scottish-born inventor explained to the stunned crowd (NY Post, 2021).
Apparently, the broad social and medical movements of the era caused Bell, as an elite and powerful person, to embrace unquestioned the concepts he felt benefited people who were deaf that would end in great harm to people who were members of the Deaf community.
NB: These remarks are in part the product of a course with the Rev. Dr. Thomas Hudspeth, Deaf clergy in the UMC, minister, pastor, missionary, and educator.